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North Country Moose Study Aided By Research 'Muggers'

northeast naturalist via Flickr Creative Commons

How's this for a typical day at the office: get into a helicopter, fly just above treetops in parts of northern New Hampshire, and find moose to tag, track and monitor. It's part of the work New Hampshire Fish and Game is doing to study the effect of winter tick and other parasites on the state's moose population.

Kristine Rines is Moose Project Leader for New Hampshire Fish and Game. She joined All Things Considered for a look at the study and the work it takes to do it.

You gave lawmakers an update last week on New Hampshire's moose. Where do we stand right now?

The population as a whole [is] about 4,000. Things are declining in some regions, but holding stable in others. We are doing our study right now north of the notches, because moose are more important up there for the economy. They're at pretty high levels there, about 1 1/2 to 2 moose per square mile.

But they are having some serious issues with winter tick. Winter tick has always been a part of moose life wherever moose live in the same range as white-tailed deer. When winter tick becomes a problem for moose is when you have shortened winters. Now obviously this has happened occasionally, probably all across time - every now and then you get a short winter, a lot of moose die because of heavy winter tick infestations, and then winters go back to normal. But what we're seeing now is that winters aren't "normal" anymore. They tend to be shorter, sometimes as much as three weeks shorter, and this is giving winter ticks the advantage.

Instead of the occasional eruptive event, what we're seeing is chronically high calf mortality, and in bad years, very high calf mortality associated with adult mortality, and overall reduced productivity because ticks are so heavy on these adults they can't recoup through the summer to be productive.

The work crews are going out in winter to find moose to monitor. They're out in a helicopter, which we should mention has no doors - in winter in northern New Hampshire. What kind of challenges, aside from being cold, do they have to try to overcome while working in these conditions?

Being cold is pretty bad! These guys left the airport the other morning [when] it was 21 below zero. And they're flying in a helicopter with no doors, leaning out, trying to shoot the net gun and get it over these moose.

Once they get a net on the animal - we call them the "muggers" - two guys jump out of the helicopter, run up to the animal, get it up on its knees, gather the legs up and tie their legs together, put a blindfold on the animal, put muffs in their ears so they aren't overly stimulated, and the moose calm right down. Then they put a collar on them, put ear tags in them - we take blood, to look at numerous different things. They remove ticks, they do a quick tick count, take a fecal sample, and then get the net off the animal, take all the hobbles off, and... hope the animal doesn't have a great deal of anger when it gets to its feet!

They're pretty big.

They're big, they're powerful and they're very fast.

Going forward, more research, and maybe a memoir - Confessions of a Moose Mugger?

We'll definitely do more research. We hope to do additional collaring next year, but it's all dependent on funding, and funding is a difficult thing right now. So we'll see.

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