Date of Award
Program or Major
Master of Science
Peter J. Pekins
Unregulated hunting and habitat loss led to a near extirpation of moose (Alces alces) in New Hampshire in the 1800s. After state protection in 1901, the estimated population increased slowly to ~500 moose in 1977, then increased rapidly in the next 2 decades to ~7500 following an increase in browse habitat created by spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana) and related timber salvage operations, and then halved from 1998-2016 despite highly available optimal habitat. The declining population was partially related to the specific management objective to reduce moose-vehicle collisions, and a possible change in deer hunter and moose behavior that influence population estimates. But given the substantial decline in productivity and condition of cows, and frequent episodes of high calf mortality in April, the primary cause of decline was presumed to be is an increase in winter tick abundance.
This study examined the relationships among moose density, optimal habitat, weather/ground conditions, winter tick abundance, and natal dispersal in northern New England. Comparing movement data from the previous (2002-2006) and current (2014-2016) productivity studies in New Hampshire and Maine, the distance of natal dispersal, home and core range size, and home and core range overlap did not significantly (P > 0.05) change despite an increase in optimal habitat and a decrease in moose density.
Geographic changes in tick abundance were related to an interaction between moose density, and the onset and length of winter. Annual changes in tick abundance in northern New Hampshire are driven by desiccating late summer conditions, as well as the length of the fall questing season. Lower precipitation (6.4 cm) and higher minimum temperatures (9.8 °C) specifically concentrated during larval quiescence from mid-August through mid-September reduces winter tick abundance and the likelihood of an epizootic event. The onset of winter, defined by the first snowfall event (> 2.54 cm), influenced the length of the questing season relative to the date of long-term first snowfall event (14 November). In the epizootic region, average winter tick abundance on moose harvested in mid-October indicated a threshold of 36.9 ticks, above which an epizootic is like to occur unless an early snowfall event shortened the fall questing season. Optimal habitat created by forest harvesting was produced at an annual rate of 1.3% (1999-2011) and is not considered limiting in northern New Hampshire, but likely concentrates moose density locally (~4 moose/km2) facilitating the exchange of winter ticks. In northern New Hampshire, snow cover late into April did not reduce tick abundance in the following year and cold temperatures (< 17 °C) that induced replete adult female mortality are extremely rare in April.
Given a continuation of warming climate and conservative moose harvest weather conditions and high local moose densities will continue to favor the life cycle of winter ticks, increasing the frequency of winter tick epizootics and shift the epizootic region slowly northward. Conversely, temporary reduction of moose density may substantially reduce parasite abundance and support a healthier and more productive moose population.
Ball, Kyle, "MOOSE DENSITY, HABITAT, AND WINTER TICK EPIZOOTICS IN A CHANGING CLIMATE" (2017). Master's Theses and Capstones. 1104.