A moose in Northern Minnesota has rubbed away fur attempting to get rid of a tick infestation. As winters have gotten warmer and shorter, snowpack melts earlier, and tick populations boom, becoming a much deadlier threat to moose. Photo: nrri.umn.edu

By Kevin Williams
7 June 2015

BROWNVILLE, Maine (Al Jazeera) – Chris Read is the owner of the Gunsmoke Lodge in Brownville, Maine, and, along with many of his patrons, is a lifelong hunter of Maine’s wildlife, including moose.

But these days, he is worried. Though the state’s last official count of its moose population, in 2012, put the number of moose roaming Maine’s forests and mountains at about 76,000, he no longer believes that is accurate.

“I think the state’s numbers of deer moose are way off,” Read said. “I’m guessing it’s more like 50,000 to 55,000. It’s just my theory, based on sightings. I think the moose population is definitely in decline.”

He is not alone in his fears. Hunters, academics and environmentalists fear that moose numbers across Maine and in other parts of the U.S. are experiencing a worrying decline in numbers in the face of deadly ticks that are decimating populations. And at the root of the parasite problem could be something much harder to control: climate change.

Wildlife photographer Mark Picard is another worrier in Maine. He spends a lot of time shooting moose, although he uses a camera, not a rifle. He knows Maine’s moose so well, he can recognize individual animals by their antlers or fur patterns.

“There has absolutely been a tremendous decline,” he said.“I go everywhere. There are places I used to go and I’d see 10 moose in one spot. Now I am lucky if I see any,” he said.

He doesn’t hesitate to name the main culprit: the winter tick. “I have come across moose carcasses that haven’t yet been claimed by the eagles and coyotes. They have been stripped of most of their fur, so the moose died of hypothermia or loss of blood,” he said.

Studies show that up to 100,000 ticks can be found on a single moose — enough for the animal to scratch off areas of fur and send it to a slow, unpleasant death by a thousand bites and exposure to the elements. The parasites leap onto moose in the autumn, burrow into their thick coats until they find skin and stay attached all winter, engorging themselves on blood. 

When they fall off the moose in the spring, they die if they fall onto heavy April snowpack, but if the winters are short and the ticks fall on warm, bare ground, the females lay eggs and repeat the cycle. And that is where climate change comes in. As Maine’s winters have gotten warmer and shorter, snowpack melts earlier, and tick populations boom, becoming a much deadlier threat to moose. [more]

Warming climate and winter ticks decimating moose populations

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