In an effort to better understand whether Maine’s moose population is increasing or decreasing, state biologists will begin outfitting as many as 70 moose with radio collars Wednesday morning so they can study the big-game animals’ range and survival rates.

The five-year study is starting at a time when Minnesota’s moose population is shrinking at a precipitous rate and New Hampshire’s is in decline. As far as biologists here can tell, Maine’s moose population – estimated at 70,000 – is thriving, said Lee Kantar, a biologist for the state.

Maine will do the same GPS study that Minnesota and New Hampshire are doing because it can share the cost with New Hampshire. Maine biologists also want a closer read on the moose population here in case it does decline.

Biologists in Minnesota have seen the moose population decline from more than 8,000 to roughly 4,200 since 2010, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

New Hampshire’s moose population has shrunk from 7,500 in the mid-1990s to between 4,000 and 4,500, said Kent Gustafson with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.

So far, Maine’s moose appear to have fared better, Kantar said.

The difference here, he said, is that most of Maine’s moose population roams in a colder climate than New Hampshire’s and in habitat that is free of wolves, which roam Minnesota.

“People need to look at the details. Minnesota is different than Maine and Maine is different than New Hampshire,” Kantar said. “When there’s moderate temperatures, there are parasites. There are a number of moose in Scarborough that don’t make it because, no offense to southern Maine, the moose habitat there is very low.”

New Hampshire’s study is being done in Coos County. It’s the state’s northernmost county, but it’s south of the study area in northern Maine.

Kantar met on Tuesday with officials from Aero Tech Inc., the company that will put the radio collars on 70 moose in Maine, as it did in New Hampshire last week. The two states are sharing the expense of hiring Aero Tech’s helicopters and crew.

The study will cost each state about $600,000, paid for in part with federal money from the Pittman-Robertson fund, which comes from taxes on gun sales.

To capture the moose and collar them, Aero Tech Inc. will use net guns and tranquilizer darts fired from helicopters.

“They send a couple of guys out on the ground,” Kantar said. “Typically, they blindfold the moose and calm them down before putting a GPS and radio collar and ear tags for identification.”

GPS tracking systems affixed to moose cows and calves will track female adult moose and the more vulnerable moose calves so biologists can determine survival rates. If a collared moose dies, a signal will go out to biologists, who will collect the carcass to conduct a necropsy, which can determine the cause of death. If there is widespread mortality, biologists hope to determine the reason.

The study crew also will collect blood and fecal samples to give to state biologists.

Kantar said weather will dictate how quickly the collaring portion of the study will get done.

“If they’re working in Arctic conditions, it will be too cold” and Aero Tech will have to stop and wait for warmer weather, Kantar said. “They’re flying without doors.”

Kantar said that biologists will get data they can use as early as this spring, and that the GPS devices work for about four years.

New Hampshire did the same study from 2000 and 2005 and found that winter ticks were a factor in moose mortality, said Gustafson, New Hampshire’s wildlife program supervisor. He said biologists believe that ticks are playing more of a role now.

A survey of reproductive organs from cow moose conducted during the fall hunt showed a decline in the productivity of cow moose in New Hampshire. Winter ticks were believed to be a contributing factor.

Gustafson said a moose can carry as many as 60,000 to 70,000 winter ticks, which can suck an enormous amount of blood.

Because of milder winters in the Northeast, winter ticks are surviving longer and completing their life cycle more often, Gustafson said.

Other parasites, such as lung worms and brain worms, also may be increasing moose mortality in New Hampshire, he said.

“We’ve seen a decline in the physical condition of our moose. The cows are not as productive. The chronic tick loads they’re carrying are putting enough stress on the cow that productivity may be down as a result,” Gustafson said.

He said the colder climate in northern Maine has aided Maine’s moose population.

“Most of the Maine moose population is further north than even the most northerly point in New Hampshire. And the winters up there continue to be robust. So the winter tick doesn’t seem to be as big an issue in northern Maine,” Gustafson said.

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: FlemingPph