Wildlife Watch: Managing Vermont’s shrinking moose population

Published: Oct. 27, 2020 at 6:07 PM EDT
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ISLAND POND, Vt. (WCAX) - Moose hunting was back in Vermont this year after not having a season in 2019. Our Ike Bendavid went to Essex County, where the state’s only hunt took place earlier this month, to learn about what wildlife managers are doing to protect the shrinking population.

The VTrans garage in Island Pond plays host to the state’s only moose weigh station and all hunters must bring their moose there.

“We have almost had perfect hunting conditions. We had a couple of inches of snow on the first Saturday and according to the hunters, eight to 12 inches of snow up high. So, moose are really visible -- you can track them and they’ve been moving around with the cooler weather more,” said Nick Fortin Vermont Fish & Wildlife’s Moose Project leader.

When a hunter comes in with a moose, Fortin examines it by taking measurements and DNA samples, something he didn’t do in 2019 when there was no moose season. “Moose are facing a bunch of stresses, mostly climate change-related, but they are dealing with brain worm, winter ticks -- which have caused the population to decline quite a bit. So, the department had been reducing the number of permits each year, bringing it down. And ultimately in 2019, we decided not to issue any permits. More so we could kind of adjust our regulations and make it fair in terms of who gets permits now. It’s just a small, sustained hunt and probably not going to be any more than this anytime soon,” Fortin said.

This year the season was back on with 55 total permits given out through a lottery -- 10 for archery, which was at the start of October, and 45 permits for the regular six-day season which started on the third Saturday day of October. Moose hunting was only allowed in an area around Essex County. “The only place we allow people to hunt moose is what we call Wildlife Management Unit E, which is essentially Essex County,” Fortin said.

For some of those lucky enough to get a permit, like 15-year-old Hunter Colson, they were able to bring a moose to the weigh station. “Pretty good,” Colson said. “Feel accomplished.

His mentor and hunting companion on the permit, Mathew Rafus, also couldn’t be more proud. “It’s just good to see him do good and thrive in hunting,” he said.

But after a successful season, what’s next for the population? Statewide, the moose population peaked in 2005 with about 5,000, and our current estimate for 2020 is a little over 2,000," Fortin said. “We are less than half of where we were 15 years ago.”

Right now, Fortin says the Northeast Kingdom population is the only one that appears to be growing. “Most of Vermont we are not hunting moose anymore, but up here the population is doing pretty well, so we can sustain a small hunt,” Fortin said. “What we really want to do -- and part of the reason we want this hunt -- is we want to make sure our population stays low. So, one of the major reasons winter ticks became a problem is because we had too many moose in this part of the state. We had such a high-density moose, so now we want to make sure that the population stays low and hopefully that’s going to prevent the winter ticks from becoming a serious issue.”

Checking for winter ticks is a part of the exam on each moose that is brought in. Fortin says they have collared 126 moose in the wild to track them for their survival. “What happens with moose and winter ticks, it’s almost like a predator-prey thing. People don’t think of it, as ticks are tiny, but the more moose you have in the landscape, the more winter ticks there are. And winter ticks really thrive on moose cause they are poor groomers. So, a moose might have 20,000 to 30,000 ticks on them. So, the more moose you have, the more winter ticks are falling off and getting on moose next year. So, maintaining a low number of moose like we have now -- it may not be what people want to see or what they remember for 10 to 15 years ago, but it’s going to help us have healthier moose,” Fortin said.

Those lucky moose hunters who won the lottery this year now have to wait five years until they get back into the state’s moose lottery.

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