PETERSHAM, MASS. — 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.
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."
DeStefano puts it slightly differently: "If Massachusetts still has room for an animal as big as a moose, that's a great thing," he says.
But many questions remain: Where do these semiaquatic animals congregate? How often do they cross man-made obstacles like suburbs and town squares, not to mention major highways? (In 2003, a motorist died after hitting a moose on the Massachusetts Turnpike.) And how do they cope with what many say is an overly warm climate? "There's no one [else] in the eastern US that has collared moose at this southern range," says Mr. Woytek. "We don't know what its daily and yearly needs are."
Funded by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and the Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation, DeStefano's team has collared 10 animals so far. One died of natural causes, which leaves nine GPS-collared moose in the wild, their location and elevation stored 10 times daily. He hopes to collar 10 more by next fall.
On a recent winter's day, DeStefano and his graduate student, David Wattles, are checking on an already-collared moose called "Gate 40 bull." He's named after the area where he emerged from the woods last October – the height of rutting season – and walked directly toward DeStefano. "When they're in the rut, they have a one-track mind," says Mr. Wattles, who shot the creature with a dart at a mere 20 feet. The moose is large, blind in one eye, and an estimated 4 years old – the prime of life for an animal who lives some nine years in the wild. Depending on whom you ask, moose are either "gentle giants" or the "most dangerous animal in North America," Wattles says, as he leads the party into the woods on foot.
Several 19th-century developments paved the way for the moose's return in the late 20th century. As settlers moved farther west, they found the richer, flatter, and more easily cultivable farmland of the Midwest. New plowing methods, impossible in the rocky hills of New England, improved the yield of Western grain farming. After the Erie Canal opened in 1825, transportation costs between the Midwest and the Northeast plummeted. Eastern grain couldn't compete, and the Midwest became the nation's breadbasket. Many New England fields went fallow. Forest followed.
The Industrial Revolution also played its part by lessening demand for firewood, previously used for everything from cooking to iron smelting. "Who would have predicted that one of the effects of converting to fossil fuels would be a major factor in saving the forests?" says Douglas MacCleery, a senior policy analyst in forest management at the US Forest Service in Washington, D.C. And as the Northeastern economy shifted from an agrarian to an industrial base, more people moved from farms to cities, further easing pressure on forests. Newspapers of the day lamented the reversion of once-thriving farm communities to woodland. "It wasn't necessarily considered to be a good-news story," says Mr. MacCleery.
Mounds of stones – the remains of walls that once bordered farm fields and pastureland – snake through the woods in Quabbin Reserve. After a half-hour walk, Wattles stops on the crest of a small hill and takes a reading on his radio receiver. The signal is strong and steady. He suddenly points to the next ridge. "See?" he whispers.
They have eyes, these moose-stalkers, and it takes a reporter a few seconds to discern a pair of large, dark, and shaggy animals 200 feet away. (Two males, one of them Gate 40 bull, Wattles says later. "No one likes to be alone.")
After a moment, the moose turn and trot noiselessly away, disappearing into the confusion of trees. "It's amazing how quietly they move through the forest," says DeStefano. "It's amazing how something so big can hide so well."