AFRC Research Highlights
News and research from the Atlantic Forest Research Collaborative

Ghost moose concern NB scientists

Author: Christine Morris

Posted on Sep 27, 2019

Category: Wildlife and biodiversity

Moose in decline in southern NB

The presence of “ghost moose” haunting the woodlands of northeastern North America has raised concern about the future of the iconic animal, including in southern New Brunswick where there has been a noticeable decline in population.

Dr. Joe Nocera, assistant professor of wildlife management with UNB’s Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Management, is leading the New Brunswick portion of a joint study with Quebec that will look into populations of the large ungulates and try to understand what is driving down numbers in some areas.

Joe Nocera

Nocera said one of the suspects in the decline is the winter tick which can be found in the thousands on infested moose. He said affected animals often try to rub off the irritating insects and end up removing much of their fur, hence the name “ghost moose” because of their pale appearance after the dark, outer coat is gone. “That animal is doomed in the winter, just by the fact it does not have a protective coat,” Nocera said in an interview.

Moose populations stable in northern NB

“The province has seen a decrease in the moose population in southern New Brunswick, but not in northern New Brunswick where populations are stable,” he said. “The reasons for that are unknown and one possible explanation is winter ticks.” 

The winter tick, sometimes called the “moose tick” although it also infests caribou, is native to New Brunswick but it has not been present in great numbers in the past due to the province’s severe winter climate. The hypothesis that will be studied by Nocera and his colleagues is that climate change and habitat fragmentation may be changing conditions in such a way that tick numbers are on the rise.

“The best data are coming out of New Hampshire and show that the ticks can be on moose in such numbers that for small ones or unhealthy ones it leads to anemia and death,” Nocera said. “We are talking about hundreds of thousands of ticks. At the very least, we know it absorbs their energy and effects immune function. It can cause death, but it is probably compromising their ability to be successful. We are trying to determine whether moose in the south of New Brunswick have more ticks than moose in the north and whether those ticks are actually causing them any harm.”

Mass tick infestations can weaken moose  

Nocera displays a photo of the ear of an infested moose which shows the ticks engorged and lined up in neat rows across the entire surface of the ear. He said the ticks can mass over the entire body of the animal in a similar manner, sucking up litres of blood and weakening the moose, especially young animals. “So if we can figure out the true cause of the moose population decrease in southern New Brunswick, that tells us how to manage the issue,” he said.

The research project recently secured a $600,000 NSERC-Collaborative Research and Development grant that allows the Quebec and New Brunswick scientists to work in collaboration with industry, government bodies and concerned groups, such as the Huron Nation, to determine threats to native moose populations. The large-scale project is led by Jean-Pierre Tremblay, a professor at Université Laval’s Faculty of Sciences and Engineering, in collaboration with Christian Dussault from MFFP and professors Nocera, Steeve D. Côté of the Université Laval and Patrick Leighton and Christopher Fernandez-Prada of the Université de Montréal. 

Advantages in working collaboratively with Quebec

Nocera said preliminary work has been done over the past two years, including placing radio collars on a number of animals, and the work will begin in earnest next year. He said it will be three or four years before anything is published. 

Nocera said there are advantages for Quebec and New Brunswick to work together on the study. He said a complicating factor for research in New Brunswick is the presence of the invasive, white-tail deer which carries a brain worm that is fatal for moose. Sometimes, moose have co-infections with ticks and the parasite. “So it is nice to have areas where there are no white-tail deer and we now have that in Quebec,” Nocera said. “The folks in Quebec have a different problem - wolves. The wolves do a number on the moose population and they (the Quebec researchers) would like populations without any wolves, which we have here. So it is a win-win.”

Like northern New Brunswick, the Quebec moose population is stable. It is a popular animal for hunting in both New Brunswick and Quebec but hunting licence numbers may have to be adjusted because of the population decline in southern New Brunswick.

Population decline noticeable, not alarming

“I would not call the population decline in southern New Brunswick alarming. I would call it noticeable,” Nocera said. “It used to be that Charlotte County was the go-to place for moose hunting in New Brunswick. Now that’s the county you don’t want to be in for moose hunting because you won’t do well. It’s better up north.”

One of the experiments that will be conducted during the study involves spraying an infested moose with the tick-killing insecticide Ivermectin - an experiment that has been approved by Health Canada. “We will kill all the ticks on the animal and then we can compare a truly uninfested moose with infested moose to see what the differences are in terms of reproduction, survival and movement,” Nocera said. 

The project is focusing on three main areas of research: 1) moose physical health, population dynamics, and space use in response to variations in winter tick infestations; 2) the epidemiology of the winter tick in relation to other parasites, the abundance of moose, and environmental changes, and 3) the development of a concerted scientific approach to improve monitoring and our ability to adapt to ecological change.

About the Atlantic Forest Research Collaborative

The AFRC, located at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, helps Canadian forest managers and stewards find knowledge-based solutions to today’s forest management challenges.

We match those who own, manage, and govern our forests with scientific organizations,  researchers, and Knowledge Holders with the expertise to provide objective and scientifically-sound advice and information.

We are a not-for-profit, science-based, consensus-driven organization with members from the academic, Indigenous, government, industry, small business, and conservationist communities.

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