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Forests lure moose to Massachusetts

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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.

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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."

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