Where a dead moose draws a crowd in northern Vermont

When a moose arrives at Island Pond, one of its teeth is placed in a small envelope. His ovaries come in a glass of alcohol. Hunters must bring them in after gutting the animal in the field.

They may find it difficult to identify the organs. “That’s what this makeshift cutting board is for,” said Nick Fortin, a wildlife biologist at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. “To actually rid the ovaries of what they bring us.”

Fortin has been working at the control station at Island Pond every October for years. This is how his team collects all sorts of data.

“We measure antlers, collect DNA and count ticks,” he said. “This year we are looking for COVID, actually in moose. Just looking.”

A green board on an easel.  It's written in yellow "Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife Regulated Moose Hunt Crop Summary." It lists the number of males, females, permits, largest bill harvested and in the past.

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Vermont public

The moose control station is located outside of a Highway Department building, next to the municipal dump in Island Pond.

A moose usually arrives wedged in the back of a pickup truck or towed on a trailer. Then Fortin or another biologist climbs into the cabin. They wear rubber gloves and bibs. It’s a damn job.

“Then of course we weigh them, which is what everyone cares about, which is how much they weigh,” Fortin said. “That’s the part where you have to lift legs and attach chains, and that part requires a lot of brute strength.”

The first day of the regular season is slow. By noon no moose had arrived. But people drove on and checked the board that lists how many moose have been killed that season.

Some stop here every year like Tammy Cookson.

“We’re coming from about an hour away — the city of Cabot,” she said. “I have my son with me who is 21 now but we probably came up here when he was 8 or 10 years old.”

Two trucks are parked in bright sunshine, with horse trailers behind them.  In between are several people.

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Vermont public

When a hunter takes down a moose, the animal is usually pulled out of the forest by a horse. Two are on standby at the control station, waiting in trailers.
It says on a faded orange wooden sign by the side of the road "Official moose weighing station"

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Vermont public

In the early 2000s, the state issued over 1,000 moose hunting permits. Back then, hundreds of people used to come to the control station at Island Pond during the hunting season.

Back then, moose hunting was much larger in the state. Vermont moose population in the 1990s shot up.

In the early 2000s, the Fish and Wildlife Department issued over 1,000 permits nationwide.

“There were hundreds of people here,” Fortin said. “It was quite a spectacle for the town to see all the moose coming in. The fire department used to hold a chilli cook-off for the people. It was basically a celebration for the town of Island Pond.”

Before that, however, for almost 100 years, There were hardly any moose in it the state because of widespread clear-cutting and hunting.

Today, most moose live in the upper right corner of Vermont. But biologists say The population here is not healthy. An important reason is a tiny parasite called winter ticks. You can enjoy moose by the tens of thousands.

“We know if we reduce moose numbers a little bit, it will probably help them a lot.”

Nick Fortin, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department

Fortin sees the effects of these ticks when he looks at the ovaries that hunters bring in.

“They have a scar where they released an egg,” he said. “So obviously if she had survived, she would have given birth to that many calves in the spring.”

In a healthy population, many moose give birth to twins—up to half of all pregnant adults. That is 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 dates indicate problems: moose here are thinner than they were 20 years ago. And that’s what a recent three-year study found only over half of the calves survive the first winter – most of these deaths were Attributed to winter ticks.

A group of people stand behind a pickup truck and garage with street signs.

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Vermont public

For the second year in a row, the state issued 100 hunting permits in an area that is home to about 1,000 moose.

However, according to Fortin and other state biologists, there is something that would help keep ticks at bay. It has fewer moose. That’s where hunters come in.

“We help moose by reducing density – the population density that reduces the number of parasites. It’s a simple density-dependent relationship where there are more moose when there are more ticks,” Fortin said. “We know if we reduce moose numbers a little bit, it will probably help them a lot.”

Not only state biologists say that.

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

Three cars are parked in front of a brown building with two people standing in front of it.  mountains in the background.

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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.

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

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

For one, in the elk population she studies, the association between elk and tick counts is not that straightforward.

“This idea that reducing moose density will decrease tick abundance — I’d say we don’t have evidence for that,” Hoy said.

And there are some deer in this area of ​​Vermont. They also carry winter ticks and other parasites, such as brainworms, which are typically fatal to moose. Hoy says while you have lots of deer aroundthese parasites will also be here.

Still, the Department of Fish and Wildlife is betting that fewer moose will solve the tick problem. They’ve seen this in other parts of Vermont and the Northeast as well.

Because of this, for the second straight year, the department issued 100 hunting permits in this corner of the state, home to about 1,000 moose.

A crowd stands around a pickup truck.  In the bed, a moose is tied with chains around its legs and a man is standing over it.

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Vermont public

That year, hunters killed 51 moose in Vermont. Once they review data on these animals and moose sighting reports from deer hunters, state biologists will decide how many hunting permits will be issued next year.

In the early afternoon a hunting party had arrived with a moose. With him came a crowd: small children on their parents’ shoulders, old women with their dogs, men who had just taken their garbage to the landfill, everyone here to watch the action.

Her moose was a bull with small antlers. A gray tongue poked out of his mouth. It weighed just under 700 pounds without any organs in its abdomen.

“Nice and clean,” said Fortin. “I really appreciated that.”

Lexi Krupp is a Corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that brings journalists to local newsrooms to cover underreported topics and regions.

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