Where a dead moose draws a crowd in northern Vermont
When a moose arrives in Island Pond, one of its teeth gets put in a little envelope. Its ovaries go in a jar of alcohol. Hunters have to bring them in after they gut the animal in the field.
It can be hard for them to identify the organs. “That's kind of what this makeshift cutting board is for," said Nick Fortin, a wildlife biologist at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. "To actually get the ovaries off whatever they bring us."
Fortin has worked at the check station in Island Pond every October for years. It’s how his team gathers all sorts of data.
“Measuring antlers, we’re collecting DNA, counting ticks,” he said. “This year we’re checking for COVID, actually in moose. Just looking.”
A moose usually arrives wedged in the back of a pickup truck or pulled on a trailer. Then Fortin or another biologist will climb into the truckbed. They wear rubber gloves and bibs. It’s a bloody job.
“Then of course we weigh them, which is the part everyone’s interested in, is how much does it weigh,” Fortin said. “That’s the part where you have to lift up legs and hook chains on and there’s a lot of brute strength involved in that part of it.”
The first day of the regular season is slow. By noon, no moose had arrived. But people kept driving by, checking the board that lists how many moose have been killed this season.
Some stop here every year, like Tammy Cookson.
“We come from about an hour away — the town of Cabot,” she said. “My son’s with me who’s now 21, but we started probably coming up here when he was 8 or 10 years old.”
Back then, moose hunting in the state was a lot bigger. In the 1990s, Vermont’s moose population shot up.
By the early 2000s, the Fish and Wildlife Department was issuing over 1,000 permits statewide.
“There were hundreds of people here,” Fortin said. “It was a whole spectacle for the town to come see all the moose come in. The fire department used to do a chili cook-off for people. It was basically a festival for the town of Island Pond.”
Before then though, for almost 100 years, there were hardly any moose in the state because of widespread clearcutting and hunting.
Nowadays, most of the moose are in the top right corner of Vermont. But biologists say the population here is not a healthy one. One big reason is a tiny parasite called winter ticks. They can feast on moose by the tens of thousands.
"We know if we reduce moose numbers a little, it’s probably going to help them a lot."Nick Fortin, Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department
Fortin sees the impact of these ticks when he looks at the ovaries hunters bring in.
“They have a scar that is where they released an egg,” he said. “So if she had survived obviously, that’s how many calves she would have given birth to in the spring.”
In a healthy population, a good number of moose will have twins — up to half of pregnant adults. That’s not the case here.
“We almost never see twins anymore,” Fortin said. “And then we see a lot with zero.”
Zero embryos, because the moose are not healthy enough to reproduce.
Other data point to problems: Moose here are skinnier than they were 20 years ago. And a recent three-year study found that only about half of calves survive their first winter — most of those deaths were attributed to winter ticks.
There is something that would help keep ticks at bay though, according to Fortin and other state biologists. It’s having fewer moose. That’s where hunters come in.
“We’re helping moose by reducing the density — the population density, which reduces the number of parasites. It's a simple density-dependent relationship, where if there are more moose, there are going to be more ticks,” Fortin said. “We know if we reduce moose numbers a little, it’s probably going to help them a lot."
It's not only state biologists who say this.
“If half the calves are dying because of winter ticks, then it absolutely makes sense to try and target management approaches that are going to tackle that issue,” said Dr. Tiffany Wolf, a wildlife epidemiologist and veterinarian at the University of Minnesota. “Reducing density is probably the most strategic approach.”
Others raised concerns though, like Sarah Hoy, who studies moose and wolves at Michigan Technological University.
“I would say that it’s a really risky approach, for a couple of different reasons,” she said.
For one, in the population of moose she studies, the link between moose and ticks numbers is not that simple.
“That idea that reducing moose density is going to reduce the abundance of tick — I’d say, we don’t have evidence to support that,” Hoy said.
And in this area of Vermont, there are a bunch of deer. They carry winter ticks too, and other parasites, like brain worms, that are typically fatal to moose. Hoy says as long as you have plenty of deer around, these parasites are going to be here too.
Still, the Fish and Wildlife Department is betting that having fewer moose will help with the tick problem. It’s what they’ve seen in other parts of Vermont and across the Northeast.
That’s why, for the second year in a row, the department gave out 100 hunting permits in this corner of the state, where about 1,000 moose reside.
By early afternoon, a hunting party had arrived, hauling a moose. With it came a crowd: Little kids perched on parents’ shoulders, old women with their dogs, men who’d just brought their trash to the dump, all here to watch the action.
Their moose was a bull with a small set of antlers. A gray tongue stuck out of its mouth. It weighed just under 700 pounds, without any organs in its belly.
“Nice and clean,” Fortin said. “I appreciated that one.”
Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.