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Forests lure moose to Massachusetts

By Moises Velasquez-ManoffCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 14, 2007


When biologist Stephen DeStefano was growing up in Massachusetts, moose were a distant memory. "Back then, people would have laughed at you if you said there were going to be moose in Massachusetts someday," says Dr. DeStefano, now a research professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Thirty years later, he's driving the back roads of the Quabbin Reserve, about 80 miles west of Boston, looking for moose.

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Considered a cold-climate species, moose once ranged as far south as Pennsylvania in the Northeastern United States. But with New England's transformation from a forested to agrarian landscape in Colonial times, they largely disappeared from the area. Beginning in the 1980s, however, a breeding population began to reestablish itself. Now Massachusetts boasts some 1,000 moose.

As moose crossing signs sprout along highways, foresters nervously wait to see how this large herbivore – the average moose eats up to 60 pounds of roughage daily – will affect the forest's makeup, especially its valuable timber trees. Wildlife experts, meanwhile wonder what moose are doing in Massachusetts at all, a state with such a large and growing human presence.

In an effort to answer this and other questions, DeStefano, who also heads the US Geological Survey's Massachusetts Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, began tranquilizing moose and fitting them with GPS collars last March. Whatever his eventual findings, everyone sees the moose's return as an example of nature's resiliency, another chapter in the largely unintentional reforesting and rewilding of New England.

When European settlers arrived in the Northeast in the 1600s, they encountered a forest that stretched more or less uninterrupted to the Mississippi River. By the mid-19th century in New England, only 30 percent of that forest remained, mostly on land too rocky and inaccessible to farm or graze. Hunted and deprived of habitat, many animals – beaver, wolves, and moose among them – disappeared from the area.

Today, however, the Bay State is more than 60 percent forested, while New England as a whole is about 80 percent covered in trees. There's now more wood in New England forests than at any time in the past 200 years. "It's all part of a huge transformation," says David Foster, director of Harvard Forest in Petersham, Mass., calling it "completely unplanned."

"This is natural reforestation. Nobody did anything except not keep the fields open," he says.

Besides moose, several other species have returned. Fishers, a large weasel, once again shuffle through the woods. An eastern coyote, one-third again as big as its western cousin, has moved into the ecological niche once occupied by wolves. Beavers, done in by European demand for their pelts, again dam streams.

"The Northeastern US has been given a second chance," says Mr. Foster.

But the moose, whose name in Algonquin means "eater of twigs" or "one who strips the bark off trees," stands above the rest – literally. Commonly standing six feet tall at the shoulder and weighing up to 1,000 pounds, moose are the biggest members of the deer family, the biggest antlered animal in the world, and the biggest animal in the Northeast. (In Kamchatka in Eastern Russia, moose can weigh a ton.)

And Massachusetts, the third-most-densely populated state in the nation, according to the US Census (after New Jersey and Rhode Island), is not like the rest of the moose's range – the subarctic forests stretching from the North Atlantic to the Bering Sea in North America, and from the Bering Sea to Scandinavia on the Eurasian continent. "They shouldn't be here," says Bill Woytek, the Deer and Moose Project Leader for MassWildlife, with evident enthusiasm. "Massachusetts is not like Newfoundland and Alaska."