CAVENDISH, Vt. – You might say Jim Esden was in the right place at the right time Jan. 22 when he overheard his wildlife co-workers mobilizing to remove a 700-pound male moose stuck on the railroad tracks at the intersection of Routes 103 and 131 between Cavendish and Ludlow.
The moose had somehow taken a misstep, according to Esden, and was straddling the trestle bridge with its hind feet dangling from the trestle and its underbelly, chest, and forelegs resting on a railroad tie up on the tracks of the bridge. Esden said he heard talk about getting the tranquilizer gun and medication to dart the moose, but he knew that would only be the beginning of the rescue. The hard part would be actually getting the moose off the tracks.
Esden, a full-time protection forester with the Forest, Parks and Recreation Department for the state of Vermont, is also an on-call firefighter for the town of Springfield trained as an EMT and structural firefighter. He has been with the town of Springfield for more than two years in that capacity. This day, however, and fortunately for the moose, Esden was sitting at the desk of his day job when he overheard colleagues getting ready to respond to the crisis.
Although Esden did not personally attend the scene, he knew his fire department had a bariatric mat designed to evacuate immobile patients from tight spaces and hazardous areas in the event of an emergency. The mat has handles and is rated to lift up to 1,500 pounds so he knew the mat would hold the weight of the moose, and he proceeded to make the call to have it available at the railroad bridge for the wildlife responders.
Esden’s colleagues utilized a truck from the railroad company that had grapple hooks, a vehicle similar to a logging truck. They rolled the moose onto the mat after it was tranquilized, laced nylon straps through the handles of the mat, and hooked the straps onto the grapple loader. Once the straps were secure, they were able to lift the moose, swing him around into position, and place him on the back of the truck.
Reports from the scene indicated the moose was very tired from struggling while dangling over the bridge. Once the tranquilizer was administered, the wildlife responders treated abrasions on his hind legs, gave him an antibiotic, and then drove the truck to Proctor Piper State Forest where they planned to release the moose back into the wild. There, responders injected an antidote that reversed the effects of the tranquilizer. Esden said it took about seven or eight minutes, but the moose came around, stood up, and walked into the woods.
The Vermont Journal asked Esden if the mat had ever been used in this capacity before, to lift an animal out of a tricky situation, and he said not that he was aware. But he said thanks to the training he received with the Springfield Fire Department, he was able to discern right away that this piece of equipment would be just what was needed for this particular emergency and resulted in a success story.
The overall moose population in the Northeast has declined over the years, largely due to the parasite winter tick and to brain worm, a disease that affects deer but is fatal to moose. According to the Agency of Natural Resources website, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department is currently studying the state’s moose population, which is estimated to be about 2,200.
The department is monitoring moose in several ways, including examining them when hunters bring their kill into check stations to check the species’ overall health and count the ticks on the animal, monitoring them in the spring with cameras and observing them in the field. The website says, “Winter ticks may number in the tens of thousands on a single moose, sucking their blood out and causing them to be weak and irritated. A moose irritated by winter ticks often rubs against trees to try to remove them, rubbing their insulative fur off in the process.”
In the early 2000s, Vermont’s moose numbers were nearly 5,000 and the animals “…were over browsing and destroying important wildlife habitat and were impacting local forestry practices.” At the time, the department issued a large number of hunting permits to deliberately reduce the population, which is now under more manageable control, and planned reduction may be the reason for lower tick counts here in Vermont than in Maine and New Hampshire.
Climate change is also having an effect on the herds. Warmer falls and early springs increase winter tick numbers. “Moose are well adapted to cold weather,” the site says. “They can avoid predators in deep snow and withstand harsh winter conditions that are difficult for species they compete with for food such as whitetail deer.” But in warmer temperatures, the ticks thrive.
Moose are beloved and symbolic in the northern states of Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire. Their likeness can be found on everything from keychains to t-shirts in every souvenir gift shop in the region. For more information about Vermont’s “The Study of Moose” log on to the state’s website at www.vtfishandwildlife.com/conserve/conservation-planning/animal-inventory/mammals/moose-population-study.