Tick...tick...tick. Can hunters save Vermont moose before it's too late?

Is hunting the key to saving Vermont’s moose before it’s too late?

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Although most deer are known for their flight response—choosing to run at startling speed to escape predators—moose evolved to fight. These lumbering tanks of the forest became bigger and stronger than the predators that hunted them, able to endure by beating back threats to their lives. Now, though, there is a threat to the mighty moose they cannot defeat on their own, and moose hunters may be their only chance for survival.

Ticks have always been a problem in Vermont. The state’s lush and undeveloped landscape, filled with hundreds of blood-filled mammals, makes it the perfect habitat for the tiny, disease-carrying parasites to thrive. It was only because of Vermont’s harsh winters that ticks were kept at bay, prevented from becoming a real problem by the cold. However, it seems that with climate change, Vermont’s winters aren’t as cold as they used to be and the tick population has exploded. While all the state’s animals are being affected, it’s Vermont’s moose that are bearing the brunt of the ticks’ impact.

From late autumn through spring, the moose becomes the ticks’ involuntary winter food source. As many as 50,000 or more ticks will overwinter on a single moose. One moose in northern Vermont was found with more than 90,000 ticks on its body. Despite their ability to fight against almost anything else, moose having evolved into such large and hardy beasts means they’re more vulnerable to nature’s smallest predator. What’s worse? It’s the moose themselves that are making the tick problem worse.

Moose are big animals and so they need a lot of food to keep themselves going. They’re almost constantly traveling in search of it. Their ability to survive while carrying so many ticks and their need to travel has spread the parasites to other moose. Although the ticks aren’t so bad for the adult moose, which can mostly hold up to the punishment from winter ticks, their calves cannot. Moose calves are smaller and more vulnerable, and from the moment of their birth, start picking up ticks on their bodies from their mothers.

More than half of the moose calves in the state die from anemia and other blood diseases due to ticks within the first few months of their birth. It’s gotten so bad that the moose population of Vermont has dropped from over 5,000 animals in 2004 to less than 2,000 today. The loss of such a valued and iconic big-game animal would be devastating for the state. Vermont Fish and Wildlife has been scrambling to save them—and they have come up with a somewhat radical solution.

The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department is proposing that the state issue more moose hunting permits in the region around Essex County. This may seem like a somewhat insane way to help the moose population: increasing their numbers by removing more of them from the population. But they’re thinking of the long run. In the past few years, Vermont Fish and Wildlife has been issuing less and less moose-hunting permits in the hope that less hunting would allow the population to come back. It hasn’t worked.

Upon further study it was found that areas with less permits meant more moose, and therefore more ticks were being spread, killing more moose. It’s a vicious cycle. In areas of southern Vermont where there are less moose and more deer, the deer become tick carriers and spread the tick populations among themselves, making their impact less devastating on moose. However, in the northeastern region of the state—known as the Northeast Kingdom (NEK)—where there are less deer and a higher population and density of moose, the spread of winter ticks has worsened among the moose population. Essex County is in the northern part of the state and has the greatest moose population density, with more than 1.75 per square mile.

The department’s idea is to issue 55 moose permits for the NEK with estimations that 33 moose, including 21 bulls—which are the greatest carriers of ticks due to their large size—will be removed from the area, dropping the moose population and hopefully the spread of winter ticks. The hunt is proposed to take place in the fall of 2020 and then issuing of moose permits will cease for a season or more. The hope is that once the excess moose have been removed from the area, the spreading of ticks will lessen in the state and the giants of the north will do what they evolved to do: fight their way back all on their own.

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