Where a dead moose draws a crowd in northern Vermont

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When a moose arrives at Island Pond, one of its teeth is put in a small envelope. Her ovaries go in a jar of alcohol. Hunters must bring them back after gutting the animal in the field.

It can be difficult for them to identify the organs. “That’s kind of what this improvised cutting board is for,” said Nick Fortin, a wildlife biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. “To actually take the ovaries out of everything they bring to us.”

Fortin has worked at the Island Pond checkpoint every October for years. This is how his team gathers all kinds of data.

“By measuring antlers, we collect DNA, counting ticks,” he said. “This year we are checking for COVID, actually in moose. Just watch.”

Lexi Krupp

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Vermont Public

The moose checkpoint is outside a highway department building, next to the Island Pond municipal landfill.

A moose usually arrives stuck in the back of a pickup truck or pulled onto a trailer. Then Fortin or another biologist will get into the truck. They wear rubber gloves and bibs. It’s a fucking job.

“Then of course we weigh them, what everyone cares about is how much does it weigh,” Fortin said. “That’s the part where you have to lift your legs and hook the chains and there’s a lot of raw strength involved in that part.”

The first day of the regular season is slow. By noon, no moose had arrived. But people were driving by, checking the chart showing the number of moose killed this season.

Some stop there every year, like Tammy Cookson.

“We came from about an hour away – the town of Cabot,” she said. “My son is with me who is now 21, but we probably started coming here when he was 8 or 10.”

Two trucks parked in bright sunshine, with horse trailers behind them.  Several people stand between them.

Lexi Krupp

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Vermont Public

When a hunter shoots a moose, the animal is usually dragged out of the woods by a horse. Two are on guard at the checkpoint, waiting in trailers.
A wooden sign with faded orange paint along the side of the road reads "Official moose weighing station"

Lexi Krupp

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Vermont Public

In the early 2000s, the state issued over 1,000 moose hunting licenses. At the time, hundreds of people would come to the Island Pond checkpoint during hunting season.

At the time, moose hunting in the state was much more important. In the 1990s, the Vermont moose population exploded.

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 quite a sight for the town to see all the moose come in. The fire department used to cook chili for people. It was basically a festival for the town of Island Pond.

Before that however, for almost 100 years, there were hardly any moose in the state due to widespread clear-cutting and hunting.

Most moose today are found in the upper right corner of Vermont. But biologists say the population here is not healthy. A big reason is a small parasite called a winter tick. They can feast on moose in the tens of thousands.

“We know that if we reduce the number of moose a bit, it will probably help them a lot.”

Nick Fortin, Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife

Fortin sees the impact of these ticks when he looks at the ovaries that hunters bring back.

“They have a scar where they released an egg,” he said. “So if she had survived obviously, that’s the number of calves she would have had in the spring.”

In a healthy population, a fair number of moose will have twins – up to half of pregnant adults. That’s not the case here.

“We hardly see twins anymore,” Fortin said. “And then you see a lot with zero.”

Zero embryos, because moose are not healthy enough to reproduce.

Other data points to problems: Moose here are skinnier than they were 20 years ago. And a recent three-year study found that only about half of the calves survive their first winter — most of these deaths were attributed to winter ticks.

A group of people stand in the back of a van and a garage with an overview of traffic signs.

Lexi Krupp

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Vermont Public

For the second year in a row, the state issued 100 hunting permits for an area where approximately 1,000 moose reside.

There is something that would help keep ticks at bay, according to Fortin and other state biologists. It’s having fewer moose. This is where hunters come in.

“We help the 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 will be more ticks,” Fortin said. “We know that if we reduce the number of moose a bit, it will probably help them a lot.”

It’s not just state biologists who say this.

“If half the calves are dying from winter ticks, it makes perfect sense to try to target management approaches that are going to solve that problem,” said Dr. Tiffany Wolf, wildlife epidemiologist and veterinarian at the ‘University of Minnesota. “Reducing density is probably the most strategic approach.”

Three cars parked in front of a brown building with two people standing outside.  Mountains in the background.

Lexi Krupp

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Vermont Public

Several people waited in their cars for hours before a moose arrived on the first day of the regular season.

Others, however, have raised concerns, such as Sarah Hoy, who studies moose and wolves at Michigan Technological University.

“I would say it’s a very risky approach, for a number of different reasons,” she said.

For one thing, in the moose population she studies, the link between moose and tick numbers is not so straightforward.

“This idea that reducing moose density is going to reduce tick abundance — I would say we have no evidence to support it,” Hoy said.

And in this part of Vermont, there’s a lot of deer. They also carry winter ticks and other parasites, such as brain worms, which are generally lethal to moose. Hoy say as long as you have lots of deer aroundthose pests are going to be here too.

Still, the Fish and Wildlife Department is betting that having fewer moose will help solve the tick problem. That’s what they’ve seen in other parts of Vermont and in the northeast.

That’s why, for the second year in a row, the department has issued 100 hunting permits in this corner of the state, where about 1,000 moose reside.

A crowd of people stand around a van.  In the bed is a moose with chains tied around its legs, and a man standing above it.

Lexi Krupp

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Vermont Public

This year, hunters killed 51 moose in Vermont. After reviewing data from these animals and moose sighting reports from deer hunters, state biologists will decide how many hunting licenses to issue next year.

By early afternoon, a hunting party had arrived, carrying a moose. With her came a crowd: small children perched on their parents’ shoulders, old women with their dogs, men who had just taken their rubbish 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 his mouth. He weighed just under 700 pounds, with no organs in his stomach.

“Nice and clean,” said Fortin. “I enjoyed that one.”

Lexi Krupp is a corps member of Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues and regions.

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