By Darren Marcy
The Vermont moose herd has fallen on some hard times in recent years.
A herd that was once pushing 5,000 animals is now estimated to have fallen to about 1,750.
Based on what has been written and what people are saying about the current state of Vermont’s moose herd, it’s clear there are some misconceptions about how bad the situation actually is and what it means for the future of the department’s efforts to manage the herd.
Mark Scott, director of wildlife for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, told the Fish & Wildlife Board at its February meeting there is much more to managing the state’s moose herd than just numbers.
At the February meeting, the board gave preliminary approval to allow for 80 bull-only moose permits this fall, including 63 rifle permits and 17 archery permits. After seeking public comment in March, the board was expected to finalize the plan at its April 5 meeting.
All along there were questions about the wisdom of continuing to hunt moose given the population decrease.
The department expects the 80 bull-only permits to result in the harvest of 34 bulls, based on a historic success rate of about 42 percent statewide.
“We continue to take a very conservative approach to moose management in Vermont,” Scott said in a news release.
He said the state currently has a bull to cow ratio of 7 to 10, but only needs five or six bulls to breed every 10 cows.
“We can harvest more bulls, protect all the females, and if the ticks don’t take over, we should see an increase in the moose,” Scott told the board.
A little over a decade ago, Vermont had the opposite problem it has now.
In 2005, the state had an estimated 4,800 moose, well above what biologists believed was a healthy population for the available habitat in the state.
Wildlife populations are limited by the carrying capacity of the land. Simply, that’s the number of a species that can be supported by the habitat. If carrying capacity is exceeded for too long Ń if there are more animals than the habitat can sustain Ń starvation and disease will take hold and reduce the herd.
Vermont moose were well over the carrying capacity 11 years ago.
“If it’s way over carrying capacity for quite a number of years like the moose was, you’ve got to reduce those numbers of animals below carrying capacity to let the habitat and vegetation respond to that.”
Permit numbers were increased to well over a thousand permits annually and hunters killed 500 to 600 moose a year.
“It was the intention of the department to get that herd reduced right away,” Scott told the board. “We were successful.”
Too successful, it turns out.
About eight years ago, the department’s big-game management plan set the minimum moose population goal at 3,000.
The herd dropped below 3,000 moose in 2009, and after a slight increase in 2011, fell below 2,000 in 2015 despite slashing hunting permits every year.
That has a lot of people concerned, including F&W board members who ask why the department continued to allow hunters to kill large numbers of moose even as the population estimates rapidly decreased toward the management goal of 3,000.
“We definitely had to lower that moose population down quickly and drastically in order to provide a healthier ecosystem,” Scott said.
But the department didn’t know it would soon have another problem on its hands Ń ticks.
The spread of ticks has resulted in decreased cow productivity, lower calf survival and a general decrease in the health of the moose.
“We probably got caught in something we didn’t predict back in 2002,” Scott said. “We’re not in dire straights.”
The department isn’t panicking.
Seeing moose is important as hunters, tourists, everybody wants to see moose, so to reduce the population to less than half of what it was has many people concerned and demanding answers.
Some of those answers will come as part of a new study that recently began studying the health of the herd as it relates to ticks.
And, as the department gets ready to prepare a new big-game management plan, Scott said one of the things the department will need to look into is how many moose should Vermont have?
“Some of the questions we need to ask internally is what is a reasonable population goal for the state of Vermont given the status of the habitat, early successional forests, and ticks and so forth,” Scott said.
It might be that 1,750 moose is the new reality for Vermont given the challenges facing the herd today.
One thing Scott said the department won’t do is recommend hunting a species if it would be detrimental to its survival.
“We feel we can provide (a hunting season) without hurting the moose population,” Scott told the board. “That’s why we’re proposing this to you.
“Let me tell you, the department’s mission is the conservation of all fish and wildlife species and the plants and habitats. The last things we’d ever do is to threaten the long-term survival of any animal.”
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