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EMBARK: Here and back again

December 16, 2015
By SHAUN KITTLE - Embark , Lake Placid News

Moose once thrived in the Adirondacks, then they were gone and now they're back again.

The large, brown mammals were common in New York state until the 1860s, when they were extirpated by habitat loss and unregulated hunting.

People began spotting them in the Adirondacks again in the 1980s, but biologists were understandably hesitant to announce their return. Moose like to roam, and it was completely plausible some had simply wandered into the region but wouldn't stay.

Article Photos

Bull and cow moose
Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife

These days, it's official. Moose crossing signs adorn our roadsides, moose sighting boards are displayed in small-town convenience stores and moose festivals are all the rage. Although no one disputes that the awkward-looking ungulates are living here, population estimates vary wildly, from several hundred to 800 individuals.

It's not surprising moose are a talking point with the people who live amongst them. They're magnificently strange creatures that are notably able to live in northern climes. That makes them potentially vulnerable to climate change, something biologists fear could make their return short-lived.

"At this point, we don't know how many (moose) we have, or if it's a growing population or a dwindling population," state Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife biologist Ben Tabor said. "The renewed interest in moose is really because, across this latitude in North America, moose are disappearing."

Tabor was referring to other moose-populated states like Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, where the animal is vanishing across the landscape. Parasites like liver fluke, brain worm and winter ticks are thought to be a significant part of the problem. Those ailments are nothing new, but some scientists think a warming climate is making them more prolific.

So far those parasites don't seem to be a problem for moose in the Adirondacks, but there are a lot of unknowns regarding moose here.

To get an estimate of what the population size of the species is, researchers did aerial surveys over the Adirondacks. That, along with the 12 GPS collars they put on moose in early 2015, is the first phase of a four-year study to collect baseline data on them. Future phases will include blood and scat sampling.

The research is a collaboration between the DEC and scientists from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Cornell University, the Biodiversity Research Institute and the Wildlife Conservation Society's Saranac Lake office.

Tabor said it's too early to start throwing numbers out there, but the research has yielded some interesting results on their habitat preferences.

"I think most people think the moose are going to be up there in the dark woods of the Adirondacks, but really the moose are more in places where we're cutting trees," Tabor said. "The most moose we've seen were in the Franklin and Clinton County easement lands and in Saratoga, near the Great Sacandaga Lake. Down there there's some timber harvest going on."

Moose can be pretty elusive for such a large animal - adult males can weigh in at 1,200 pounds - but their size also means they need to eat. A lot. An adult male can consume 60 pounds of leaves, twigs, buds and aquatic vegetation a day. Willow, birch, aspen, maple, fir and viburnums are among their favorite foods.

Since moose, like deer, lack upper incisors, they strip their meal from the plant instead of neatly snipping it off. Being browsers, Tabor said it makes sense they'd prefer the new, young, early successional growth found in a recently cut forest.

"If you have a 200-foot-tall tree, they can't reach the buds," Tabor said. "Up in Clinton County easement areas, where we have thousands and thousands of acres of private land being timber harvested, the moose love it. They love the 5- to 7-year-old clearcuts, and when they're in there it's a salad bar."

The moose GPS collars revealed that some of the moose living near those easement lands didn't wander more than a square kilometer in three months. They just hung out and ate, but when they finished dining on hardwoods, they turned to nearby softwoods for shelter.

"The thermal cover is going to be softwoods, typically, and those softwoods are going to provide them coolness on a hot day and warmth on a cold day," Tabor said. "If we have five feet of snow and it's 40-below, they're going to go into the softwoods because there will be less snow and wind in there, so it will be a little bit warmer in there."

With the new perspective on moose habitat preference, the next question is how much of that habitat is available, which will in turn help Tabor determine the region's carrying capacity for moose. Carrying capacity is a succinct way of defining the moose-habitat relationship. The idea is to figure out how many moose the area can sustain, and conversely, how many moose can live in the area without degrading their habitat.

That's where a management plan could come into play, and the plan could include a hunting season on moose. With the lack of top predators like cougars and wolves in the region, Tabor said letting humans fill that niche is a reasonable solution.

"There's no reason in my mind why we can't act as an ecological check, as an ecological component," Tabor said. "Hunting and harvesting moose, or deer, bear or fish, to keep them inside their carrying capacity is what I do. Wildlife management, that's our job."

[This article appears in the December-January issue of Embark. Embark is a free, bi-monthly publication that focuses on outdoors-related topics in the Adirondack Park. Embark is published by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and Lake Placid News.]



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