Numbers reflect the moose population after each year's hunting season. Source: Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department
The yearling moose was riddled with ticks and stuck in a mud bog, exhausted and barely able to move. Vermont game warden Randy Hazard considered euthanizing the suffering animal but held off, thinking it might beat the odds that have cut Vermont's moose population by more than half since 2005.
He freed the moose from the swamp in the small Northeast Kingdom town of Morgan. Then he got in his truck and drove off, hoping the animal would be gone when he returned to check. It wasn't.
"He was dead when I went back the next day," Hazard said.
The game warden recounted the April 23 incident to a reporter to illustrate the challenges facing Vermont's moose population. The herd has declined dramatically over the last decade, from an estimated 4,800 animals in 2005 to 2,070 in 2015.
The reasons for the drop are not fully understood, but one of the likely causes is warmer winters. They have triggered an increase in winter tick infestations that can cause young moose to drop dead from blood loss and emaciation. Higher temps may also result in heat stress and other health problems for the majestic animals.
As other states grapple with similar moose herd declines, the trend has prompted a call to suspend Vermont's annual hunt in October. It comes from Walter Medwid, a semiretired Derby man who has spent his life working for conservation and outdoors organizations including the Adirondack Mountain Club and the NorthWoods Stewardship Center. He believes more animal advocates would join him if they knew what was happening.
The Fish & Wildlife Department's minimum goal for the Vermont herd size is 3,000 moose, Medwid points out. It makes no sense to keep hunting the animals now that the number has fallen below that and could go lower, Medwid said.
Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter and his boss, Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz, have responded to the moose decline by issuing fewer hunting permits. The list of names resulting from next month's moose permit lottery list will be much, much shorter than it was in 2008, at the peak of the hunt. That year, the department gave out 1,260 permits. This year, 165: 140 for the regular shooting season, 20 for the archery season and five in an annual silent auction.
The season "should absolutely not be suspended," said Cedric Alexander, the department's moose project leader. In April the Fish & Wildlife board unanimously approved his recommendation for 165 permits.
In addition, Vermont moose hunters will only be allowed to kill male moose in most areas of the state. Those two changes should minimize the impact of hunting and still allow people to enjoy the sport and put a great food source on the table, Alexander reasoned. Only if the Vermont moose herd size dropped to 500 would he recommend a hunting suspension, he said. He believes the current decline is a population fluctuation, not a harbinger of doom.
His boss agrees. "We don't believe that the limited number of moose tags that we're issuing is having a substantial impact on the population," said Porter.
Still, the dwindling herd and smaller hunt are having an impact in places such as the Northeast Kingdom, where warmer winters also mean less "sledding" — aka fewer snowmobile tourists. Rob Gunn, a supervisor at the state highway garage in Island Pond, used to see several moose every time he drove his snowplow route; now it's down to approximately one a month. "You don't see 'em like you used to," he said.
During the autumn moose hunt, throngs of people would show up to watch hunters bring their quarry to the weigh station behind the state garage. Island Pond's motel rooms filled up, and locals posted signs to rent rooms in their hunting camps and homes. The outdoor gear and gun shop in the center of town was busy.
Times have changed, Gunn said. "It doesn't draw like it used to. This place use to be like a carnival; everybody came to watch," he said of the town that serves as the unofficial moose hunting capital of Vermont. Now the shop, Clyde River Outfitters, is shuttered, with stock gathering dust behind the grimy storefront windows.
"It was a huge thing for the Island Pond area, as far as people staying there, the money that changed hands," said Mark Farrow, a Holland logger who hauls moose out of the woods for hunters.
Last fall Farrow pulled out only 11 moose, compared to 59 during his top year, 2005. Back then he made as much as $9,000. "It was a huge thing for me, a real, real big moneymaker," Farrow explained.
He hauls moose by horse, because motorized vehicles are restricted from the public lands and private timber company holdings that are popular moose hunting grounds. Hauling trips today are much longer, because hunters must go deeper into the woods to find moose, Farrow said. In the past he often saw a surviving calf or two near felled moose. Now it's a rare sight.
He worries about the animal's future in Vermont: "I'd really hate to see them go out. They are a pretty important animal for this area." If the state manages the herd carefully, and the moose "catch a little bit of a break from the ticks," the herd could come back, Farrow said.
"Unfortunately it takes a severe winter to do anything about the ticks, and that's going to be hard on the moose, too," Farrow added. "They kind of got it coming and going."
The story of moose in Vermont is a rise-and-fall epic. In the 1700s, when Vermont was mostly forested, the animals were plentiful. Native Americans and settlers hunted moose aggressively for their tender, high-protein meat. A century later, many forests had been cleared for crops and livestock, dramatically reducing moose habitat. That, along with overhunting, wiped out the herd. By the time the legislature banned moose hunting in 1896, nobody had seen one in Vermont for decades.
In 1965, an estimated 25 moose inhabited the state, most of which had wandered in from northern New Hampshire and Canada. They made a real comeback in the 1980s, according to Alexander, who has been studying the Vermont herd for 30 years. The environment had become conducive to population growth, especially in Essex County, at the northeast tip of Vermont. Farmland was returning to forest. Beaver, which had also been wiped out by pelt hunters in the 1800s, had returned, and their dams created moose-friendly swamps and wetlands. Saplings growing on logged land in the Northeast Kingdom provided good forage.
Sightings became regular, and, inevitably, motorists started colliding with moose. The accidents, along with complaints about the animals trampling maple sugar tubing, eating timber company saplings and roaming over farms, helped convince a skeptical legislature to allow limited moose hunting in 1993. That fall, 30 hunters took 25 moose in a three-day season. The early hunts didn't make a dent in the moose population.
"We kept having more and more moose, and pretty soon the timber companies were complaining about how they weren't getting any regeneration," Alexander said. "Any time they did a cut, the moose would come in and mow it all down."
Fish & Wildlife increased the number of permits and the length of the season. Excitement grew among hunters, who, in peak years, took as many as 650 moose. The herd size eventually declined, as state officials wanted — that is, until the population dropped below 3,000 a few years ago. Alexander said the dramatic culling wasn't intentional.
Population estimates are based on sightings by hunters and on other factors. For example, drivers aren't hitting moose as often, according to Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles statistics covering 2002 to 2015. Collisions peaked in 2006 at 93 and dropped to 18 last year. This year, 10 collisions have occurred. Nine people have been killed in collisions between 2002 and 2015.
Game wardens like Hazard still get up in the middle of the night to remove 800-pound moose carcasses from the side of the road. They take a tooth from each dead moose to determine its age and health. Hunters have to bring their quarry to a state weigh station, where permits are checked and the moose gets measured for weight, size and tick infestation. State employees do a tick count on small patches of skin at the neck, shoulder, ribs and hip. Moose with fatal levels of tick infestation can carry as many as 60,000 of the blood-sucking creatures.
The recent samples showed a drop in ticks between 2013 and 2015.* The Vermont level is substantially lower than in Maine and New Hampshire, which conduct similar studies. Alexander sees this as a good sign. He said he's confident Vermont moose aren't going anywhere.
Such assurances don't comfort Medwid. The state should be creating a campaign, he said, to deliver residents a somber message. "Moose are pretty special," Medwid said, "and their children's generation may be the last ones to see them in this part of the world."
*Correction, July 23, 2016: A previous version of this story contained incorrect information about what the 2013-2015 samples revealed.