GREENVILLE, Maine — For the past two years, helicopter crews involved with Maine’s ongoing moose research project have focused their efforts on an area near Greenville and Jackman. Last week, a new study area was added in Aroostook County, about one degree of latitude — or about 70 miles — north.
The state’s moose biologist said expanding the study to another area will bolster the data-gathering effort and allow biologists to better understand moose survival and mortality across the state.
That effort, which added 70 northern Maine moose to the study group, along with also adding another 36 moose calves located in the original study area, will help biologists better understand moose survival in the state. In addition, New Hampshire fish and game officials are conducting an identical study in their state that will provide more data across the northeastern landscape, according to Lee Kantar of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Crews from Native Range Capture Services of Elko, Nevada, have been capturing moose with nets, then taking hair, blood and fecal samples from those moose and fitting them with GPS collars since last week, Kantar said. The crews rely on good snow cover, because it makes the moose more visible. Last week’s snowstorm came just after Kantar and a Maine Forest Service helicopter pilot did some recon work in northern Maine, and struggled to find moose for potential collaring.
“We were fortunate because we got that snowstorm,” Kantar said. “That first Saturday [before the snow] it was challenging. There was snow on the ground, but no snow in the trees, so the moose didn’t show up as well. And there were a number of ground seeps that looked like bedded-down moose from the air.
“[After the storm] it was night and day. We were just seeing moose everywhere,” he said.
Kantar said that the Nevada-based crew had never worked in the east before, but were very productive, even when conditions were nasty.
“This professional capture crew operates in conditions when it’s snowing and it’s windy, and neither you nor I would want to be up in those conditions in a helicopter,” he said. “They’re incredibly talented people.”
The movements of the moose in the study groups can be monitored via their GPS collars. The collars signal their location twice a day, and if the collar remains stationary for a period of time, it transmits a mortality signal and biologists rush to the site in order to figure out why the moose died.
According to the DIF&W, a crew can be on the scene of a moose death in less than 24 hours. Once there, they conduct a field necropsy and collect blood, tissue and fecal samples that are sent to a lab for analysis.
During the first two years of the study, calves struggled the most during the Maine winters. Kantar said that 70 percent of the calves died the first year; 60 percent of the second-year calves died. One factor that has become more clear, according to Kantar: Winter ticks, widely suspected of playing a role in moose mortality, have turned out to be the key culprit in many calf deaths.
Kantar said that much of the moose mortality they’ve studied so far can be traced to the effects of winter ticks on the animal: When the tick load on a moose gets too large, the animal will often succumb.
“There’s talk about winter tick as a project [to undertake], but by default, that’s what this project is: It’s about winter tick,” Kantar said.
Winter ticks are heavy some years, and lighter in others. Understanding whether the effect of winter ticks is the same in various regions, or whether it varies depending on location, is important, Kantar said.
“The critical question on one end is, how frequent are those years when you lose a bunch of calves? Is it every year? Every other year? Every five years? Every 10 years?” Kantar said. “And the next questions from that are, why now are ticks having the impact that they’re having? Can you do anything about it? What does this all mean to moose?”
Weather conditions in the spring and fall — when ticks are seeking a host or have dropped off their host — may play a role, Kantar said. Studying the moose for several years in different study areas may help to flesh out some of that data.
“The more you dig into this, the more you find out the complexities of it,” Kantar said. “When we talk about the fall weather, that has a big impact on how long these little ticks are waiting out there to ambush a moose.”
The addition of a new study area, plus the one in New Hampshire, will allow biologists to gain a better understanding of moose survival, and reasons for mortality, across a greater swath of the northeast.
“That’s the importance of [establishing] multiple study areas. We have 70 and 60 percent from the western Maine study area [near Jackman],” Kantar said. “Will that be the same or different in our northern study area? And is that the same in the northern New Hampshire study area? And is it the same or different over multiple years?”
Those are among the questions biologists hope to answer with the expansion of the project.