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The Game Trail

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Blood sucking beasts

Blood sucking beasts are lurking in the darkness of our northern forests. They attack in the thousands and sometimes they are known to slowly kill their prey. They prefer moose, but are known to attack, whitetail deer, elk, and even our horses. No, we don’t have that many wolves... yet. I’m talking about a little ectoparasite called Dermacentor albipictus, or the Winter Tick.

I know when these critters have attacked because I usually get a call that starts out something like this: "I have a moose in my yard and it looks really weird because it’s lost some hair and I see blood in the snow." Late winter and early spring we see the tick infestation symptoms manifest in our local moose.

To understand how these ticks operate and why the moose are affected I will give you a brief history of the life cycle of winter ticks. The Winter Tick is a skin parasite similar to the common wood tick, or dog tick that we pick off our dogs and kids in the summer time. However, the winter tick is completely different because it spends its whole life on one host (the moose) and is active all winter, unlike its cousin who prefers the warmer months.

The life of a Winter Tick starts underground were the female lays about one hundred eggs in a litter. The eggs will stay there until the cooler fall months and then begin to hatch. When the eggs hatch the little blood suckers begin to crawl up the nearest vegetation with one thing on their mind: find some warm, cozy moose real estate. It takes a lot of luck for the ticks to be at the right place at the right time for a moose to walk by. The lucky ones grab hold of and climb down the moose hair until they hit flesh, bury their mouth and begin to feast. Once on the moose a blood meal is taken and the larvae ticks molt to nymphs and eventually become adults in late March and early April. The females will engorge themselves and become the size of a dime, preparing for life off of their host. Once they drop from the moose in early spring, they find some shelter and lay their eggs beginning the cycle once again.

Okay, enough about the life cycle of the Winter Tick. How do these little monsters affect our moose? The numbers of ticks on a single moose can be alarming to someone that has never witnessed such a sight. Thousands of ticks feeding can result in inflammation, edema, anemia, and hair loss from constant grooming. Extreme cases of 50,000-plus ticks can result in extensive hair loss that eventually causes death due to exposure. The moose, as you can imagine, are extremely irritated by the ticks and rub their bodies against trees, fence posts, or whatever they can find. Once they have rubbed about 70 to 80 percent of their hair off it becomes a fatal situation in the colder months. If the resulting hair loss doesn’t kill the moose then the loss of blood or the loss of fat stores from constant grooming probably will.

Winter Ticks’ affect on moose are more pronounced, compared to other game, for a number of reasons that are still being researched. It is believed that the Whitetail deer introduced this tick species to our neck of the woods. The Whitetail migrated West from the eastern states following settlers. They did not, of course, literally follow settlers but followed the human development on the landscape. Therefore the moose has had little time to develop tolerance to the ticks. In addition, moose tend to stick to the same topography seasonally. They are walking in the same trails month after month and picking up generation after generation of ticks dropped in those trails. We do see elk with tick infestations nearly has bad as the moose, because they tend to have different seasonal habitats. In other words, where elk drop the ticks in the spring they are usually in higher ground come early fall when the ticks are searching for a host. So, unlike the moose, they are not re-infecting themselves.

So, can we do anything? The best thing for the moose is to leave them alone, especially when they are showing obvious signs of tick infestation. Any disturbance that causes the moose to use precious energy (fat reserves) will take that moose one step closer to death. I returned a call from a woman who had observed a Winter Tick infested moose outside of Sandpoint; she was obviously disturbed. I explained the problem with Winter Ticks, and thought I had done some service. She stated, "It sure would be nice if the Fish and Game could round up these moose and put them in the corrals at the Fair Grounds and treat them with some flea and tick powder."

"Say what?!" was my original response. However, I couldn’t help but ask this nice woman if she would like to donate time to such a worthy cause and be our lead roper. There was dead air on the phone and then came the telltale sign of the dial tone. Oh well.

A few reminders: the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Banquet is April 5 in Sandpoint. Go buy some tickets and support elk and their habitat. Also, there is now a freezer for fish heads at Sandpoint Outfitters if you don’t like using the ones in Hope.

Parents please pry that video game controller out of your child’s clammy hand and get them outside.

Leave No Child Inside.

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Author info

Matt Haag Matt Haag is an Idaho Fish and Game Conservation Officer.

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