Something Wild: A Word with NH's Moose Biologist
Fall is a busy time for Kristine Rines's department, the moose are in rut (mating) and hunting season is open. She works for NH Fish and Game as the state’s first ever Moose Biologist. She received the distinguished “Moose Biologist of the Year” from her peers at the North American Moose Conference in 2006. Rines has announced her plans to retire after three decades on the job and sat down with Something Wild to reflect on her time studying the state’s moose.
Rines spends much of her time Coos County, often considered the epicenter of moose activity in NH. Coos has all the elements that contribute to the best habitat for moose: spruce/fir forests, cold climate, not many people, and a robust forestry industry. Moose are “creatures of their stomach.” And they feed on the young trees and pioneer vegetation that grow in after foresters have created a new clearing in the woods. But moose require established forests as well; they are cold-weather species and they needs mature forests and the shade they provide to stay cool.
One of the projects she’s helped to oversee is the collaring program, by which she gathers data on moose mortality and productivity. Putting a collar on a moose is as complicated a proposition as you imagine it is. As Rines explains, she hires a team of “Moose Wranglers” each year to attach the collars. “This is what they do year round, they capture wildlife.” It's best to rely on professional for this kind of thing.
With the use of a helicopter the Moose Wranglers herd the moose into an opening, before swooping down and shooting a net over the moose, the animal then gets tangled in the net and stops running. “We prefer netting to darting," says Rines. "Darted animals have a higher mortality rate. Drugging wildlife is a last resort.” The wranglers then jump out of the helicopter, often they have to ease the animal onto the ground then put hobbles on the legs, attach a blindfold and insert earplugs – it’s a bit like putting a hood on a falcon, it helps to relax the animal a little. Then the net comes off, the collar goes on, and the moose is released again.
30 years ago, New Hampshire didn’t have a moose hunt. One of the reasons Rines was hired was to determine if such a thing was feasible or sustainable. When she started moose were making a remarkable comeback. As she explains, "moose were hunted virtually to extinction for food and clothing in many parts of North America."
Protections were enacted and NH’s physical environment changed. In the 19th century, New Hampshire was mostly farms, with very few trees. “All those forests grew back, our forest products industry was born, suddenly you had clear-cutting and you had the perfect opportunity for moose to make a strong comeback.” By the 1980s, moose had re-colonized nearly the entire state. But at the same time the state’s climate was changing again, “our winters were getting shorter, giving parasites that were bad for moose an advantage.” And moose numbers began to decline.
Ticks are a well reported problem for moose in the northern parts of the state, but as Rines points out brainworm is a problem in the south. “Both parasites are brought by white-tailed deer,” brainworms have no observable effect on deer, but are lethal to moose. Shorter winters are good for deer, so our deer populations are increasing, and so too is the occurrence of brainworm.
But brainworm requires a secondary host to continue the life-cycle. Slugs and snails, feeding on deer feces are in turn eaten by moose as they forage among the forest leaves. Rines said recent research has indicated that acid rain is interrupting this cycle. Acid rain is having a negative impact on slugs and snails, reducing their population resulting in a plateau of brainworm instances in moose. Of course, acid rain kills off a lot of other things aside from these molluscs, and scientists are already making great strides in reducing it. An unfortunate by-product of eliminating acid rain is that the brainworm life-cycle will again be fully functional.