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Moose in Muskoka

If Canada had a big five list of must-see animals, the moose would certainly be on that list. Its huge size, massive antlers and dominating presence are impressive.

Muskoka is home to a viable population of these big creatures, the largest living deer found in the northern parts of North America, Europe and Asia.

The latest moose survey, done in 2015 by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests (MNRF), showed an estimate of 408 moose in the region, give or take 90. The large allowance for variation has to do with the methodology of tracking moose from the air.

Done every three to five years by the MNRF, using a small aircraft, the moose survey involves counting individuals in sample plots during the late winter. When there are no leaves on the trees, the moose are more visible. The numbers from the sample plots are then extrapolated for the region, explains Ron Black, wildlife biologist with the MNRF, out of the Parry Sound office.

Good moose habitat includes lots of wetlands, such as beaver ponds. When that is available, moose are quite content. “The population density may vary throughout the region,” Black says, explaining that they are found all over Muskoka, and even as far south as Orillia.

“This survey showed the population is down less than 10 per cent since the 2010 survey," says Black, adding that variation is “nothing alarming.”

These concentrated efforts are done to manage the moose population for hunting purposes, providing the MNRF with the information needed to determine the number of tags to issue for adult bulls and cows.

“We target a proportion of the population and issue tags for adult moose, based on the known success rate of hunters,” Black explains, adding, “Anyone with a moose license can hunt a calf, as they are subject to higher mortality anyways.”

The open hunting season on moose in Muskoka is in early fall. “Traditionally it was for six days from the third Monday in October,” Black states, “but now it starts on the Saturday closest to October 22nd, and lasts for seven days, unless Sunday hunting is not allowed locally.”

In part due to hunting, fall is not the easiest time to find a moose. It is a good time to see one, however, as they are in their best condition. Fall is their mating season or rut. The males are especially impressive at this time, with their fresh rack of antlers.

The booklet Mammals of Algonquin Provincial Park (which borrows information from research done in the park) points out that “males in their prime, roughly between four and eight years of age ... grow great racks, often measuring more than a metre from tip to tip, and weighing as much as 25 kilograms.”

The same publication explains more about a moose’s antlers, “They start to grow in April and, during their development, are covered and nourished by the ‘velvet,’ a layer of skin densely covered with short hair and richly supplied with blood vessels. Growth is completed by early September and the velvet is then rubbed off on trees and shrubs to expose the solid bony antlers.” It also points out that a moose’s antlers are, “Not used for defense but are for the sole function of improving the chances of success in late September and early October mating season, or rut.”

Battles between rival bull moose are rare. The bulls make a show by “thrashing their antlers in shrubbery, producing a surprisingly far-carrying noise,” the booklet points out, adding “when bulls meet they usually quite quickly assess each other’s strength ... and the intimidated animal does not contest the other’s dominance.”

A rutting moose is not an animal to contend with when out hiking in the woods in the fall, as they are entirely focused. Black states, “there is always a risk during the fall rut of bulls becoming aggressive.” Be wary, as aggressive behaviour is a possibility.

Once the rut is over, both the bulls and the cows – along with their first year calves – settle down to the difficult task of surviving a Muskoka winter. Having fattened up during the summer and into the fall on vast quantities of water lilies and other aquatic vegetation – up to 20 kilograms a day, according to the booklet – they are better prepared for the leaner diet of winter, which sees them losing weight until spring arrives. They also grow a thicker coat of fur.

Like many animals in Muskoka, the young are most vulnerable in wintertime. One of their only enemies, wolves, will attack adult moose especially during winter. Black bears are another natural enemy, but not in winter and usually predate young calves in the spring.

By mid-winter, the bulls have dropped their antlers, most likely in a place where they'll never be found, except by mice and squirrels and other rodents, which gnaw on them for the minerals. Winter is a good time to search for moose by tracking them in the snow, but avoid following too close to keep from stressing the animals at that time of the year.

The moose's long legs also help it in winter, allowing it to get through the deep snow. The park booklet states that moose even straddle small trees and walk up them to reach edible portions. Their long neck allows them to browse up high.

Moose are better equipped to survive a Muskoka winter than their cousin, the white-tailed deer, whose population has been noticeably reduced by the harsh winters Muskoka experienced in 2013 and 2014. A smaller deer population is an advantage to moose, as deer share a parasite, brainworm, that is a problem for moose.

At one time called moose disease, the afflicted animals are often “blind, lack co-ordination and eventually lose the capacity to stand,” according to the booklet, which also explains that park research discovered the villain. It is “a nematode worm that lives in the brain and spinal column of deer, without apparently doing that animal harm. But after it has passed through the deer it takes up the next stage of its life cycle in a slug or snail. In the course of acquiring huge quantities of browse each day, some moose are bound to eat some of the infected snails, which are clinging to the low vegetation. Once in the moose, the nasty nematode does the same thing as in the deer, that is burrow into the brain and spinal column but in moose with disastrous and fatal results.”

Black points out that, “while the disease is sometimes evident, it isn't controlling the moose population.”

By the end of the winter, moose are ready for a change. Spring is one of the best times to see moose in Muskoka. At that time, they emerge from their wintering range to drink the salty water along the roadsides. “They are depleted of potassium and sodium from grazing on twigs all winter,” explains Black.

Their winter coats may also be looking slightly ragged, if winter ticks have affected them. “It is sometimes a problem,” says Black.

The moose pick up the ticks in the autumn, when they attach themselves to the moose, then stay on all winter. According to the booklet, the ticks “remain dormant until January or February, when they increase their activity of sucking blood from the animal. As the tick activity increases, the moose becomes itchy, so tries to rub them off, but loses its fur as well.” This is critical, the booklet points out, because the moose “need the insulation provided by a normal coat of hair. Young moose with a full coat of hair ... do not start shivering (a sign of cold internal temperature) until -30 to -35C.” The booklet further explains, “a moose with a coat disrupted from scratching because of ticks may shiver over half the time during rainy weather at +5C in March or April.”

In a bad tick winter, “the moose have hair loss, and depleted energy,” says Black, who adds that they can even become anemic, especially the calves.

In the spring of the year, a cow often has one or two calves with her, as they spend their first winter close to their mother. Having survived winter ticks and a limited food supply, they are now sent off on their own, as the mother shoos them away just in time to give birth to her next calf or calve. The cow often seeks out a secluded area, even an island, to be safe from bears and wolves.

It’s a bewildering time for the young moose, and sometimes they end up wandering where they shouldn’t, such as into a suburban or urban area, though they don’t stay there long.

By late spring, most moose are back in the wetlands, filling up on the nutrient rich aquatic vegetation, which is the mainstay of their diet, being herbivores. Their long legs and necks help facilitate this type of feeding, as well.

Sighting an adult moose standing knee deep in a beaver pond is an iconic Canadian experience. We are fortunate to have them, here, in Muskoka.

Source: Unique Muskoka Magazine
Article by Doug Smith / Photography by Eleanor Kee Wellman

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