Photograph by Jeff Nadler

Checking in on the Adirondacks’ small but thriving moose population

Moose. They are so much a part
of the iconography of the Adirondacks that you would think the state’s largest land mammals were ubiquitous. There is the Moose Tooth Grill in Lake George, the Big Moose Inn on Big Moose Lake and, of course, countless coffee mugs and magnets etched with their image. But compared to Maine, where there are north of 60,000 moose, the Adirondack population is minuscule, estimated at about 400—or, on average, approximately one every 15,000 acres. No wonder people boast of seeing a moose in the same way others might brag about being a 46er, having climbed the tallest peaks in the Adirondack Park.

Maybe because of their small numbers and elusive nature, moose are not well understood by state wildlife biologists. Environmental officials know that moose prefer forests that are in the process of regenerating and therefore gravitate toward private lands that are actively harvested for timber. They understand that moose returned to the Adirondacks sometime in the 1980s, after being wiped out in the mid-1800s. And they believe that the public is generally fond of the giant, relatively gentle beasts.

But in the park, the exact number of moose, their rate of reproduction and their health are somewhat of a mystery. So is the potential impact of climate change on the moose population. To learn more, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has teamed up with several organizations, including the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, to undertake a multi-year study of moose, the largest member of the deer family. The goal is to glean enough information to allow state officials to develop a management plan for moose in the Adirondacks. Such a plan could better protect the Adirondacks’ unofficial mascot, while allowing people and moose to peaceably co-exist.

State environmental officials collared moose from 2015 to 2017, capturing them just long enough to affix geolocation devices with the aid of nets fired from helicopters. The collars are outfitted with both global positioning satellite technology and VHF, or very high frequency, radio transmitters so they can locate the moose, said Frances DiDonato, a fish-and-wildlife technician with the DEC.

More than two dozen moose were collared, giving researchers the ability to keep track of a subset of the moose population. The scientists who are gathering information about moose in the Adirondacks know that it’s easier to detect their brown-black bulk after the leaves fall off the trees and snow cover provides a clearer canvas.

On an aerial survey in late February, the DEC invited journalists to join in the search for collared cows, as female moose are known. (The males are called bulls.) We took off from the tiny Adirondack Regional Airport, outside Lake Clear, in a four-seat helicopter on a frigid but crystalline morning. A fresh snow gave the conifer-covered mountains stretching to the horizon the appearance of being dusted with confectioner’s sugar.

Moose are enormous. Bulls weigh between 600 and 1,200 pounds and stand up to six feet tall at the shoulder; cows are slightly smaller. So one would expect the animals to jump out amid the snowy folds north of the High Peaks region, where we were surveying. Given the vastness of the landscape beneath us, however, the pilot was relying on hours-old GPS coordinates to home in on our quarry. Jim Stickles, a wildlife biologist with the DEC, held up a radio receiver to refine the search as we got closer.

“That’s a cow,” said Stickles, after spotting a moose while the helicopter hovered a few hundred feet above the timberlands. “I can see the collar.”

It was the first of five individual moose or moose pairs we would spot that morning from the helicopter, which bobbed like a bath toy as it flew low over the hilltops and peaks.

Up close, moose can appear almost comical, with their elongated, bulbous noses and gangly legs. For added effect, there’s a long flap of skin, called a bell, which dangles from their throats. But from the air, moose look almost sleek. They run at high speeds, up to 35 miles an hour, and their wide girths seemed to weave effortlessly through dense conifer cover in a foot and a half of snow.

During several forays by helicopter that late winter day, 17 moose were seen in all, including a dozen adult cows, two juveniles, two calves and one adult bull. The biologists were happy with the numbers, but they were more pleased by the apparent health of the animals. Specifically, none showed evidence of winter tick, a parasite that has recently had devastating effects on moose in New Hampshire and Maine, where the animal’s populations are much larger.

“You would see bald patches and white patches where they groom themselves to remove ticks,” Stickles said over the din of the helicopter, noting that the moose coats here appeared undisturbed.

In addition to surveying collared moose, researchers have taken blood samples to test for various pests, including brain worm, a parasite that normally resides in deer without harm, but that can prove fatal to moose. And on separate outings in the summers of 2016 and 2017, scientists looked for moose scat with the help of specially trained dogs. The scat can provide information about diet and health, as well as contribute to population estimates.

There is no doubt that for many residents and visitors, moose are a prized symbol of a vibrant ecosystem, a reminder that we are part of a majestic web of life. But there are tradeoffs. Vehicle collisions are a harrowing prospect, with a couple dozen occurring in the Adirondacks in a bad year. “If you hit one with a car, that’s a traumatic experience for both the moose and the people involved,” said Jeremy Hurst, a wildlife biologist with the DEC.

Although moose are listed as a big-game animal, New York does not operate a hunting season for them. In fact, the only way the public can harvest a moose is through an accidental collision. “If the moose gets hit by a car, the person who hits the moose has some legal authority to take the carcass,” Hurst added. “That’s a lot of stew. Moose is a fantastic edible meat and it’s very lean protein.”   

Another potential conflict with moose centers on private timber companies. In the Adirondacks, the animals are concentrated in the northern and northwestern reaches of the park. “That area has the complete package for moose,” said Paul Jensen, a senior wildlife biologist with the DEC, referring to the southern portions of Clinton, Franklin and St. Lawrence Counties. “It’s got a lot of wetlands and a lot of timber harvesting going on and a high percentage of conifers.”

Companies that engage in sustainable forestry in the Adirondacks count on the regrowth of trees for continued revenue. An adult moose can munch 40 to 60 pounds of twigs, leaves and buds a day, favoring birches, maples, balsam fir and mountain ash. They also strip and eat the bark from young trees. 

“We are starting to hear that on some of these conservation easement lands, the level of browsing is getting to the point where it is impacting some of the regeneration,” Jensen said. “We want to meet with some of these timber companies to get a handle on their concerns and the damage they are seeing.”

The history of moose in New York and the Northeast is intimately tied to the history of trees. The animal’s demise in the 1800s resulted from habitat loss, specifically deforestation and the rise of agriculture. Trophy hunters played a role too. A number of men claimed to have taken the last moose in the Adirondacks. One such boast was made by Ransom Palmer, a Civil War soldier who reported killing the last native moose in 1861.

Today moose are present in the boreal forests of North America, from Alaska all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. In New York, they are now found mainly in the Adirondacks and the Taconic Highlands, along the state’s border with Massachusetts and Vermont. Even though moose were largely wiped out across the Northeast in the 19th century, one population remained, in northern Maine. It was a forest pest—the spruce budworm—that led to the animal’s comeback in New England in recent decades and, to a lesser extent, in New York.

According to Peter J. Pekins, a professor of ecology at the University of New Hampshire who studies moose, the budworm was the catalyst for the rapid harvest of fir and spruce trees in Maine starting in the 1970s, as timber companies raced to salvage what they could. Since the sheep pastures of Vermont and New Hampshire had long since reverted to forest, the stage was set for the moose’s expansion. “In a decade, the timber companies basically created moose nirvana,” he said. “The remnant population of moose in Maine exploded and spread throughout New England.”

Pekins’s research has focused largely on winter tick, which has hurt moose populations in New Hampshire and Maine. Climate change, he said, has given the tick a longer window in which to latch onto moose before winter sets in. In New Hampshire, which has about 5,000 moose, he has seen individual calves covered with as many as 97,000 ticks. The ticks grow to the size of grapes when they become engorged with the moose’s blood. The infestation leads to blood loss and anemia. As a result, some 70 percent of calves he has helped study in New Hampshire and parts of Maine have died in four of the last five years. “It is really just devastating to watch the vast majority of your calves die every year,” he said. “Essentially, they get taken out by 100,000 vampires. When they die in late March and April, they lose 20 percent of their body weight. They are skin and bones and covered head to toe in ticks. Until you see it, you can’t believe it.”

Scientists in New York have seen some winter tick, but not in numbers that threaten moose. (Brain worm is a greater concern.) Because of the forever-wild provisions across much of the Adirondacks, winter ticks may never rise to a level where they pose a risk. Parasites such as ticks need large host populations in order to thrive. But without large-scale timber harvesting, the number of moose in the Adirondacks is unlikely to grow substantially. That, in turn, should keep winter ticks at bay. 

State biologists are starting to appreciate the “small is beautiful” concept. “The contractors we work with on collaring moose remark how healthy and robust our animals look,” said Jensen, of the DEC. “In some ways, the fact that our moose population is at a lower density may be a really good thing.”

Lisa W. Foderaro was a reporter for The New York Times for more than 30 years. She has also written for National Geographic and Audubon magazines.

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