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Blood-sucking ticks are killing huge numbers of moose, researchers say

A moose in Spokane Valley is infested with ticks, as indicated by its grayish back and rump and the hair rubbed off its ears.
A moose in Spokane Valley is infested with ticks, as indicated by its grayish back and rump and the hair rubbed off its ears.

WILDLIFE -- An insidious pest is killing about 70 percent of moose calves across Maine and New Hampshire, The Boston Globe reports, and their deadly work is being aided by warming temperatures and shorter winters that allow the parasites to survive longer, scientists believe.

"They are winter ticks, which attach themselves to a single moose by the tens of thousands," reporter Brian MacQuarrie writes. "Adult females can expand to the size of a grape and engorge themselves with up to four milliliters of blood."

An ongoing study on Eastern Washington moose is indicating that big tick loads may be having an impact on moose in this region, too, but it's too soon to make conclusions, state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists say.

However, longer-going studies in the East are showing how big numbers of the little suckers are bringing down the largest member of the deer family.

Here's more from the Globe:

“The moose are being literally drained of blood. This is about as disgusting as it gets out there,” said Pete Pekins, chairman of the Natural Resources Department at the University of New Hampshire.

Pekins and UNH are at the center of the largest study of New England moose ever conducted, a three-state effort stretching across the woods of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont in which researchers are attaching tracking devices to the moose as part of an effort to learn how ticks are affecting them.

If the reduction continues, researchers said, the range of New England moose is likely to shrink northward. And for many moose that survive, the ravages of winter ticks could render them less healthy and less likely to reproduce.

“It’s like a sinister, evil horror movie,” said Lee Kantar, the Maine state moose biologist.

Maine and New Hampshire teams recently captured a total of 123 moose cows and calves, attaching GPS and other electronic gear. In Vermont, which joined the program this year and began capturing moose Tuesday, the plan is to collar 60 animals.

The effort is a mixture of high tech and high drama as a helicopter swoops within 20 feet of a moose and fires an entangling net. The crew lands and then hobbles and blindfolds the animal, which researchers said has a calming effect, before collaring the moose and collecting the samples.

The drug-free process takes 10 to 15 minutes.

About 76,000 moose roamed Maine in 2012, said Kandar, who did not have a current estimate. New Hampshire has about 4,000, down from a peak of about 7,500 in the early 2000s.

And Vermont is down to 2,200, from a high of 5,000 animals in 2006, although much of that reduction was the deliberate result of hunting to bring the population into better balance with the habitat.

Now, the primary concern is winter ticks, which lie in wait on vegetation in the autumn — interlocked by the hundreds and thousands — until they attach themselves to a passing animal such as a moose.

Deer and other animals groom the ticks from their bodies. But for moose, which have not developed that ability, the insects become blood-sucking hitchhikers whose victims usually die in late winter and early spring.

“They’ll be on the moose in such large amounts, that the moose will literally scratch against trees and take the skin off,” said Wayne Derby, a master guide from Bethlehem, N.H. “Sometimes you’ll see 2 to 2½ square feet on the shoulders where the moose have rubbed off the fur.”

Derby has a term for the tick-infested animals: ghost moose.

If winter starts even two weeks late, that extra time in the forest means that more ticks — which do not fare as well in the snow — will find more moose to ride.

“Climate change is having an effect,” said Kent Gustafson, wildlife program supervisor for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. “We’ve seen winters basically get shorter over the last two decades or so.”

Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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