Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol
Moose are arguably the most novel of all North American large mammals, if for no other reason than their strange appearance. Whereas deer and elk are handsome creatures, rams majestic, and bears awe inspiring, moose seem to suggest that the Creator had a strange sense of humor. They have horse legs, bison shoulders, a camel’s face, and a throat beard that would have made Henry David Thoreau envious. Even the horns are weird, looking less like antlers as we traditionally know them and more like giant butterfly wings or palmated wooden bowls.
I guess you could say that moose look prehistoric, which in one sense is misleading because they’re a relative new comer to our region. Moose came to America via the Siberia-Alaska land bridge, and most researchers think that significant moose dispersal in North America occurred only about 10,000 years ago. Compare this to whitetail deer that have had a foothold in the Americas for about 3.5 million years.
While moose were widespread throughout pre-colonial New England (Algonquian Indians called them Monse, or Moos, or Mus, depending on the family division), the animals didn’t fare too well once the settlers got established. Prized for their mild meat and thick hides, the moose proved no match for the Europeans’ shoot-all-you-want-and-God-will-make-more approach to wildlife management.
In an August 1889 Outing magazine article on moose hunting, Arthur Selfridge writes: “Moose are hunted in four ways – first, still hunting in the woods, which means get a shot, if you can, in any manner you can; second, still or jack hunting in the water from a canoe in the summer months; third, running them down on snow shoes, when there is a crust, in the spring; fourth, calling in the fall.”
Not surprisingly, moose were all but extinct by the later half of the nineteenth century.
But those were the bad old days. Today, thanks to the efforts of hunters, conservationists, state fish and wildlife departments, and the re-growth of the Northern Forest, moose have firmly re-established themselves in northern New England.
Kristine Rines, a wildlife biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, points to the spruce budworm outbreak of the 1960s and 1970s as a key turning point in the recent population boom. Back then, roughly 150 million acres of eastern forests were severely infested with spruce budworm, and aggressive timber harvests were instituted to salvage the dead and dying trees. As the forest grew back, the early successional growth created ideal moose habitat 10 and 20 years later.
Moose rely on sapling browse as a key component of their diet, but their habitat needs include a complex matrix of forest types, including mature hardwood and softwood stands and wetland complexes. Habitat needs get even more complicated when you consider that females completely remodel their digestive tracts in spring to take advantage of high-quality forage that’s crucial to gestation and lactation. Since male diets don’t change, the sexes require different habitat types in spring.
Today’s moose herd managers are closely monitoring animal threats to the population, as well. While wolves – the moose’s traditional animal predator – have been extirpated from our area, there are a number of tiny natural predators that still exist, including winter tick, liver fluke, lung worm, and brain worm. The latter pest, Parelaphostrongylus tenuis, is a parasite that’s spread by white-tailed deer, which makes moose colonization in areas with high numbers of whitetails unlikely.
Looking forward, the warming climate could be a threat to moose populations. Those in tune to national nature news will know that moose are declining at an alarming rate in Minnesota, and warmer winters are considered to be one of several causes. Moose are prone to overheating, and they need mature, standing timber as refuge from the sun. Rines points out that our local moose populations don’t seem to be suffering from the same problem, and says that our mountains could be a hedge against rising temperatures as the topography creates temperature stratification and a means to escape unseasonable warmth. A more pressing concern in her eyes is the fragmentation of our forest landscape, as moose, humans, cars, and roads don’t co-exist well together.
It’s important to stay diligent about future threats to moose populations, but at the same time, it’s important to celebrate the remarkable recovery of the animal in this region. In 1910 there were a handful of moose in Vermont and New Hampshire. One hundred years later, there are stable populations of around 5,000 animals in both states. In a news cycle that all too often seems dominated by bad-news nature stories, here’s one that we can all happily celebrate.
Dave Mance III is the editor of Northern Woodlands magazine.