Chapter Eighteen: Danger de Nuit

NOTE: "Semi-Rough: A North Country Journal," is now available as a complete book, that includes these on-line essays and more. If you'd like a free pdf to download to your computer, send me a note at symbios@condortales.com and I'll email you a copy.

THE RETURN OF THE MOOSE

Saturday 3 September 1994 - News note: another moose-car accident last night, Route 2 near Jefferson. A car going in one direction hit the moose and killed it, than a car coming in the other direction hit it again. Both cars disabled.

Monday 13 June 2005 - I made a trip off the Hill for e-mail and mail. I visited a few minutes with the guys at the Gun Club. One of them had hit a moose with his truck; then, when driving into Berlin to get a police report to file with his insurance company, he hit another one! Both moose apparently walked away; the truck is still drivable, but has significant front-end denting.

Driving the highways in eastern Canada in the early 1990s, one frequently saw road signs announcing "Night Danger," or often in French, "Danger de Nuit." The warning was accompanied by a larger sign displaying a bull moose in full stride.

About the same time, motorists entering New Hampshire's North Country were confronted with large billboards warning of the dangers of colliding with moose, and listing (until the numbers got too high) the number of moose:vehicle accidents so far recorded in the State.

These weren't idle alerts. Unexpected meetings between moose and motor vehicles were almost nightly occurrences somewhere in the North Country in the 1990s. Some people died as a result; many moose met their fate; and the damage done to cars and trucks was often unfixable. Folks living in the area changed their long-term routines, so they could avoid - as much as possible - driving after dark. We followed their example, seldom venturing off The Hill once the sun went down.

The moose had returned to New England - and they had done it dramatically.

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Actually, moose were never completely gone from Maine and New England, although they were pretty rare for almost 100 years. As early as the 1870s, the general inroads of "civilization," coupled with extensive market-hunting (killing large numbers for commercial sale), had greatly reduced their numbers and distribution. No effort was made to arrest the decline until 1936, when Maine put a ban on moose hunting. That stopped the drastic decline, and moose numbers gradually increased. I don't know if that was enough to account for the major increases in numbers of moose that followed, and for the relatively rapid spread into much of the species' historic range, but increase and expand they did. By the mid-1970s, they had become a regular sight in New Hampshire's North Country, and by 1990, they were "common."

When moose disappeared from most of the North Country, folks were traveling around on horseback and in horse- or oxen-driven wagons. Moose returned to a land of high-speed motor vehicles on high-speed roads. Conflict was inevitable on that basis, alone. But there are other moose attributes that make them a special problem. One, they are dark-colored, so nowhere as easy to see in the dark as are deer. Second, although they can run fast, their usual way is to amble slowly, and they are just as likely to stop in the middle of the road as they are to bolt for the woods. Third, they are very tall - a moose's belly can be higher off the ground than the hood of a car - and headlights usually are not aimed to detect moose eye shine. Finally, an adult moose can weight 700 to 1200 pounds, compared to 200 pounds for an average-sized white-tailed deer. This guarantees that somebody, or something, will not do well in any close encounter.

In addition to being traffic hazards, moose are nuisances to our farmer friends who live in the lowlands near us. Moose are no respecter of mere wire barriers, and if their straight-line wanderings bring them to a fence, they seldom hesitate to continue their straight-line wanderings. Fences adequate to contain cattle and sheep are no deterrence for a moose and, with the increase in the numbers of moose, our farmer friends found fence repair and roundup of escaped livestock added to their daily chores.

It hasn't been all bad news. In fact, the Return of the Moose was a godsend for some North Country communities. Tourists love to see moose; moose were mostly in the North Country, but most serious tourism ended at the White Mountains. Seeing a chance to bring more badly needed dollars into the local economy, towns began to find ways to cater to the new "moose tourists." Evening moose tours were organized to take visitors to likely viewing spots. Some towns added the moose to the attractions of their existing annual craft fairs, and some actually established their own moose festivals, with talks, tours, and moose memorabilia to sell. Local shops stocked up on tee shirts with moose designs, moose calendars, and all kinds of other moose-related goods. Motels and restaurants benefited from the travelers who stayed around for a chance to see some of the big animals in their native habitat.

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Sunday 3 September 2000 - "Cordwells said that two bears were killed in the area yesterday. We haven’t had any bear hunters come in to camp yet, but there were a couple cars parked on the logging road that likely belonged to bear hunters. The two bears killed were taken over bait, I think. Walking around in the woods without dogs, hoping to spot a bear seems pretty futile to me.

"Thinking about hunting made me remember the hunting discussion that was on Maine Radio a week ago. The two regulars on the program were loudly insisting that moose hunting wasn’t like shooting a parked car, that moose were extremely wary, and that hunters had to be really crafty to get them. I don’t recall what percent success they have in Maine, but in NH it is over 75%, I think. Knowing that few hunters have any really special hunting aptitude makes me think that moose must be even less bright for the kill percentage to be that high."

Another important benefit to the North Country came with moose hunting. By 1988, the New Hampshire biologists felt that a limited, tightly controlled moose hunt was possible, and they offered 75 permits. With no obvious adverse effects on the moose population, the number of permits was steadily increased. The 1993 lottery selected 317 hunt participants, 495 in 1995, and 585 in 2000. Permit holders weren't quite guaranteed a moose, but with success each year around 70 to 75 percent, almost everybody had a pretty good chance.

I have my doubts about moose hunting being a "sport" - time spent seems a lot more important than skill - but there's no question that the lottery has given winners another chance to enjoy the North Country outdoors. One moose can provide a lot of meat for a family, too. And moose hunters, like tourists, spent money, providing some revenue for the State wildlife agency, and leaving more money in local restaurants, motels, and sporting goods stores.

In recent years, things have not gone so well for moose, moose tourists, and moose hunters. Around 2000, New Hampshire had about 7,500 moose; by 2013, the estimate had dropped to 4,500; and in 2017, there are probably less than 4000 moose in the State. The problem is not shooting, but infestations of winter ticks. Get enough ticks on one moose, and they can literally drain its life blood. That's what's been happening: the ticks have become so numerous, and so debilitating to their hosts, that over 50 percent of young moose are dying from their effects. Part of this is a result of the success of the moose population: higher densities of moose harbor higher numbers of ticks, which successfully spread throughout the whole area. Another big part of the problem is climate change: few winter ticks survived traditional long, hard New Hampshire winters. With shorter, warmer, more open winters, more and more ticks have been able to live yearlong, to become the killers they are today.

There are still moose in New Hampshire's North Country. No doubt, if you stayed at our camp on Dummer Hill for a few days, you'd see a few. But nobody knows what the future holds.

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