(NECN: Jack Thurston, Middlesex, Vt.) - Vermont's six-day moose hunt for rifle users is underway. Successful hunters will notice new exams being conducted on the moose they bring to official state checkpoints. Biologists will be checking the animals for ticks. The move follows reports of tick infestations sickening moose in other states, including New Hampshire.
"It was sort of like winning the lottery," moose hunter Mike Heist of Hancock, Vt. told New England Cable News Monday, describing his ability to participate in Vermont's closely-controlled moose hunt. "Ever since I was little I wanted to hunt a moose."
After more than 20 years of trying for a coveted permit, he got one this year through a drawing. His patience paid off. Heist shot a young female moose Monday morning near his home, in the middle of Vermont's six-day season. The state uses the hunt as both a tool for wildlife management and to continue the state's long hunting tradition.
But there's something else hunting moose across North America: ticks. Big animals from Montana to New Hampshire have been reported as infested, some with as many as 30-100,000 bugs feeding off them, according to state biologists.
"You get that many ticks on you and you start to lose quite a lot of blood," said Mike Wichrowski of the Vt. Fish & Wildlife Dept. "So they're anemic, they're expending energy, they can't thermal-regulate, and they end up dying because of exhaustion."
Why so many ticks? The leading theory is climate change, Wichrowski explained. Shorter, warmer winters may mean more insects are alive and able to attack moose, making them sick or weak.
So this season, for the first time, biologists in Vermont are inspecting dead moose for ticks at official state check stations. They hope to use the findings to start gauging the health of Vermont's herd long-term when it comes to ticks and the illnesses blamed on them.
Currently, Vermont's moose population is estimated at 2,500-3,000, according to the Vt. Fish & Wildlife Dept. The figure is roughly half what the number was in 2005, state moose biologist Cedric Alexander said. Officials believe the decline is due to increased hunting used to bring the population down, which aids in controlling problems that occasionally arise, such as motor vehicle collisions involving moose.
This year, Vermont issued 355 moose permits. That number is 30 lower than 2012, and 50 lower than 2011, according to state numbers. Alexander said the state would prefer to see the population increase to between 3,000 and 5,000 animals, according to the Associated Press.
Long-term, a healthy herd could mean better revenue for hunting-dependent businesses in the state's rural pockets and more enjoyment for sportsmen and women. It also would protect the real reason many hunters enjoy participating in the activity: food.
"You can't just go to the store and buy a freshly-cut-up moose," noted Mark Scott, the wildlife director for the Vt. Fish & Wildlife Dept.
Scott stayed home from work Monday to butcher the moose his daughter, Jessie, shot this weekend in Concord, Vt. Scott estimated his family will be able to freeze about 250 pounds of lean, tasty meat. Scott said moose meat is good in stews and is very tender as steaks.
"You can take what would be, quote, a 'tough' moose cut and it would still be tenderer than a beef cut," Scott said.
Scott said he hopes the reduction this year in the number of hunting permits as well as the new health checks for ticks will make for a stronger and healthier moose population in the coming years across the Green Mountain State.
Click here to visit the website of the Vt. Fish & Wildlife Dept.