MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Hunting and loss of habitat nearly wiped out America's moose populations in the 19th century. Moose later came back from the brink of extinction, but their numbers are plummeting once again, and this time it's not because of hunting. Fred Bever from member station WBUR says scientists are blaming climate change and pests.
FRED BEVER, BYLINE: The news for moose is not good across the country's northern tier and some parts of Canada, too. In Minnesota, moose populations have dropped from a high of more than 12,000 two decades ago to fewer than 3,000 now. Moose in some parts of Manitoba have declined by 50 percent and more.
NAT ROCKWELL: The colder the weather, the more moose you're going to see.
BEVER: Here, in the chilly shadow of New Hampshire's White Mountains, hunter Nat Rockwell brings a female moose he bagged to a check station. The 70-year-old tool and die machinist watches as the moose is hoisted and clipped to a scale. She weighs in at 630 pounds. Rockwell asks New Hampshire's moose project leader, Kristine Rines, to check for ticks.
KRISTINE RINES: Well, we'll look if you want, but she's been dead too long so most that of the ticks would have left her.
ROCKWELL: Oh, so they all take off.
RINES: Oh, yeah. So check yourself.
ROCKWELL: I did. I did. I took a shower first thing.
BEVER: Rockwell's concern about ticks is well-placed. Biologists and hunters around the nation say declines in moose populations have often been accompanied by a surge in infestations by the winter tick. A moose can carry more than 100,000 of the bloodsuckers. Sometimes, Rines says, anemic, infested animals are transformed into ghost moose.
RINES: Which are moose that have scratched all winter long trying to get the ticks off, and they break their hair all off, and because the hair follicle is broken you see the white inner portion. And they literally look like ghosts.
BEVER: One recent year, nearly every moose calf tracked by New Hampshire biologists died. Rines says several factors are at work. Those include shorter winters, with less snow on the ground. That helps the ticks, which die if they drop off an animal onto snow, but survive and breed if there is bare ground to land on.
Climate change, Rines says, could spell the fate of the moose in New Hampshire. Not only do shorter winters benefit the ticks, they also benefit white-tailed deer, which act as a reservoir for a parasite known as brain worm. That parasite doesn't harm the deer, but it's fatal for moose.
ROCKWELL: It might be some of this and some of that, but there is a decline in moose. Yeah, I've seen it.
BEVER: Hunter Nat Rockwell says he's hearing a lot of different theories. Still, he says, something's definitely going on.
ROCKWELL: I scouted four days and there was very little sign of them unless I got in. So, I believe there's a lot of truth to what the game wardens are saying.
BEVER: Over the last five years, New Hampshire's moose population has gone down by more than a third. The state's ramped back the number of hunting permits from more than 600 a few years ago to fewer than 300. It's a potential hit for economies and cultures in states like New Hampshire and Minnesota, where the moose's iconic silhouette appears on many a bumper sticker.
Guided moose tours in New Hampshire alone are worth an estimated $115
million a year. Nat Rockwell's son, Todd, says he's worried that the moose hunt might be suspended altogether here, as it has been in Minnesota.
TODD ROCKWELL: Absolutely. I'd hate to see that happen, because it's a good time. So, hopefully they'll get it resolved and they can increase the permits in the future.
BEVER: But getting it resolved won't be an easy task with so many factors at work, from changes in climate and land use to public opinion. This winter, biologists in New Hampshire, Minnesota and other states plan high-tech, GPS-guided moose research projects, to get a better handle on just what is going on out in the woods. For NPR News, I'm Fred Bever.