The Not-So-Elusive Modern Moose
Easy to find—but a challenge to manage

A bull moose by a roadside in Errol, N.H.

IN THE LATE 1800S, a group of New Hampshire sportsmen attempted to count every last moose in the state. They found 13. Today the herd numbers about 6,500, and the great gangly creatures have been sighted in virtually every town. In 1998 the moose was chosen to grace the state's conservation license plate—an environmental happy ending, courtesy of the 1901 ban on moose hunting.

Actually, it's not quite that simple. The moose resurgence represents not only the success of an early environmental regulation, but also the unanticipated benefit of an apparent natural disaster. In the 1970s and 1980s, spruce budworm wiped out millions of trees in northern New England, and the forest products industry used extensive clearcutting to salvage as much timber as possible. The regeneration of the forest with dense new growth created "moose nirvana," says Pete Pekins '81G, professor of wildlife management. And the story is hardly over.

As their numbers have exploded across northern New England, moose have been turning up in some unlikely places, including a suburban Boston gas station and a Durham swimming pool. There was the father who tried to pose his 3-year-old for a photo in front of a browsing moose on a northern New Hampshire roadside. (Message to parents from state moose biologist Kristine Bontaites: "Don't!") And every evening throughout the summer, moose-tour operators drive vanloads of tourists to salt licks—low-lying areas where road salt collects—and turn large spotlights on the mud-slurping moose.

Musante '05G, above left, and Dave Scarpitti '05G can locate the moose they study with radio telemetry, or, as Musante (right) demonstrates, a good old-fashioned mating call.

Indeed, there is something surreal about the life of the modern-day moose. In Minnesota and Norway, for example, a moose wearing a radio-transmitter collar may find itself squaring off against a wolf who is also wearing radio-transmitter collar.

Now that we're rich in moose, New Hampshire biologists, conservation officers, hunters and wildlife lovers hope the animals will remain a vibrant part of the environment, economy and culture. Pekins and his students have been doing their part by studying moose behavior and population dynamics. Emphasis on the word dynamics. "Nothing stays the same," says Pekins. "It's the lesson of forest wildlife management."


A belligerent cow moose rears up to challenge an interloper. The cow's yearling twins watch the drama from the edge of the road, while her newborn twins remain hidden in the woods.

Chris Habeck '05 has seen bull moose and mother moose, swimming moose and suckling moose, Norwegian moose and New Hampshire moose. He has watched a moose use its long tongue to grab leafy branches and then, with forceful upward jerks of its head, strip them bare. Even when a moose slips away without so much as a twig snap right before Habeck arrives, he can still get a glimpse into the animal's private world, hear the buzzing retinue of flies she left behind, feel the warmth in the impression where she had bedded down in the heat of the day. "I feel like a crime-scene investigator," he says.

In his four years as a wildlife management major, Habeck has performed three moose-related research projects on two continents with the aid of grants from the university's undergraduate and international research programs. He has "walked in on" a moose in the wild hundreds of times, and yet his heart still pounds whenever he knows he is about to encounter one. He hunts his quarry with a radio receiver that bleeps at regular intervals like a hospital heart monitor and then, as he approaches the hidden thousand-pound creature, starts clicking like a Geiger counter. "It's just unbelievable to be able to get out of a truck and walk right up to a moose," he says.

Moose—not to mention people in moose costumes—are an increasingly noticeable feature in northern New England.

Habeck is not alone in his fascination with the species known to the Algonquins as "twig eater," to scientists as Alces alces (Latin for elk) and to the Europeans as elg. With a hump on its shoulders, a huge droopy nose, four-inch-long nostrils and virtually no tail, the moose looks like an early prototype of a camel. Add a 60-pound, 30-point set of antlers, however, and "goofy" suddenly becomes "magnificent."

Every year, a bull moose grows new antlers, and until he reaches his prime, each set is larger and more complex than the last. Composed of the fastest-growing bone known to animal (nearly an inch a day), antlers are nourished by a thin skin covered with fine hairs called "velvet." Just before the fall rutting season, the bull removes the velvet by rubbing his antlers against tree trunks. Then he's ready to compete for females by engaging in dramatic shoving matches with other bulls. In many cases, the mere sight of a large rack of antlers will cause a younger animal to concede the point without a fight.

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