Preliminary numbers are in from the first season of a multi-year study into the health of Vermont's moose population, and the early findings showed reasons for concern.
Researchers placed radio collars on sixty moose in a rural segment of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom in January and began tracking them.
According to the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife, 40 percent of the 30 young moose collared by researchers had died by summer.
They were found infested with ticks and severely underweight, the department said.
"It's a huge shock to the system," Mark Scott, the wildlife director of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department said of an infestation of winter ticks. "If you’ve got those ticks sucking blood out of you at that kind of rate, it's very difficult."
Scott said one young Vermont moose that was found dead had an estimated 27,000 parasites on it.
Adult moose fared better in the first season of study, researchers said, with 27 out of the 30 grown moose that were tracked surviving the winter and spring.
Researchers expected the adults to fare better, reasoning that they are stronger and thus more able to withstand the impact of ticks. Ticks can lead to the loss of fur, when animals rub themselves against trees due to discomfort, and that can cause hypothermia.
Fifteen of the 30 adult moose in the study had babies this spring, the department said, of which 10 have survived so far.
In addition to Vermont, multi-year studies are now underway in New Hampshire, Maine, and New York, which are also tracking moose through the same methods of radio collars and GPS monitoring.
"We're still very early on in this study, so it's too soon to draw any conclusions from these data so far," Cedric Alexander, Vermont Fish & Wildlife's lead moose biologist, said in a recent news release. "We're pleased that we were able to successfully radio-collar the desired number of moose and that most of the cows have survived thus far. The collars have been working properly and our field staff have been afield daily to visit the moose and record observations."
Climate change has long been blamed as a big factor in the animals' struggles, as warmer spring and fall temperatures mean ticks are more prolific.
"We're very concerned about moose populations across northern New England," said Louis Porter, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife
Porter said over the past twenty years, Vermont's moose population has dropped from 5,000 to fewer than 2,000 today.
Much of that population decline came through planned moose hunts, to address the damage the animals can cause forests, as well as to reduce the risk of serious car crashes.
However, the emerging threats from ticks, heat stress, and a debilitating condition known as brain worm have caused wildlife officials to drastically reduce moose hunting.
"We obviously need to do the best science we can to figure out what's going on with this population," Porter said. "What can we do to improve the odds of success—improve the population of moose in Vermont?"
The multi-state research runs through 2019. By then, Porter said biologists hope to have a better understanding of whether there are any management steps or habitat policies that can help the region’s moose in the face of these major challenges.