Millie the Moose (2021-July 2022)
Millie the moose died last month, just two weeks after I shared her picture on Instagram as a Belgrade Lakes celebrity. The first social media reports were that while swimming across Great Pond’s Mill Stream she was hit by a speeding boat and left for dead. People were heartbroken, angry, sad, infuriated. Pitchforks were figuratively sharpened online. As sad as I was about the moose, I increasingly worried someone might come to harm in retribution.
Days later the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife reported that Millie showed no signs of trauma or injuries, so was not killed by a boat strike, though they were investigating the matter. More feelings and strong words followed—at those some thought overreacted or jumped to conclusions, at the game wardens for repeatedly saying the moose was fine all summer, when maybe she really wasn’t, at grief for her loss. Lest you think I’m being dramatic, it made the newspaper (“Death of Millie the moose causes stir in Belgrade”).
Initially I was heartbroken to think someone recklessly hit her and left her floating in the stream. It was a horrific visual. I was somewhat relieved to hear Millie, who was probably a year old, may have died of natural causes, though we still don’t know what those causes were. The first scenario meant someone careless was to blame. The second scenario mean there was no one to blame, well, not one individual.
Maine’s moose are in trouble—but the problem is parasites and climate change, not speeding boats. With warming climates, parasites and diseases expand in range and have greater impacts. Enter the winter tick. Shorter winters mean one moose can be inundated with tens of thousands of winter ticks. All those blood-sucking parasites can cause our largest land mammals to bleed to death, especially calves. Last winter the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife collared 70 moose calves to track in remote parts of the state; 60 of those calves were dead by spring due to winter ticks. That’s a record 86% death rate.
On top of that, moose also face a brain-worm parasite spread by white-tailed deer. The deer aren’t affected, but in moose it leads to neurological problems, abnormal behavior, even death. It’s brutal.
Maine has the densest population of moose in the country. Could we lose our iconic mascot due to something as small as winter ticks? Many of us want “someone” to “do something” to fix it. But what is that something? Who is that someone? More important than blame, how do we keep the moose population healthy?
No one has officially reported what killed Mille. However, observers had worried about her looking starved, stumbling, “not right” and reported their concerns. Regardless of their differing theories, people cared about this individual moose, and that’s a good thing. It’s just a lot easier to point fingers about who’s responsible for one moose than figuring out how to save all the moose.
The Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife does have a plan for the winter tick infestation. It entails increasing hunting in certain areas to kill more moose and reduce their population densities. Sounds counterintuitive, but you can read about it on their website. Will this work? I don’t know. As much as I dislike the idea of killing more moose, I hope so, or that it at least slows the rate of loss until “someone” comes up with something better.
Biologists, conservationists, and nature lovers around the United States and Canada have been considering non-lethal ways to save moose populations—biopesticide fungal spores that kill tick larva, food with tick-killing medication, drones with medicine, paintball guns shooting pesticides, and so on—but no practical treatments have been found yet. You cannot pull tens of thousands of winter ticks off each individual moose.
People cared deeply about Millie, their local moose. I witnessed a woman from New Jersey finally see her first moose after decades coming to Maine. “You don’t know what this means to me,” she said after. I thought she might cry. For all the drama and uncertainty surrounding Millie’s life and death, she brought genuine joy, and that is a rare thing.
Now, if only we can channel that collective joy, grief, and concern into action and find solutions to save our moose. That would be a worthy legacy.
(top picture taken with 600mm zoom from a very nice couple’s back deck; bottom picture taken with 600mm zoom from road)
- Winter ticks wiped out nearly 90% of the moose calves scientists tracked in part of Maine last year (Maine Public Radio)
- Maine Moose and Winter Ticks and Moose Species Info (Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife)
- Effects of Winter Ticks and Internal Parasites on Moose Survival in Vermont, USA (The Journal of Wildlife Management)
- Naturally Occurring Fungi Could Curb Moose Tick Plague, UVM Entomologists Find (The University of Vermont)
- Parasites that thrive in a warming planet are killing Minnesota’s moose (Vox)