Last weekend a young, male moose walked across the south end of the village in Westport, generating lots of excitement, curiosity and photography. For most, the sighting was the first in a lifetime.
Moose are still a novelty in the Champlain Valley but they may not be for long. The population was extirpated for over 100 years until they began to return from Vermont and Canada in the 1970's. The population is now estimated to be around 800 in New York but the exact number is not known.
Moose are fascinating and weird. They resemble ancient and strange mega-fauna from the Ice Age. They are the largest land mammal in North America and the largest member of the animal family Cervidae that also includes white-tailed deer.
Even though they are only now repopulating the Adirondacks, they have always been an icon of the northern forest. They are solitary and reclusive except during the fall rut when they roam outside of their usual environs to find a mate and in summer when cows and calves are seen together. As they roam, moose browse continually, typically eating 40 to 60 pounds of twigs, leaves and buds each day. A 25-pound calf born in June may weigh 400 pounds by the following winter.
It's interesting that after 100 years moose are coming back. DEC reports that, "Ideal moose habitat consists of a mosaic of upland mature mixed forest, open areas created by burns or logging, and wetlands." In the Champlain Valley and surrounding hills we have exactly that mosaic with the addition of some open farmland.
We can expect that more moose will make their homes around us as they discover the woodland cover and array of food. But the network of roads and fences separating various parts of the habitat they use may bring moose and people who also use the landscape into more frequent, closer, and potentially dangerous contact. Moose have been known to browse cabbage and broccoli patches, become entangled in maple sap tubing, chew the tops off balsam firs on Christmas tree farms and even hop over a fence to keep company with livestock.
Because moose grow to be bigger than many popular vehicles in the North Country and because at times they either cross roads or use them as corridors, the potential is high for expensive collisions. The Federal Highway Administration estimates the average cost of a moose-vehicle collision is over 4 times the cost of a deer-vehicle collision, including both property damage and human injury.
As we welcome moose back into their native habitat, both for their novelty and for their role in the ecosystem, safe roadside ecological practices and safe driving practices are important. Slower driving is the biggest factor in reducing the likelihood of collisions. Statistically collisions are more likely at dawn and dusk when moose are more active and more drivers are on the road.
Even at 600 to 1,200 pounds, moose are good swimmers. It's likely that the fellow in Westport last weekend swam across the lake from Vermont. One neighbor tracked the visitor to the Barber Point Campground where he hung out browsing until late in the day then headed into the lake and was not seen again.
Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at email@example.com.