April 07, 2020
Sports Column

Ticks may be cause of moose mortality

As moose after moose arrived for tagging in Greenville on Monday morning, Karen Morris and other Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife staffers performed a list of tasks that have become familiar to hunters and spectators alike.

Pull a tooth. Measure the rack. Weigh the moose. Reach for a comb?

No matter what you think you saw in Greenville on Monday, Morris – the state’s moose specialist – was not giving free makeovers to moose with that comb.

She was conducting important research state officials hope will help them better understand the Maine moose herd.

Specifically, Morris was counting ticks.

“We don’t have any ticks on our moose,” 80-year-old Fredrick Douglass of Richmond Corner said after being told what Morris was looking for.

Douglass was wrong.

His moose had plenty of ticks … and so did most of the other moose that were tagged.

“The concern is that some of these moose have thousands and thousands of these things on them,” Morris said. “They take a lot of blood out of moose. It’s looking very much like it could be a primary mortality cause for moose in some years, in some areas. We’re suspicious that we’re losing calves in some years.”

Wally Jacubas, the DIF&W’s mammal group leader, said a young moose with thousands of ticks on it can struggle during harsh Maine winters.

“The moose, they don’t try to get rid of the ticks really until it is too late,” Jacubas said. “They start rubbing on trees and rubbing a lot of their hair off. Of course, the hair of a moose is a great insulator, and with that gone, they’re going to expend a lot more energy than they normally would trying to keep warm.”

If a moose has also lost a lot of blood, or is ill or old, it can end up dying, Jacubas said.

Morris and Jacubas said a student at Unity College did a special project on moose and ticks and developed a method for DIF&W personnel to spot-check for ticks at four sites on a moose’s hide, then extrapolate that data to estimate a total tick load.

In addition, Jacubas was looking at full hides that had been skinned and donated at the Greenville tagging station, checking much more carefully.

Moose are affected by winter ticks, not the deer ticks that sometimes carry Lyme disease, Jacubas said. The winter ticks are not known to cause health problems in humans, he said.

After the research is completed, Morris said the state will have more available data to answer some key questions. Among those: Does the state’s estimated carrying capacity – the maximum number of moose that can live in a given area – need adjustment?

The state has set population goals for the moose herd, but those goals may not even be possible, Morris said.

“We’re thinking [a certain density of moose] may just be something that we can’t attain, or we can attain only briefly, and then the ticks would reduce [the herd size],” Morris said. “That’s the real thing: To evaluate whether or not the goals for the moose population make sense.”

Morris explained that the more moose are in a given area, the more likely the ticks are to survive and thrive.

“Because there are more moose [in an area], there would be more ticks that make it through the winter and are sitting around out there this time of year, ready to hop onto another moose,” she said.

And if ticks are in fact becoming a primary mortality source when a certain moose density is reached, the state wants to know about it.

“If [ticks are reducing the herd size and keeping it from reaching the state’s goals], we’re restricting hunting opportunity for no reason, to try to allow a moose herd to increase,” she said.

Jacubas said he’s not sure what the actual effect on hunters would be and didn’t know whether the state would increase permits or leave the number the same.

Both Morris and Jacubas agreed that studying the situation was a necessary first step.

“We dropped [the number of] cow permits because sighting rates were going down and people said they wanted more moose,” Morris said. “And sighting rates started going up again. Unfortunately, our changing harvest rates, and some anecdotal information we have on tick numbers, and also studies from New Hampshire suggest that we don’t know whether it was our management or the ticks [that led to the change]. It just happened at the same time.

“So [studying ticks in the Maine herd] would be something we’d want to look at just to get a better picture of how the whole thing is fitting together.”

Tewksbury deserves credit

In Tuesday’s editions I told you about the hunting success of Wally Staples, who bagged an 820-pound moose while hunting on Monday morning.

A clarification is necessary: Master Maine Guide Luke Tewksbury of Kennebec Valley Guide Service in Bingham did the advance legwork and scouting for Staples, who lives in Durham.

And when Staples said, “We actually had [the moose] on videotape” from two weeks earlier, he was referring to the video that his guide, Tewksbury, had captured during those scouting trips.

John Holyoke can be reached at jholyoke@bangordailynews.net or by calling 990-8214 or 1-800-310-8600.


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