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Moose in the marsh on Raquette Pond in Tupper Lake. Photo: Ted Merrihew. NCPR Photo of the Day from 10/13/09.
Moose in the marsh on Raquette Pond in Tupper Lake. Photo: Ted Merrihew. NCPR Photo of the Day from 10/13/09.

Driver's ed for moose zones

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Moose populations are on the rise. They're well established in northern New England. Seeing a moose is nothing new in Maine - about 29,000 moose there last year. Or New Hampshire - 6,000 moose. Or even Vermont - home to some 3500 moose.

Now moose are more and more common in New York - 500 to 800 moose -- and in Massachusetts and Connecticut as well.

Although some people are delighted by the occasional moose sighting, as their numbers increase these large animals pose a growing danger on the roadways.
Maine records 600 to 700 vehicles collisions with moose every year. And moose-car collisions can be deadly, for humans and the moose.

Northern states have launched educational programs to try to reduce moose-car collisions. New Hampshire, in particular, may have something to teach the rest of the region. As part of a reporting collaboration with Northeast stations, Shannon Mullen has more.

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It started in northern New England twenty years ago…

Moose returned because the hardwood forests they depend on had grown back after farmers clear-cut them in the 1800s. Now the moose have come back to states farther south, too, but in small enough numbers that they’re still a novelty.

“I mean they’re beautiful creatures,” says Skip O’Rell, who lives on a farm in Granville, Massachusetts, near the Connecticut border.  “I’ve been within thirty to forty feet of them, massive in size.”

Moose can grow to over seven feet, and weigh up to 1,400 pounds. Biologists believe their numbers are growing in the lower part of the northeast. For instance, in Massachusetts the moose population has swelled from 50 to around 1,000 in the past ten years, and last year there were 30 moose vehicle collisions in the state.

Environmental Police Sergeant David Unaitis rigged his pick-up truck to remove moose from crash sites. “If it’s dead we’ll throw a strap right around the neck and winch it up that way,” Unaitis says.  “If it’s alive, we’ll throw the moose in the cargo net.”

Unaitis tells people that moose are the most dangerous wild animal in the Massachusetts, but he says drivers are clueless about the growing collision risk.
“People aren’t even aware of it, or don’t even think about it,” he explains.  “I think we, now, are where New Hampshire and Vermont were fifteen years ago.”

Back then, the moose population in the North Country increased sharply and New Hampshire lifted a ban on moose hunting. Even so, there was an increase in moose collisions, and by 1990 there were 170 per year.

“More often than not the injuries surprisingly were relatively minor, but then in my area here I began to see deaths, human deaths,” says physician Campbell McClaren, who works in the emergency room at Littleton Hospital in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

One night about ten years ago, some tourists – a woman and her daughter – hit a moose on the interstate, and when the woman came to, McClaren had to tell her that her daughter had died.  

“She was so deeply, deeply grieved by her daughter’s loss, that I felt that to stand by and just carry on, be professional, wait for the next one was not appropriate. We needed to do something.”

He started by helping form a moose committee that included fish and game, and transportation officials. New Hampshire’s first responders began identifying exactly where moose collisions occurred. Then the state posted warning signs with flashing lights during spring, and the fall breeding season.

Last year, New Hampshire followed an earlier effort in Maine, and made a video about moose hazards. Now it’s part of the curriculum at every driving school, and it’s played at highway rest stops.

The video features wildlife biologist Kris Rines from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, who warns drivers to keep their speed below 55 miles per hour, use their high-beams whenever possible, and constantly scan the road ahead.

Rines says educating drivers about moose behavior is a never-ending job, and even then, moose are unpredictable. “We have people that call us and say, I never expected it to dart out in front of my car. I know it saw me and it still ran into the road.“

Rines says it’s impossible to eliminate collisions – the most recent count in New Hampshire was 183 two years ago. But all of New Hampshire’s efforts have paid off with a 31% decrease in collisions since 2004.

Farther south, the states don’t have major outreach efforts about moose. According to Connecticut state wildlife biologist Howard Kilpatrick, collisions there have been sporadic until the past few years.

“We’re getting reports every year of moose vehicle accidents,” Kilpatrick says.  “Two accidents a year is not a crisis. The question is where will we be ten years or twenty years down the road.”

That depends on how big the moose populations get, and how humans respond. But no matter what people do, these huge, wild animals are here to stay, in the woods, and sometimes on the roads.

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