Winter ticks threaten Maine moose

Moose with two calves (Thinkstock)

STATEWIDE (WGME) -- Maine's largest mammal is being threatened by a small predator, winter ticks. Researchers say winter ticks, also known as moose ticks are literally sucking the blood out of moose.

"It's like a Steven King horror movie, that's what it looks like," says Lee Kantar, Maine's Moose biologist.

Kantar says the moose tick is different than a deer tick because it only lives for one year and spends it's entire life on one animal. He says he and other wardens and researchers are finding tens of thousands of the ticks on moose.

"It's almost like a moving carpet of ticks on the moose," says Kantar.

Kantar along with wardens and researchers in New Hampshire and Vermont are collaborating for the largest study of New England moose ever conducted.

"We identified for the first time what we call a winter tick episoidic, where we lost over 50 percent of our calves in one winter," says Pete Pekins, chairman of the Natural Resources Department at the University of New Hampshire who is leading the study.

"In the lower 48 states this is the largest combined effort that's happening," says Pekins.

Pekins says last year, they found more than 70% of the calves they tracked in the western Maine sector of the study died, with winter ticks literally sucking the life out of them.

"All physical signs of these animals point to acute anemia but also massive weight loss," says Pekins.

Pekins says the increase in ticks seems to be tied to warmer, shorter winters.

"Winter just did not set in. In two of those years we knew that we did not have snow cover until December in northern New Hampshire," says Pekins.

Pekins and Kantar say they have seen an improvement in moose health this year with about 30% more moose surviving than in 2015-2016. They attribute the fewer deaths to last summer's drought with the dry conditions not favorable to winter tick eggs. The say we also had an earlier snow fall than the 2015-2016 season.

Kantar says while the improvement is great, he knows it likely won't last.

"It's not over," says Kantar. "This is something that happens over time."

Kantar and Pekins say the high number of moose ticks are linked to a high moose density and the weather, and there's no easy solution to controlling them.

"You can't use a tick collar, you can't spray a moose, those are not efficient effective ways to affect tens of thousands of moose across a massive landscape in a very tough place to access in December," says Kantar.

"The irony for moose is they're eating in the same place in the fall and in the spring so they're creating their own problem so to speak," said Pekins. "They're dropping the parasite exactly where they're going to come back to."

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