Moose And Loons Are Climate Change 'Canaries In Coal Mine,' Say Conservationists

In this July 2011 photo, a moose picks its head up from eating grass from Pierce Pond in North New Portland, Maine. (Pat Wellenbach/AP)
In this July 2011 photo, a moose picks its head up from eating grass from Pierce Pond in North New Portland, Maine. (Pat Wellenbach/AP)

Conservationists say two iconic New England animals -- moose and loons -- show how climate change will reshape the region in the years to come.

They talked about their latest research -- and how they hope people will respond to it -- at the Audubon Society in Concord, New Hampshire, Wednesday night.

It was the same day New Hampshire, Maine and parts of Massachusetts — including Boston — set new records for winter warmth. Highs were in the 70s in Concord, and the snowless Mount Washington summit reached 48.

Harry Vogel of the Loon Preservation Committee in Moultonborough calls moose and loons “gateway species” to helping New Englanders understand these changes, and what might still be done.

“If we can get people to care about loons, care about moose, hopefully that’s just the beginning,” he says.

Vogel says loons may not be facing an immediate existential threat in New Hampshire. But he says the birds and their habitats are contaminated with mercury pollution from the burning of fossil fuels.

And he says loons’ nesting, hatching and migrations are threatened by heat, late winters and heavy rainfall.

“We have added climate change to that long list of stressors that are affecting loons here in New Hampshire,” Vogel says. “And, you know, this shouldn’t be a surprise: Just like moose, loons are a Northern species. They are close to the southern limit of their breeding range here in New Hampshire.”

But the picture for moose is even more dire, according to longtime New Hampshire Fish & Game moose biologist Kris Rines.

She says shorter winters are hastening the spread of ticks, which attach to moose in tens of thousands and can kill large numbers of each year’s calves. Moose are also dying from brain worms, spread by larger deer populations.

Rines also says the cold-loving moose can show signs of heat stress even on mild summer days, or in winter temperatures as low as the mid-20s. In more intense heat, they stop foraging altogether.

That’s a growing concern. Some climate models show New Hampshire warming to a climate more like Washington, D.C.'s or North Carolina's within the century.

“There are some things that are going to be irrevocably changing,” Rines says. “If we truly develop into such a warm state, as everyone is saying we are, moose probably won’t exist here. How long it will take them to disappear, I don’t know.”

But broadly, she says she's hopeful about growing public support for conservation and energy innovations to help fight climate change.

“More and more, I hear people talking about the need to protect the world that sustains us -- not just because we like loons and we like moose,” Rines says. “We’re actually beginning to recognize this is important for our own survival, and it’s important that we really begin to have a relationship with our world that helps us to all live here.”

Renewable power advocates at the Audubon event, put on by the League of Conservation Voters, say individuals can make a difference by making their own homes and cars more efficient, and by investing in the clean energy sector.

This story was first published by New Hampshire Public Radio, with additional reporting by the WBUR Newsroom.



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