I tumble headlong down the hillside once, twice, and three times before I land in a heap of snow beside Ky Koitzsch.
“The avalanche method,” I explain, as I struggle to extract my unnaturally splayed cross-country skis from nearly three feet of powder. “It works almost as well as skiing when the hill is this steep.”
I untangle my jumbled limbs and reattach my skis. Ky waits all of five seconds before setting out again along the moose tracks. He does not notice the difficulty with which I clamber after him. He has eyes only for the hoof prints that curve out before us, disappearing into a dense thicket of decapitated firs. He is in his element.
Ky Koitzsch, a wildlife biologist who lives in Waitsfield, Vermont, is my de facto moose guide. He and I are trekking along a remote ridgeline in the Green Mountains east of Granville, Vermont, in search of moose.
Ky is a moose expert. He lives and breathes moose. Although for the past few years he has coached a number of collegiate ski teams and operated his construction company, Alces Post and Beam (named for the scientific name of the moose genus — alces) as a way to earn some extra income, Ky spends nearly all of his time meticulously combing the backwoods of Vermont for any and all signs of moose habitation. I don’t know if it qualifies as an obsession, but Ky certainly has a passion for moose.
A transplanted Pennsylvanian, Ky personifies the ruggedness of his adopted Vermont home. He is an avid skier, cyclist, and outdoorsman — and it shows. His natural athleticism is painfully apparent to me as he speeds up the ridge on his cross-country skis as if he were skiing downhill. His compact frame is muscular, his strides on his skis are smooth and lithe, and his layers of thick clothing do little to hide his trim physique.
His movements are reminiscent of the animals that he tracks in their nimbleness, and, juxtaposed with my awkward shuffling, he makes it seem as if his skis are extensions of his feet. Between labored breaths, all I can think is that I am thankful not be a game animal in Ky’s sights in Granville during hunting season.
Although I carried a video camera in the hopes of documenting some of Ky’s moose expertise, I have yet to use it — it takes all my effort to keep pace with Ky as he nimbly navigates the maze of fallen trees and semi-frozen ravines. I have never been on cross-country skis before, and it shows. Before Ky and I had set out into the woods two hours earlier, I had asked him if my inexperience on skis would be an issue.
“Can you walk?” he had asked me.
“Well… yes, I’ve got some experience with that.”
“Well then we’ll be fine,” he has said with a chuckle.
Maybe I never learned to walk properly, but it seems to me that there is more to cross-country skiing than walking — especially when it comes to surmounting fallen tree trunks and crossing ravines. Whatever the reason, I struggle to keep up with Ky, who moves through the wooded maze as if he were ice-skating.
Ky’s appearance radiates intensity. His face, plastered with a perpetual grin, has been gently creased by hours upon hours spent outside in the unforgiving chill of winter. Underneath his hat, his hair is close-cropped. His prominent jaw is speckled with a day’s worth of salt-and-pepper stubble. When he stops and examines the trunk of a balsam fir tree for the telltale bark stripping, I see his grey eyes glint in the fading afternoon sunlight as he follows the contours of the chewed bark with his calloused fingers.
“Tracks!” calls Ky from twenty yards in front of me. With difficulty, I manage to get over a narrow ravine that Ky must have flown over to stand beside him.
“Here are our first moose tracks,” he tells me, pointing into the snow with his pole. “They’re not fresh — probably two days old or so, judging by the amount of snow that has blown into them.”
The tracks are spaced apart widely, and they are diagonally staggered. The tracks are partially blown in, and if it weren’t for the huge distance from one print to another, I would have said that they were human footprints. Ky skis forward a few yards, and stoops over and leans over to put his head a few inches away from one of the indentations in the snow.
“Here’s a good one,” he exclaims, drawing me again to his side with an animated hand gesture.
“You see how this side is deeper?” he asks, without waiting for me to respond. “You can tell the direction that the moose is traveling based on the uneven depth of the print. When the moose walks, it puts most of its weight on the front of its hoof, just like we do, so the deeper side of the print will point in the direction that the animal is moving.”
For emphasis, he rolls his balled fist through the snow, mimicking the movement of a moose on the hoof. “We’ll follow these for now. They should lead us to some fresher tracks.”
Ky’s voice contradicts his taut physical appearance — he speaks with the slow, honeyed cadence of a Southerner despite his mid-Atlantic roots. His disarmingly relaxed voice had led me to believe he was but a few years older than me when I first spoke with him on the phone several days previously. As I look at him now, I still can’t pin down his age, but it hardly seems to matte — I expect that Ky will still be chasing after moose at ninety.
A lifelong nature enthusiast, Ky relished the opportunity to spend time outdoors as a student of wildlife biology in the University of Vermont’s fisheries and wildlife department. Ky began researching moose for his graduate dissertation on moose habitat. After years of researching and tracking moose, Ky’s knowledge of the mammal is encyclopedic.
Earlier that morning as we had bumped along in Ky’s massive Ford F-450 — one of the few vehicles that could give a moose a run for its money — I had gotten the run-down on all of the basics of moose physiology. Moose have long legs, short necks, humped shoulders, and short tails. Moose are the largest member of the deer family, dwarfing their white-tailed cousins.
Moose literally and figuratively tower over all other Vermont wildlife — according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, adult moose in Vermont often stand 6 ½ feet at the shoulder, and their massive antlers can reach nearly 8 feet in height. Adult moose typically weigh between 600 and 1400 pounds, although trophy bulls can exceed this weight. Vermont moose hunters will be quick to remind you of the hulking 1,500-pound behemoth of a bull that was taken down in the 1996 hunting season — the largest moose ever taken down in Vermont, as detailed in the 2012 Moose Hunting Guide.
Moose are physically distinct from their deer relatives in a number of ways. A conversation I had a few days earlier with moose biologist and Vermont wildlife expert Lawrence Pyne had revealed a number of their quirks. They are the only members of the deer family with “bells” — the distinctive furry folds of skin that hang from the neck of moose and are thought to confer dominance.
Moose also possess antlers that are unparalleled in the animal kingdom. These magnificent antlers — coveted by hunters and wildlife enthusiasts who race into the woods when the snow begins to thaw in search of discarded moose headwear — are one of the most distinctive features of the iconic animal.
“There is no more exciting feeling,” Ky tells me, “than finding a rack of moose antlers.”
“Usually, you can only see the tip of the antler sticking out from the snow,” he says. “So when you find one, you call your buddies over, and you all stand around the buried rack and guess how big it will be.”
“Then,” he continues, “you yank them out of the snow. It’s like Christmas.” At the memory, his face softens. For a moment he just stands and smiles.
Ky is not alone in his appreciation for a rack of moose antlers. Perhaps the most coveted trophy in all of big game hunting, the antlers of a large bull moose can reach a fanned width of almost six feet. They are also prized for their unique, palmate structure.
Antlers of other members of the deer family branch straight out like the limbs of a tree while moose antlers fan out like palms. Scientists have two theories about this unique feature of moose antlers. Some believe that the palmation is simply an adaptive response to the many deaths that occurred when bulls locked antlers during mating season. Other experts — Mr. Pyne among them — theorize that the unique shape of the antlers creates a satellite-dish effect that amplifies the calls of cows during mating season.
These massive headpieces are all the more remarkable given their impermanence — moose shed their antlers annually, usually between the months of November and March. This means that these large antlers must grow staggeringly fast in order to be ready for display by mating season. In fact, according to the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, moose antlers have been known to grow at a rate of more than half an inch per day. This remarkable growth is the fastest rat of bone generation known to science, and, as I had learned during my conversation with Lawrence Pyne, certain scientists have begun to study moose antler growth as a way to understand bone cancers.
As Ky and I continue our trek up what appears to be a wide hiking trail, I am more concerned with staying upright than I am concerned with the finer points of moose bone antler growth. Our trek takes us still higher into the Green Mountains, still further from the national park access road that deposited us into these snowy woods. Ky is confident that we will find some fresher tracks before the day is out — if not an actual moose.
Knowing that Ky is not a native Vermonter gives me hope that I — a fellow non-native Vermonter — can one day be at home in the wilderness around me as naturally as he is now. For today, though, I am just trying to keep up.
The fourteenth time that my right ski pops off, Ky glides over to make sure that I am securing my bindings properly.
As Ky appraises my right ski, he begins to laugh. The sound is soft, and it is kind to my bruised ego.
“Dude, you’re geared up with two left skis.”
This comes as no great surprise to me, but at least it helps to restore a little bit of my confidence in my walking skills. I am not sure how much better I would have fared with proper bindings, but at least I now have an excuse. After Ky has adjusted my binding and helped me tape up a tattered edge that had been pitching me forward, we resume our trek.
Equipped with a taped ski and Ky’s detailed portrait of moose in my head, I can now begin to focus on the subtle impact of moose on the wooded environment around me. As we trek through the woods, I learn from Ky all of the telltale signs of moose habitation.
“Come look at this, Conor,” Ky says to me, without looking up from the trunk he is scrutinizing. “This is a great example of bark stripping. You can see marks from the moose’s teeth. Moose only have bottom incisors, so the scraping will always be angled upwards.”
I run my hand along the grooved surface, thankful for the momentary respite from our energetic jaunt.
Other than tracks, the most prominent signs of moose in the Vermont woods can be found in the trees. During the winter months, moose rely on woody twigs for food, and evidence of moose browsing on trees can be seen almost everywhere that Ky and I turn. The tree that Ky points to is a striped maple, one of the many trees that moose will eat during the winter.
“The food that moose eat in the summer is buried now,” Ky explains. “Now, instead of greens like leaves and aquatic vegetation, the moose will browse on mostly woody twigs and bark. Around here, I find that during the winter they mostly eat striped maple, balsam fir, hobblebush, and occasionally cherry and birch.”
The word moose comes from the Algonquin word ‘moz’ — meaning ‘twig-eater’ — and they live up to their name (Rines). Moose consume staggering amounts of vegetation — a typical moose will eat sixty pounds of vegetation in a single day. All of this is digested in the moose’s massive, four chambered stomach.
We stop in a meadow thirty yards or so away from the striped maple tree that had been stripped of its bark by hungry moose.
“These,” he says, gesturing broadly to the meadow of firs that surround us, “have been CHOWED. Notice that none of these firs are more than five feet tall — the moose stunt their growth by coming back and eating here for multiple years.”
“Do you think they’re fresh?” I ask.
He rips the branch off of the closest fir tree with the snap of his wrist.
“Look at this,” he says, handing me the branch.
I glance at the branch in my hand, and then back at him. I can tell that the end has been chewed off, but I do not know what else I am looking for. I cannot see how the branch is supposed to answer my question. I look back at Ky quizzically.
“Notice the color of the bark,” he tells me. You can tell from the brown color of the inner wood that this moose passed through at least two days ago. If this bite had been taken any more recently, the inner wood would still be yellow or even green.”
We move through multiple meadows that have been decimated by moose browsing. Ky follows one pair of tracks for a moment before he picks up a new one, and then a newer one. I assume he is gauging how recently the tracks were made when he pauses to compare them.
He follows a set of tracks to the base of a towering fir tree.
“Ah, here we go,” he says, addressing the trunk of the thick fir tree like an old friend. “Check this out. You can tell that this is a moose rub based on the height.”
I follow his gloved finger, and my gaze settles on the patch of the trunk that he is talking about. In a range from roughly three to seven feet off the ground, all of the bark on the tree had been rubbed away, leaving stringy bits of wood hanging at the top and the bottom of the patch.
“This bark wasn’t eaten, it was rubbed off by the moose’s antlers.”
“You could tell that that the bark on that striped maple that we saw before was eaten because of the incisor grooves and from the clean edges,” he continues. “But you can tell that this fir was rubbed because there are no incisor grooves.”
As if to convince me, he removes his gloves and runs his hand against the trunk.
“See?” he says. “Totally smooth. Also, the edges of the bark are stringy and frayed when they are rubbed with antlers.”
“Many times you’ll find antlers nearby tree rubs,” he says, with a familiar twinkle in his eye.
“Keep your eye out,” he says.
As the afternoon continues, I begin to find a rhythm. I learn to sidestep fallen trunks and hop over smaller ravines. Despite my faulty hardware, I begin to have less difficulty matching Ky’s prodigious pace.
As fast as we are moving, Ky reminds me that we couldn’t hope to match the speed of a moose travelling through the woods. I find it hard to imagine that animals as large as moose are able to move so swiftly through the labyrinth of brambles and fallen trees that claw at me from every angle, but Ky explains how moose are almost perfectly engineered for this unforgiving winter climate.
Moose are built with a suspension system to rival the to the one on Ky’s massive truck. Their bellies are nearly 35 inches off of the ground — more than double the height of a white-tailed deer — enabling them to navigate snow depths of around 36 inches (Runtz). Moose can lift their front legs — which are longer than their hind legs — up to shoulder length, enabling them to surmount even the largest fallen tree trunks without breaking stride.
Like many other species of large northern mammals, moose have hollow hair follicles, which provide them with insulation from the frigid winter conditions that they experience at high altitudes. Moose calves begin to feel cold at -22° F, while adults are comfortable at even lower temperatures. In the winter, moose begin to overheat at a mere 23° F, and on warm winter days they often seek out colder, shaded groves and sometimes even fan out their bodies in the snow in an effort to bring their body temperatures down into a more comfortable range (Runtz).
Since moose are uniquely equipped to handle the winter at high altitudes, moose habitat shifts to higher elevations in the winter as moose seek lower temperatures and high-altitude vegetation. Other animals migrate to lower elevations to find food and manageable snow conditions.
Due to the deep snow and low temperatures, deer will not be likely to pass through the woods at the elevation that Ky and I are trekking — just shy of 3,000 feet. The differing winter habitats of moose and white-tailed deer ensure that the two species can peacefully coexist. In the winter, moose are some of the only residents of the high mountains — the literal the kings of the hill.
Now that we have left behind the river that runs along the access road to the park, the wilderness is silent and unyielding — except the soft squeak of our skis and the occasional interruption of Ky’s lilting commentary. We have now been trekking for nearly four and a half hours, and we have yet to see fresh tracks.
Still, listening to Ky’s hypnotic narration of the woods around me, moose come to life. Everywhere that I see the telltale signs of moose, I can imagine the massive herbivores. The same woods that would have seemed barren just hours ago are now alive with the presence of moose. I see antlers dancing in every thicket and hooves tromping through every meadow.
“It’s pretty remarkable, really,” says Ky, as we cruise through another heavily browsed meadow of hobblebush. “Just twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have seen any of this.”
To illustrate his point, he points one of his poles off to his right. “You see that?”
Not knowing what I am looking for, I scan for all of the signs of moose that I had been taught to look for. I see no hobblebush or striped maple; no browsed glades or rubbed trees.
“The birch?” I ask.
“No, no, the wall,” he says. “Do you see that old stone wall?”
Partially collapsed and covered with nearly three feet of snow, there is indeed a stone wall thirty yards to our right.
“About a hundred and twenty years ago, these hills were covered with farms,” explains Ky. “For the most part, everything that we have skied through so far is what we call a ‘new growth’ forest, meaning that these trees are all relatively young. Most of them are probably not more than 100 years old.”
“It wasn’t just farms,” Ky continues. “Farming was actually only one round of deforestation. In the beginning, most of this land was cleared to extract potash and charcoal. Only later did farmers begin to use the land for sheep farming. Then came the logging.”
Historically, changing patterns of land use in Vermont have been the chief determinant of the moose population in Vermont.
The history of colonial and pre-colonial Vermont is rich with stories of moose. The 2012 Moose Hunting Guide, a publication of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife relates numerous stories of early human-moose interactions in Vermont. Legend has it that a hunter of the Abenaki tribe killed 27 moose in the winter of 1783-1784. Similar reports claim that a group of French-Canadian settlers and Abenaki hunters harvested twenty moose while journeying down to Massachusetts in 1704.
Beginning in the late 18th century, settlers began to clear large tracts of land to extract potash — a potassium-rich mineral used in the production of gunpowder and soap — and charcoal (Bohjalian). Opportunistic farmers continued to clear land to farm sheep, creating the labyrinthine network of stone walls that Ky had previously pointed out. These farms lasted until just after the Civil War, at which point Vermont farmers followed the rails into the Midwest, where land was more conducive to commercial farming (Bohjalian).
In the absence of these large farms, forests began to rebound. However, massive logging operations prevented large-scale forest re-growth in the late 19th century. As it turns out, the wide path that Ky and I had used to get up into the hills from the access road — the same path that I had unthinkingly mistaken for a hiking trail — was actually an old logging road. Just a century ago, huge teams of men and oxen had cleared the thick woods that flanked the logging roads Ky and I had just traversed.
According to historical records from the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, this combination of overhunting and habitat destruction wiped out nearly all of indigenous moose population by 1840. For many years, it seemed as if the days of Vermont moose had come and gone. While a few scientists believe that a few moose survived deep in the woods of Essex County in the Northeaster Kingdom, most scientists believe that the moose herd in Vermont had been wiped out for the first half of the 20th century.
“The moose we see today are descendents of moose populations that have crossed over into Vermont from Maine and New Hampshire,” explains Ky. “Some biologists think that a small population of indigenous Vermont moose was able to hang in there in Essex county, but for the most part, all moose in Vermont are non-native.”
In the 1950’s moose populations in northern Maine slowly began to rebound in response to changing patterns of land use. These moose populations began to migrate through the northern regions of New Hampshire and into Vermont in the latter half of the 20th century.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that a group of around 20 moose had migrated into Essex County by 1960, and over the next two decades moose populations continued to increase due to conservation efforts, forest regeneration, and a lack of natural predators. In the 1870’s, when Vermont was in its agricultural heyday, more than 75% of the landscape had been deforested for cropland and pastureland. Today, more than 80% of the state is forested.
According to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, moose sightings had been reported in 117 Vermont towns by 1984, and that number had increased to 235 towns by 1999. Moose — fond of browsing salt licks located near roads — quickly proved to be a problem for automobile drivers when they migrated into areas where they began to live in close proximity to humans.
“Personally, I’ve never shot a moose in Vermont,” Ky tells me, as we leave the rock walls behind and begin to climb yet another hill. “But I have helped a bunch of friends who have gotten permits.”
After years of collecting data, the state of Vermont first allowed moose hunting in 1993. The decision to open up Vermont to moose hunting was driven both by the desire to minimize the incidence of moose-related automobile fatalities and also by a deeply embedded desire to hunt moose as a way to connect with Vermont’s historical landscape. Theoretically, hunting moose allows for a more natural cohabitation of moose, humans, and other flora and fauna.
During that first winter of moose hunting, hunters took 25 moose in a single region — called a wildlife management unit, or WMU — in Essex county. In 1996, the state expanded moose hunting territory to two WMUs due to an increasing moose population and increasing incidence of moose-vehicle collisions. Today, moose hunting is allowed in a total of 17 WMUs, which cover 78% of the state.
“The whole hunt is incredibly exciting, but shooting the moose is the easy part,” continues Ky, recounting a hunt that he had gone on in Vermont a few years ago. “The hard part is getting the moose out.”
“The state is very strict about their hunting regulations. It’s all about respect. The fun part is that most moose are shot are in parks, where there are no motor vehicles allowed.”
“Getting a 1,300 pound bull out of the woods is no easy task,” Ky says, chuckling.
“Does the state offer a service or something?” I ask. “There must be some way to get a moose out of there.”
“No, you’re on your own,” says Ky. “But you are allowed to use horses. There are a bunch of horse sledders available to help you transport the carcass. They do it the way that it used to be done back in the day.”
Ky isn’t kidding when he says that the state is strict about its hunting regulations. The Department of Fish and Wildlife forbids the use of motor vehicles, electronic devices, and artificial lights in most WMUs. Further, it strictly limits hunters to a very small selection of weapons, and no individual may take more than one moose. The regular moose season is just six days long, and in 2011 the state created a secondary 7-day archery season in which only 50 additional permits are issued.
Moose are one of three species in Vermont (the other two being the white-tailed deer and the beaver) that are specially controlled by the Department of Fish and Wildlife due to their special ecological and cultural significance. The Department of Fish and Wildlife compiles annual data on moose populations in all 17 active WMUs to determine the amount of permits that will be issued across the state.
Applicants for a moose-hunting permit must then enter a lottery to obtain one of these permits. Since winners of the lottery become ineligible for the three years following the issuance of a permit, drawing a permit is a big deal. According to Ky, many applicants will draw a permit only once in 12 years.
“If you are lucky enough to get a permit,” Ky tells me, “you are going to want to know what you’re doing. Preserving the meat is a delicate process, and it really helps to have professional skidders and butchers.”
According to the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s 2012 Moose Hunt Guidebook, an average bull will produce 455 pounds of edible meat — if the delicate processes of transporting, skinning, and butchering the moose are properly executed. Moose meat is prized for its tenderness, and it is incredibly high in protein.
“It really is delicious,” Ky tells me. “More tender than any beef you will ever have. I got a bull in Alaska once, and the steaks we got were pretty incredible.”
Before Ky can finish his story about his hunting trip in Alaska, he stops so abruptly that I nearly ski into his backpack.
“Look at this!” he exclaims, “This is great! A fresh moose bed — it can’t be much more than a few hours old!”
In front of us is a rounded depression in the snow. Even I can tell that it is fresh. In the center of the bowl that had been created by the moose’s body is a heap of what look like tiny chocolate eggs. A few inches away, it appears that someone has spilled a dozen highlighter markers into the snow. I can’t take my eyes off of the combination of fluorescent urine and the pile of droppings.
I don’t even hear Ky when he first addresses me. He repeats himself excitedly.
“Pick one up!” he says excitedly. “We’ll see how long ago the moose was here.”
I lean over and pick up one of the small pieces of scat. It is an egg-shaped pellet, not much bigger than a marble.
Ky is so enthused that I think he is going to take the pellet out of my hand like an envious toddler.
“Is it warm?” he gushes.
“No,” I say, squeezing the pellet. “It’s not frozen though.”
Ky leans over and picks up another pellet from the heap. He rolls it between his fingers and breaks it open like an Easter egg.
“Sawdust,” says Ky, showing me the digested bits of wood. “That’s really all it is. Now if we were looking at coyote scat — or any other carnivore, for that matter — it might be a little uglier. This is basically just cellulose.”
Ky tosses the bits of digested wood into the snow, and they mount to the winter wind like confetti.
He wastes no time following these new tracks, which he estimates were made about an hour ago.
“I’ll bet she heard us,” he says in an urgent whisper. “We can’t be far behind her now. Try to be as quiet as you can as we ski.”
Ky has deduced that we are following an adult cow. The angle of the urine stream tells him that we are following a female, the size of the bed tells him that she is fully grown, the temperature of the scat tells him that she had bedded down within the last few hours, and the wispy trails that follow each distinct hoof print tell him that she left in hurry.
The buzz of adrenaline seeps into my cold legs, and my two left skis now seem to propel themselves. My fatigue melts instantly.
Gone is the impulse to take out my camera. Gone is the impulse to write down a nugget of Ky’s commentary. Gone is the cold that had gnawed at my toes and the wind that had bitten my cheeks just moments ago.
All that remains is the chase. We move faster. I pass Ky and take the lead. He gives me a wordless thumbs-up and points a gloved hand forward.
We spend another ten minutes or so in vigorous pursuit. The tracks reach an open meadow and pivot sharply, turning uphill. Then, suddenly, they turn back downhill. Or is that a different set of tracks? I slow down, unsure.
Ky is at my side even before I turn. He breaks our coordinated silence.
“It looks like she went higher up into the mountains,” he says.
“Yeah, I though she went back down hill for a second,” I say quickly. “I saw those other tracks. I guess they were walking in the same direction for awhile there.”
Ky looks up the hill, and then back down in the direction from which we had come. “Yeah,” he begins sheepishly. “There are definitely two sets of tracks.”
“I’m thinking we should probably head back, though,” he finally says. “We’ve had this cow moving pretty fast for awhile now, and she’ll already be pretty warm in weather like this. We really ought to let her be, she’s probably struggling as it is.”
I try not to sound disappointed. “Of course,” I say.
“It’s just about to get dark anyway, and we’ve got to get you back to your car,” he offers.
I am disappointed. I know that he is right about the impending nightfall, and I know enough to want to be back to the access road before dusk. Still, though, I am surprised that he really wants to turn back now. I feel that he is throwing in the towel, but I acquiesce with what I hope looks like a sincere smile.
“They’re definitely adapting to the warmer weather,” Ky tells me. “But there is only so much they can take.”
I nod in hollow agreement.
Ky and I set off down the hill, and the thrill of the chase begins to subside. The darkening sky helps me to convince myself that abandoning our pursuit had been the only reasonable choice.
As we make our way down the ridge, I find myself mentally cataloguing the different signs of moose along the way. I notice a browsed meadow of hobblebush on our left. I pick out a stripped birch. I note that another set of tracks we pass is heading uphill in the same direction that the cow had gone.
I realize that although I have not yet seen a moose, I have just witnessed evidence of a pretty remarkable migration. I marvel at how comfortably the moose population has settled into the Green Mountain State.
When the ancestors of these Granville moose first migrated into Vermont, they found refuge in the recently re-forested wilderness of the Green Mountains, and, despite a few warm winters, moose have firmly established themselves in the Vermont landscape. The moose herd in Vermont now stands at more than 3,000, and moose have carried the migration that begin in northern Maine into the Adirondacks and even the wooded northern regions of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
As outlined in the recently published Big Game Management Plan, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife aims to maintain a statewide population of between 3,000 and 5,000 moose through 2020.
Moose will continue to face their fair share of obstacles in coming years as winter temperatures continue to swing up and down and developers continue to move into Vermont and impinge upon moose habitat, but if I had learned anything about moose over the course of the day, it was that moose are pretty hardy.
Disappointed as I am that we haven’t seen a moose, I begin to feel a strange sense of optimism as I ski the last mile or so to Ky’s truck. For one thing, I realize that I haven’t fallen in at least ten minutes, and I begin to think that there may in fact be hope for my cross-country skiing career. More importantly, though, I realize that we really had made the right decision about the overheating cow.
It had been a warm week, and I recalled what Ky had told me about moose during the winter. Although it is about 20° F today, it has been above freezing for the previous two days. If moose begin to overheat at 23° F, then Ky and I had put that poor moose through the ringer. Odds are that the cow is struggling through this period of relative warmth.
I now begin to understand the reason that Ky decided to turn around and leave the cow to rest. That reason is respect. Ky has built his relationship with moose on respect, and his vision of a natural Vermont is one in which both humans and moose can occupy their respective spheres.
This respect is what enables someone who cares about moose as much as Ky to kill a moose in an overpopulated area. Ky recognizes when moose have become overpopulated, and he understands the need to hunt these moose. Similarly, he recognizes when he is in moose territory, and he respects it. In the same way that white tailed deer and moose can both occupy the mountains at different altitudes, Ky knows that there is room enough in the Green Mountain State for both people and moose.
Maybe I’ve been out in the cold for too long, but I can’t help but imagine that moose must have similar respect for people like Ky who are willing to share Vermont’s landscape.
Ky and moose have a common interest — they both plan on being neighbors for a long time. I may not end up spending as much time with moose as Ky, but now I can understand his fascination with these incredible creatures. Even as I approach Ky’s truck and the long drive home, I begin to plan my next visit to my new favorite neighbors.
Austin, John M., Alexander, C., Marshall, E., Hammond, F., Shippee, J., Thompson, E. “Conserving Vermont’s Natural Heritage: A Guide to Community-Based Planning for the Conservation of Vermont’s Fish, Wildlife, and Biological Diversity.” Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. Waterbury, Vermont. 2004.
Bohjalian, Chris, “Why the Green Mountains Turn Red: It’s Only Because Vermont Twice Denuded its Forests that We Now See Such Glorious Autumn Foliage: 3rd Edition.” Boston Globe: 14. 2000. Print.
Pyne, Lawrence. Personal Interview. 1 January 2013.
Rines, Kristine. “Moose Biology.” mooseworld.com. Mooseworld. 1999-2013. Web.
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