The results of the state's annual moose hunt show a success rate for hunters equal to last year's tally - a sure sign that earlier fears about a drop in the health of the herd are unfounded. Right?
Not exactly, according to state Fish and Game officials.
"It's too early to say something like that," said Kristine Rines, who heads the state's moose project for the Fish and Game Department. "It's nice that the hunt was a success for those that took part, but the numbers mean nothing in terms of the moose population. We won't have any real evidence until early next year."
That's when moose survey questions, mailed to licensed deer hunters, are due back to Fish and Game. Rines said hunters were asked to report moose sightings by providing dates, locations, estimated age and health of those spotted. She said the data from the survey will provide a "snapshot" of the moose population this fall.
"Until those surveys come back, all we have are anecdotal observances," said Rines. "The hunters get into deeper, less accessible spots. I've heard from guides who said that moose were just about falling out of the trees this year, and I've heard from hunters who said they can't find any. The stories coming in are too all over the place to get a picture you can trust."
The state's moose hunt came to a close Oct. 27. Early hunt results reported by the Fish and Game Department show 179 hunters were successful in their bids to take down moose over the nine days. Of those 179, 97 were bulls (54 percent) and 82 were cows (46 percent). Final hunt results will be available when state officials complete data entry and analysis.
After what Rines termed a "slow start" to the moose hunt on opening weekend, a midweek cold stretch hit, and hunters began seeing more moose.
Breaking down the numbers by region, early results show moose hunters having an 87 percent success rate in the North Country, 81 percent in the White Mountains; 47 percent in the central part of the state, 40 percent in the Southwest corner; and 25 percent in the Southeast region.
Over the summer, Fish and Game officials announced a $700,000 initiative, largely funded by the federal government, to tag 20 moose cows and calves this year and next with radio transmitters so that biologists can use GPS technology to track their movements, and over a four-year period analyze deaths to determine cause.
UNH professor of wildlife biology Pete Pekins is working with Rines and other Fish and Game officials on the project.
"Deaths occur all the time in the wild, and nobody sees it," said Pekins. "When you have marked animals, you can follow them to see their fate."
The problem of diminishing moose populations is most severe in the southern half of the state, in the White Mountains and central regions. Rines said estimates of moose population in the North Country are more in line with past data from public surveys conducted every 10 years.
Still at issue
Some scientists have said warmer winters may be to blame, but Pekins isn't so sure.
"I think it's very unreasonable to think that distress due to heat is causing this decline in the moose population," said Pekins. "We think its probably a combination of parasites and diseases."
Pekins discussed a rise in reports of winter ticks, a single-host parasite that lives on members of the deer family, as a factor. Warmer winters allow the tick to flourish. According to Pekins, a single moose can play host to up to 120,000 of the little blood suckers, resulting in anemia and blood and hair loss. He thinks the ticks aren't solely to blame for the decline in moose.
"There's no question that these things can kill calves and debilitate a yearling moose," said Pekins.
Rines said scientists are also collecting data on ticks. She said participants in the moose project would begin placing collars on moose in January.
The statewide population was 6,500 in 2001, Rines said, and is now estimated at 4,500. The moose represents a large cog in the state's economy. The New Hampshire Division of Tourism reports that wildlife watchers, many of whom come to the state hoping to glimpse the iconic animal, spend an estimated $250 million annually. Fish and Game officials report sales of moose-hunting permits generates an additional $325,000.
New Hampshire isn't alone in reporting a decline in moose populations. Minnesota, Maine and Nova Scotia are all experiencing reductions.
Rines said data being collected will be used to shape the parameters of future moose hunts.
"We don't know what the future might hold," said Rines. "We know that moose numbers are below goal in several regions, and moose weights and reproduction are also down in some areas, and we are concerned. We've been reducing the number of moose hunt permits regularly since 2007, from 675 permits to 275 permits issued in 2012-2013."
Rines said no further decisions will be made until this fall's moose hunt and observation data are reviewed.
"If the moose population keeps declining, we will reduce permits accordingly to maintain these creatures in our state," said Rines.