I was starving by the time we pulled into the parking lot at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Raybrook office. It was 6:00 on a cold January morning and I had skipped breakfast in deference to last minute preparations for what we hoped would be a long day of moose capture and collaring in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. With a backpack full of warm clothes, food, and freshly charged camera batteries, I was ready to document for the Conservationist magazine, the initial phase in an unprecedented study of the status of moose in New York State.
I was lucky. Twelve moose in New York State’s Adirondack Park were fitted with GPS radio collars that day, January 24. The NYS DEC Region 5 wildlife staff oversaw the collaring effort, part of New York State’s first multi-year moose study. The research is designed to provide a better understanding of the status of New York State’s moose population.
“…we really want to establish a baseline population estimate for moose in the Adirondack region.”
Lead researcher on the study, Dr. Paul Schuette, Postdoctoral Research Associate at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said the research will provide valuable information for conserving and managing moose in New York State. “First, we really want to establish a baseline population estimate for moose in the Adirondack region. There hasn’t been a comprehensive survey since moose started to recolonize the area in the 1980s,” said Dr. Schuette.
The study data will also contribute to ongoing assessments of moose across their entire southern range where there is concern over the impacts of disease, warm and short winters, and reduced productivity. New York State falls at that extreme southern end of the normal range for moose in North America, which includes Montana, Minnesota, and British Columbia and extends east to southern Maine. Scientists along this southern range are studying startling declines in moose populations. There were about 4,000 moose in northwest Minnesota in the 1980s, about the time moose were making their comeback in the Adirondacks. Today there are fewer than 100 moose in that same area of Minnesota.
Researchers do not know exactly what is happening to the moose in those states yet, but thermal stress, brain worm, liver flukes, and winter ticks are all implicated in declining moose numbers. Moose like the cold and winter ticks thrive in warmer winters and early springs. Scientists in Minnesota, where the overall moose population has declined by half in the past decade, are not the only ones to make a connection to climate change. According to climate data collected in Minnesota, February snow depth has decreased by 50 percent and there has been a five to six degree increase in the August maximum temperature in the last 60 years. These dramatic numbers are not good for moose health.
“Moose have recolonized the Adirondacks just as climate change may be degrading their habitat.”
Dr. Jacqueline Frair, Associate Director of the Roosevelt Wild Life Station, partner in the project explained, “Moose have recolonized the Adirondacks just as climate change may be degrading their habitat. Steep declines in moose numbers in Minnesota, and high burdens of winter tick and associated mortality in the Northeast, have made an assessment of moose in the Adirondacks a high priority. Our current research will inform managers of the distribution and abundance of moose, whether the population is growing or not, and the habitat and environmental factors affecting moose numbers.”
As part of New York’s study, a professional crew of specialists from Aero Tech, Inc., trained in live capture and collaring of large animals, used a helicopter and launched nets to capture and collar the moose on conservation easement lands in Franklin County. Aero Tech has live-captured thousands of large animals in support of conservation and management, and recently completed similar jobs in New Hampshire and Maine. Based in New Mexico, the capture crew consists of a team of six, each of them experts with a specific role in the process.
“We learn valuable information about moose habitat use and survival when we put radio collars on moose and actively monitor their movements. This helps us understand factors that impact New York’s moose population,” said DEC Region 5 Wildlife Manager Ed Reed. “The capture and collaring of twelve moose was a great start to this study. We’ve already learned the captured moose appear to be in very good health, compared to neighboring states, in good body condition and with few winter ticks. The herd seems productive, with a high proportion of females seen with calves,” he said.
“Some of the cows we captured in New York were as large as the bulls we’re seeing in other states. That was nice to see — big, fat, healthy, happy moose.”
Cameron Stalling, Vice-president and pilot for Aero Tech, Inc., the large animal live capture company, said New York’s moose look good. “As far as the Northeast is concerned, we were really surprised when we saw New York’s moose.” said Stalling. He explained, “They were definitely the largest, healthiest, moose that we’ve seen so far. Even from the air, it was quite evident they had nice silky coats, they didn’t have any hair rubbed off, and their girth and length were much bigger than moose in other states. Stalling said some of the New York moose had an extra 20 inches in girth than moose in other northeastern states. He said, “Some of the cows we captured in New York were as large as the bulls we’re seeing in other states. That was nice to see — big, fat, healthy, happy moose.”
Two adult bulls, nine adult cows, and one bull calf were fitted with GPS collars and released at their capture locations within 20 minutes of their initial capture. One juvenile bull died of injuries received during the capture attempt. Such mortalities are rare, but are always a risk associated with the capture of wild animals.
Prior to Aero Tech’s arrival, DEC wildlife staff flew scouting missions with the New York State Police throughout the Adirondack region to locate moose concentrations. This pre-capture scouting was essential to the success of the capture operation. Informed by the scouting missions, DEC provided GPS coordinates to Aero Tech pilots who then flew to the identified areas.
When the moose were sighted, team members used a launched net or immobilizing dart to catch it. Each captured moose was fitted with a GPS-equipped collar and ear tags. Body measurements were obtained and biological samples of blood, fur, fecal matter, and ticks were collected for each moose.
Once activated, the GPS-enabled collars transmit coordinates taken every two hours, to a computer server once a day. This allows biologists to track moose movements from their computer desks or cell phones. The GPS collars are expected to transmit movement signals for about two years. If the animal does not move for a certain period of time, the collar transmits a mortality signal biologists can use to reach the animal. Scientists said it is important to get to moose within 24 hours of death in order to get best the data about the condition of the animal, which will help researchers determine why the moose died.
An Aero Tech capture team member releases a collared moose in New Hampshire earlier this year. Video: Aero Tech, Inc.
The radio collar study is just one element of the research, which is scheduled to continue for the next several years. Other components of the study include aerial flights to assess the population and composition of the moose herd, moose pellet collection for DNA analysis, and habitat assessment surveys.
Crews will complete a population survey and produce the first formal estimate of moose numbers by the end of this winter. The goal of the Adirondack moose study is to gather data that will be used to create a moose management plan for New York State.
“We learn valuable information about moose habitat use and survival when we put radio collars on moose and actively monitor their movements. This helps us understand factors that impact New York’s moose population.”
The study is funded by the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, known as the Pittman-Robertson Act. The Act created an excise tax on firearms and ammunition that provides funds to each state to manage wildlife and their habitats. Notable species that have come back from the brink of extinction since the implementation of this Act include the bald eagle, whitetail deer, wild turkey, and wood ducks.
Aero Tech, Inc., team member Tim Millikin explains how he uses the net gun to live capture moose from the helicopter. Video credit: Jeanne Ross, Aero Tech, Inc.
Photographs and videos © Joann Sandone Reed unless otherwise noted.