By Andrew Madden, HLT Board Member
The evidence is common in the Hilltowns: the distinctive tracks, deer shaped but much larger; inch long pellets dropped in piles; bark peeled from striped maple (aka moosewood); young saplings and shrubs browsed to chest height; or, if you are extremely lucky, a shed antler. Yet sightings of our resident moose are rare enough that for most people it is an exciting and lasting wildlife experience. Adult moose (Alces alces) can approach 1,000lbs and are the largest animal in our woods. The story of moose in the hilltowns is a tale of changing landscape that demonstrates the importance of habitat protection and management to ensure these remarkable animals continue to be a part of the diverse fauna that makes the region special.
The rapid expansion of settlements and agriculture in Massachusetts during the 1700s and 1800s resulted in cleared forests and drained wetlands. Many species of native wildlife were extirpated, through unregulated hunting, intentional removal, or habitat loss. Moose went the way of the bear, beaver, turkey, bobcat, wolf, eastern mountain lion, fisher, pine marten, and many others eliminated from the Massachusetts landscape. As agriculture shifted to the American Midwest, forests began to reclaim pastureland in our region. Eventually beavers returned to Western Massachusetts, expanding swamps and wetlands. As the suitable habitat increased, moose began a southward expansion from northern New England. By the 1970s and ‘80s, moose were an occasional presence in the Hilltowns, and by the late ‘90s were an established, reproducing population.
Moose calves are born in spring and typically stay under their mother’s care for a full year until she is ready to calve again. Massachusetts is towards the southern portion of moose range so summer finds them closely tied to wetlands to manage the heat. Moose presence is correlated with beaver flowages as the impoundments naturally progress from flooded areas to nutrient rich young forest habitat. Fall is the breeding season (rut) and the time when people are most likely to encounter moose, particularly the males (bulls) as they travel long distances looking for a female (cows). Young bulls on the move often get themselves in trouble crossing roads or wandering into cities or towns. One of the best times to see moose sign is during the winter when animals tend to stay in one area to conserve energy and avoid travel in deep snow. When one or more 500-900lb animals stay in a relatively small space for a few months, the signs are hard to miss. Although moose can often appear docile or unafraid, they should be treated with respect and caution because they can move remarkably fast and have been known to charge, particularly when protecting calves.
The future of moose in Massachusetts is not guaranteed. Populations throughout New England are under stress from climate change, habitat loss, and conditions such as winter tick and brainworm (both of which are often fatal). Conserving land for wildlife is a critical factor in protecting our moose populations. Active land management may be equally as important. Reforestation created the opportunity for moose to repopulate Western Massachusetts, but too much mature forest is limiting. It is the diversity of habitats that is the key to protecting so many of our wildlife populations. Moose have a close affinity to the young forests that are created through responsible and wildlife-friendly timber harvests.
Hilltown Land Trust’s work protecting and managing lands such as the Stevens property in Huntington and Westhampton plays an important role in ensuring that moose will continue to be an exciting component of outdoor life in the hilltowns. The Stevens Property has many of the characteristics attractive to moose. Selective timber harvests in 2006 created openings which are now growing into the young forest habitat that moose prefer to browse. When these managed habitats are combined with wetlands and some areas of naturally rich soils, you have the perfect combination for moose. When you next visit the trails at the Stevens property, be sure look for signs of our resident moose!