Drones Are Tracking the Nation’s Moose Population

Last week, a recreational drone flier in New Brunswick, Canada stumbled upon a rarely observed sight:  A moose shedding its antlers.  According to wildlife experts, the shedding of moose antlers is normally a fairly lengthy process; it happens only once a year after mating season and usually consists of a moose losing one antler at a time.  But in this case, the bull moose shed both antlers, and drone enthusiast Derek Burgouyne was able to capture the  “one in a million moment,” a moment that few humans have ever observed, let alone documented.

Burgoyne’s 50-second video is circulating widely on YouTube and on media outlets worldwide.  The moose shedding is intriguing enough, but Burgoyne’s exuberant enthusiasm as he captures the shedding from his drone hovering above – and then trudges into the forest to retrieve the antlers, holding them aloft and sporting a wide grin – is equally compelling.

Burgoyne – who calls himself a “shed hunter” – does earn a side income fr0m selling moose antlers.  In fact, for some intrepid wildlife enthusiasts, it’s quite a lucrative occupation.  But Burgoyne insists that he’s not really in it for the money but for the sheer passion of the antler hunt.

“This  is like the lottery when it comes to wildlife photography. It doesn’t get any better than this,” he told the Guardian last week.

Burgoyne’s video isn’t the first time a moose shedding has been captured on film.   Last month in Alaska, a doorbell camera captured the same rarely seen event.  But before Burgoyne, no human had gotten close enough to a moose to capture its shedding in real-time, let alone one that involved both antlers, adding to the novelty.

Drone hobbyists aren’t the only ones tracking moose in the wild.  It’s also beginning to preoccupy conservationists.   The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) recently announced an expanded collaboration with wildlife researchers  at the University of Montana to test the use of drones to track and count moose calves in the northeastern part of the state.

The two groups began their collaboration in 2014 before drones were widely available.  Back then, their research relied upon trail cameras and other field techniques to observe and count the state’s moose population, which appeared to be under siege.  But with drones WDFW and the University can track the moose in real-time and make continuous observations about their movements, including their mating and reproduction patterns and ongoing threats to their survival.

One of those threats appears to be large timber wolves.  In another fascinating video, also circulating on YouTube, a drone hobbyist came upon an encounter between a bull moose and a timber wolf, as the wolf sought to subdue the much larger moose along a lake in northern Ontario.  In the life- and-death scenario that ensues, the wolf chases the moose into the lake and the moose defends itself by continually kicking its front legs but the wolf persists and manages to grab one of the moose’s legs, nearly taking it down

Eventually the moose decides to take evasive action by galloping deeper  into the lake.  Undeterred, the wolf gives chase for several minutes before giving up.  The entire encounter is captured in high-definition video thanks to the Phantom Pro 4’s zoom camera and the drone pilot’s expert tracking  of the imbroglio from various angles.

The 6-minute video was viewed more than 3 million times on YouTube within the first six days of posting. Comedian, podcaster and outdoors enthusiast Joe Rogan later shared the video on Twitter, which helped it go viral.

While these drone hobbyist videos may well be educational as well as entertaining – helping viewers better appreciate the often precarious lives of mammals in the wild — the aerial surveying and mapping conducted by conservationists is having a real impact on state wildlife policies.

The joint WDFW/University of Montana project has led to the first annual – and accurate – census of the moose population in Washington State.  So far, the “moose count” has revealed that there are far more moose in the state than previously known but also that the moose population is under siege, in part due to climate change, but also from increasingly aggressive wolves.  In fact, moose numbers have been dwindling steadily in recent years and the joint WDFW/University of Montana project has spurred some much-needed changes in state hunting policies.

The two groups’ latest research project focuses on moose reproduction patterns, including the survival rates among moose calves that are especially vulnerable to wolves.   Project drones are being used to complement field studies conducted with helicopters, trail cameras and GPS. The drones can access remote mountainous areas denied to these vehicles as well as to foot surveyors.  Drones can also deploy thermal imaging to track moose and their young through dense tree cover, especially at night.  And drones of course, are much cheaper to operate with far less safety risk to aircraft pilots and field surveyors.

Other US states, including California and Hawaii, as well as the Algonquin Nation in Quebec Canada, have begun deploying drones to count their moose populations.  Many of the drone operators are former helicopter pilots and field surveyors that have expertise counting moose through more traditional means.  They’ve turned to drones, they say, to refute claims that their local moose populations are still thriving.

Last June, wildlife experts in New Hampshire began deploying drones after earlier surveys revealed a drastic 47% decline in the state’s moose population since 2017, spurring fears that it might soon become endangered.

“This is an iconic species of the Northeast. And so it’s really imperative that we spend energy and time trying to monitor them to the best of our ability,” says Remington Moll, assistant professor of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of New Hampshire

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