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Tallies from hunting show that deer, bear and turkeys are doing well in N.H. – moose, not so much

Last modified: 12/31/2015 9:57:10 PM
New Hampshire’s major game species shrugged off last winter’s deep snow and the warm fall and, except for moose, appear to be in good shape, judging by tallies from hunters.

“The vast majority of deer we were seeing were in good shape, had a lot of fat on them,” said Dan Bergeron, deer project leader for New Hampshire Fish and Game. “The weights and antler beam diameters on yearling bucks were quite a bit above last year, and were above the five-year average.”

The black bear population is also healthy, said Andy Timmins, who leads the Fish and Game bear project. It’s almost too healthy, in fact: The state is working to slightly reduce the population in central New Hampshire, especially in the Lakes Region, to cut back on what are officially called “interactions” between bears and people.

“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if people still see an occasional bear around, it’s been so warm,” Timmins said.

Timmins said the number of bear interactions actually fell in 2015, to about 500 compared with 600 the year before, largely because an excellent crop of wild berries kept bears in the woods. The big fear, he said, is a dry spring, which can limit wild food when bears are hungry after winter, sending them into neighborhoods looking for bird feeders, trash cans and other sources of food.

Wild turkeys also seem abundant, reported Ted Walski, who was pivotal in returning turkeys to the state four decades ago and is still the turkey project leader for Fish and Game.

The number of turkeys taken in the five-day fall hunting season was 948, a whopping 34 percent more than in 2014, indicating that the overall population is much larger than one year ago.

Although each game species has a different hunting season in New Hampshire, most of them end by mid-December. Some waterfowl and pheasants are the major exceptions.

Those seasons are important for maintaining many species because, although it may seem counterintuitive, hunting seasons are one of the best ways to determine the size and health of wild animal populations. A popular hunting season can send thousands – tens of thousands in the case of deer season – into the woods looking for specific species.

Because hunters must register their kills for major game animals such as deer, bear, turkey and moose at stations, their season provides data about age, weight and general health of individuals and sex ratios of populations. For example, samples taken at deer check-stations let biologists know that chronic wasting disease, often called the deer version of mad cow disease, has not shown up in New Hampshire.

Biologists have even run studies to estimate how well hunting tallies reflect population, including an aerial survey of moose using thermal imagery in 2000 that was correlated with data from check stations.

There are few alternatives to hunting for gathering statewide population data for most wild animals although recent years have seen an increase in “citizen science” programs, in which untrained observers report sightings of birds, amphibians, insects and other living things online.

Turkeys are the only game animal to have such a program, called the Summer Brood Survey, in which anybody can report New Hampshire sightings of turkeys online. It produced a record 2,302 reports of turkeys throughout the state in 2015, further evidence that the bird is thriving after over-hunting and the expansion of farms eliminated turkeys from New Hampshire after 1854. In 1975, about 25 turkeys were brought over from New York state and released in Cheshire County. Their population has exploded in recent years.

The one game animal that isn’t doing well is New Hampshire’s most famous: the moose.

New Hampshire has about 4,000 moose, a sharp decline from an estimated 7,000 two decades ago, which is why the number of moose-hunting permits hit an all-time low last year. Just 108 permits were issued, compared with almost 700 a decade ago, and only 74 moose were killed by hunters who ranged in age from 10 to 78.

Moose in New Hampshire are suffering mostly from an explosion of winter tick. The parasite, thriving in shorter and warmer winters, can number 10,000 on a single adult moose, causing anemia or weakening animals so they cannot survive winter. The problem is particularly severe for young moose; a Maine study last year found that up to three-quarters of young moose did not survive their first year.

Moose is one species where biologists don’t depend much on the hunt for population information, because of the small numbers involved. Some moose are tranquilized and given radio collars to help determine their habits and decide how to help them, but the biggest source of data is reported sightings of moose by thousands of deer hunters who don’t have a moose-hunting license.

This year’s sighting information from deer hunters will be reported in the 2015 New Hampshire Wildlife Harvest Summary, so it’s hard to know yet whether their numbers are continuing to decline. The warm fall and start of winter doesn’t help, because it takes snow and cold weather to dampen down the winter tick populations.

Recognizing the enormous interest in the moose hunt – more than 10,000 people joined a lottery in an attempt to get a hunting license for moose – Fish and Game provides a lot of data. For example, women hunters killed eight of the 74 moose taken this year, while .30-06 was the most commonly used caliber of rifle.

The heaviest moose killed weighed 810 pounds dressed, after the internal organs and a few other body parts were removed, indicating that it weighed about 1,400 pounds when alive. The biggest antler spread was 54.5 inches.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


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