Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol
For people in New England who grew up with only Bullwinkle to remind us that moose existed, the proliferation of Alces alces in this region over the past 25 years is an exhilarating lesson in wildlife revitalization.
Except in northern Maine, moose were virtually eliminated from our landscape in the years following European settlement. Cleared timberland and subsequent agricultural use, combined with overhunting, placed great stress on the species. Moose aren’t especially shy, so they provided a relatively easy source of meat: an 1100-pound moose could keep a family fed for a long time.
Moose remained in northern Maine, where large forested areas and less human settlement pressure existed. It was largely from this genetic reservoir that moose re-entered the rest of northern New England. Today, not only is a moose sighting less of a “call the neighbors” event than it once was, but abundant populations have begun to create ecological and public safety strains. Today, Vermont’s moose population is estimated to be over 4,000, and New Hampshire’s is nearly double that. In Maine, estimates of the population are as high as 40,000.
Moose are built for long, cold winters. Unlike their cousins, white-tailed deer, which live at the northern edge of their range here, moose, with their long legs and massive body weight, are adapted to winter travel in deep snow and don’t suffer the mortality that visits deer during unusually cold winters. While a mature moose may lose 30 percent of its body weight over the course of a winter, in good habitat, 90 percent of moose calves will survive the first six months of life, and they may go on to live for as long as 15-20 years.
As the population of moose grows, their impact on forest vegetation increases. The word moose comes from the Algonquin language and means “twig-eater” or “animal that strips bark off trees.” A healthy moose will eat as much as 40-60 pounds of twigs, buds, and bark per day. They prefer deciduous species like poplar, birch, maple, and viburnum shrubs; they browse softwoods like balsam when preferred foods are scarce. Damage from moose browsing is extensive: in young-growth stands, their voracious appetites can demolish certain species. Land managers are experimenting with exclosure fences that keep the animals from selected areas. While not practical on a large scale (adequate fences cost $100,000 per mile), the opportunity afforded to assess damage to unprotected sites helps forest and wildlife managers make better judgments about how to control moose populations.
Road collisions with moose are a growing problem as well. Why the chicken crosses the road is not as important a question as why moose do so. There are two reasons: first, roads run through their habitat, and they range widely to forage and mate. Second, residues of road salt are a great source of minerals such as sodium and contain important nutrients, especially to facilitate healthy annual antler growth.
Moose-car collisions are no small matter. A large deer smashes your grill; a mature moose, standing at 6 feet tall, has his weight aimed right at a car’s windshield. Because moose are less fearful than deer, and darker in color, they are less likely to be seen by speeding drivers at night. During the fall rutting season, when moose aren’t thinking about traffic safety, their presence on highways is especially dangerous. In the past 10 years, moose-car collisions have more than doubled in Vermont and New Hampshire, with an average of 150 and over 300 collisions per year, respectively, in the two states. Officials in Maine are experimenting with laser beams set parallel to highways where moose are known to cross frequently; when a moose trips the beam, flashing lights warn motorists of immediate danger.
Prior to European settlement, moose numbers were limited by predation from wolves and catamounts and by limited availability of early successional forest habitat. With these predators gone and forest management creating increased young tree growth, populations can exceed the region’s ecological and social carrying capacities. It falls to human predators to fill this bill.
Yet moose hunting is not without its controversies. When the State of Vermont first contemplated a moose hunting season, a leading legislator famously opined that shooting moose was unsporting; as he put it, “like shooting at parked cars.” Yet both Vermont and New Hampshire are increasing the number of moose hunting permits issued to combat the growing problems arising from a species with few natural predators.
Moose are back in a big way. Their presence is a sign of a recovering landscape, and they have always been – whether present or not – a source of public fascination and an important cultural symbol. How we manage the tensions arising between successful wildlife populations and successful human societies will tell us a lot about what kind of natural world we want to live in.
Alan Parker is Executive Director of the Center for Woodlands Education in Corinth, Vermont.