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From the October 2015 Conservationist

An aerial photo of moose in a snowy forest

Photo: DEC photo

Tracking in the Mountains

Collaring moose in New York

By Joann Sandone Reed

I was starving by the time we pulled into the parking lot at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's (DEC) Ray Brook office. It was 6:00 a.m. on a cold January morning and I had skipped breakfast in deference to last minute preparations for what I hoped to be a long day of moose capturing and collaring in the Adirondack Mountains. Outfitted with a backpack full of warm clothes, food and freshly charged camera batteries, I was ready to document the initial phase in an unprecedented study of the status of moose in New York.

Moose, Alces alces, are the largest member of the deer family (Cervidae), and the largest land mammal found in New York. An impressive presence in the wild, bulls weigh from 600 to 1,200 pounds and stand up to six feet tall at the shoulder. Cows weigh from 500 to 800 pounds.

A photo of the moose capture team taking off in a helicopter
The moose capture team takes off.
(Photo: Dr. Nina Schoch)

Once native to New York and found mostly in the Adirondack Mountain region, moose were extirpated before 1900 due to unregulated hunting and loss of habitat. After a 100-year absence, moose were again spotted in the Adirondacks in the late 1970s. Researchers theorize these moose immigrated here from neighboring areas and shortly established the state's breeding population. A Wildlife Conservation Society genetic study showed the majority of New York's moose came from New England, most likely via Vermont. Many of them probably swam across Lake Champlain. Today, New York's moose population is estimated to be between 500 and 800 animals.

This day's collaring effort involved a professional crew of six specialists from Aero Tech, Inc., who are trained in live capture and collaring of large animals. The Aero Tech team uses a helicopter to locate and capture the moose. Based out of New Mexico, Aero Tech has live-captured thousands of large animals in support of conservation and management.

Prior to their arrival, however, DEC wildlife staff flew scouting missions throughout the Adirondack region to locate moose concentrations. This pre-capture scouting was essential to the success of the capture operation, and due to these reconnaissance flights, DEC provided the Aero Tech pilots with GPS coordinates to the identified areas where moose were likely to be: conservation easement lands in Franklin County.

Once in the air, team members searched the landscape for moose. The lack of leaves on the trees made it easier to spot their quarry-a large reason why this operation is conducted during the winter. When a moose was sighted, team members used a launched net or immobilizing dart to catch the large mammal. The process can be tricky, but the Aero Tech crew is very adept at it.

As soon as a moose was captured, Aero Tech personnel moved in to process the animal and assess its condition. I've been a volunteer for years, but it always amazes me just how large and powerful-looking these animals are! The first moose captured that day was a large adult cow and had an estimated weight of 650 lbs.

A photo of the moose capture team readying a capture net
Staff pack a capture net in preparation
for firing. (Photo: Joann Sardone

The captured moose was immediately secured (legs bound together and blindfolded), which kept the animal on the ground, still, and calm during its work-up. The Aero Tech team fitted the moose with a GPS-equipped collar and ear tags. They also took body measurements and biological samples of blood, hair, fecal matter and collected ticks. They worked quickly to minimize the stress on the animal.

All told, the team fitted twelve moose with GPS collars in the Adirondacks that cold, January day. Cameron Stalling, vice-president and pilot for Aero Tech, commented that he thought New York's moose looked good. "As far as the Northeast is concerned, we were really surprised when we saw New York's moose," said Stalling. "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 we've seen in other states. Some of the cows we captured here were as large as the bulls we're seeing in other states," Stalling said. "That was nice to see-big, fat, healthy moose."

A sceenshot of a GPS display on a computer
Biologists use Global Positioning
Systems (GPS) to remotely track collared
moose and learn about their habits.

The specialized GPS-enabled collars take coordinates every two hours, and then transmit them to a computer server once a day. This allows biologists to track moose movements from their computer desks or cell phones. The 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 so biologists can locate the animal. It is important to get to the moose within 24 hours of death in order to get the best data about the condition of the animal. This helps researchers determine the cause of death.

This collaring effort is part of a new multi-year study of moose in New York State. A collaborative effort among DEC, the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), Cornell Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, the research will provide valuable information for conserving and managing moose in New York State. Lead researcher on the study, Dr. Paul Schuette, a postdoctoral research associate at ESF, explained that there hasn't been a comprehensive survey since moose started to recolonize the area in the 1980s, and the first thing they want to do is establish a baseline population estimate for moose currently in the Adirondack region.

Photo of a blindfolded moose being fitted with a GPS collar
Staff place a sturdy GPS collar on a
blindfolded moose. With luck, the collar
will last up to two years. (Photo: Aero

Data from this study will also contribute to ongoing assessments of moose across their entire southern range where there is concern over the impacts of disease, warmer and shorter winters, and reduced productivity. New York State falls at the extreme southern end of the normal range for moose in North America, which includes Montana, Minnesota and extends east to southern Maine. Scientists along this southern range are studying startling declines in moose populations. For instance, there were about 4,000 moose in northwest Minnesota in the 1980s, and today there are fewer than 100.

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. 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 changes are not good for moose health.

A photo of a blindfolded moose with an eartag
A numbered ear tag allows biologists
to identify individual moose. (Photo:
Aero Tech)

Dr. Jacqueline Frair, Associate Director of ESF's Roosevelt Wild Life Station, explained, "Moose have recolonized the Adirondacks just as climate change may be degrading their habitat. The steep declines in moose numbers in Minnesota, and high burdens of winter tick and associated mortality in the Northeast, have made this assessment of Adirondack moose a high priority. Our current research will inform managers whether the population is growing or not, and the habitat and environmental factors affecting our moose numbers."

The GPS collar study is just one element of the multi-year research project. Other components of the study include aerial surveys to assess the population and composition of the moose herd, ground surveys to assess calf production and survival, occupancy estimates from hunter surveys, moose pellet collection for DNA analysis, and habitat assessment surveys.

Fieldwork and data collection started immediately after the moose were collared last January. New York State Police, Forest Rangers, and members of the moose team conducted many aerial "sightability survey" transects over the research area to count any collared moose they could see. The day I helped on this part of the project, we flew a survey section so far north in New York that the only other occasional voices I heard on our headsets were passing pilots speaking French. We only spotted three moose during that flight...and it was considered a good day.

A photo of blood samples being processed in a lab
Sampling blood in the field lab to
assess the overall health of the moose.
(Photo: Joann Sandone Reed)

Beginning this past May, DEC staff also started walk-in surveys whereby staff use GPS coordinates to guide them to a collared moose's location. But coordinates do not guarantee a moose will be spotted; it also takes a stealthy approach. This research method is used to mainly learn about moose productivity-to see which cows have calves, and how many they have.

DEC Region 5 Wildlife Manager Edward Reed noted, "Through the use of GPS collars, we've already learned the herd seems productive, with a high proportion of females seen with calves."

This is big news-New York moose are reproducing. In fact, biologists discovered during the walk-in surveys that seven of the nine collared cows delivered calves this past spring. And researchers think the other two cows were yearlings, and therefore too young to breed.

As of July 2015, eight months into the project and early in the data collection stage, a snapshot of the status of moose in New York looks good. Dr. Krysten Schuler from Cornell University reported the preliminary results from blood drawn during the collaring indicate the twelve moose were in good health. The moose were also inspected for winter ticks. The news here was good too; only three of the moose had a few winter ticks, an almost scientifically insignificant number compared to the tens of thousands of ticks found per moose in other states.

Researchers remain hopeful this trend will continue, and that New York's moose population will remain healthy and productive. In the meantime, they'll continue to monitor these magnificent mammals.

Writer Joann Sandone Reed lives in Lake Placid, N.Y. She moved to the Adirondacks 29 years ago and has been a DEC volunteer ever since.

Note: This study is funded by the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, also 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.