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Moose numbers on rise in Maine

It didn't take very long to spot one. Before even pushing our canoes off land on our first moose safari, we saw a moose just a few feet away. Her head and bulbous nose dripping with water, she blankly stared at us and then returned to the underwater chomping that we had interrupted.

But it hasn't always been this way.

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Around the turn of this century, the moose population was down to a few thousand animals in much of North America. Few laws protected moose when hunting and the transformation of their habitat to farms practically eliminated these big-hoofed animals.

But over the past 50 years, as hunting became controlled and farmland slowly returned to forest, moose populations exploded across parts of their former range. Now, about a million of these docile members of the deer family reside in the northern part of North America, almost three times the population during the mid-1940s.

Ironically, moose populations today have benefited from the two human activities that almost caused their demise: hunting and clear-cutting. Wolves, their natural predators, have been wiped out from much of the north woods by hunting. And most significantly, the logging industry, with its clear-cutting techniques, has turned wide areas of old forest into young secondary forest with plenty of supple leaves and low branches for moose to feed on.

In New England, moose have spread south from their focal point in northern Maine, where their populations have grown from roughly 2,000 at the beginning of the century to about 30,000.

Indeed, today moose are an economic asset here, as most moose don't mind having people watch them, and tourists from across the globe flock to these parts to go on "Moose safaris." Jenny Ward, a north woods guide, says that during the summer she takes hundreds of people eager to see this large vegetarian in its native habitat.

Lakes are the best place to spot them, Ms. Ward says, because moose are attracted to water, where they can spend hours submerged, sucking up algae and other aquatic vegetation rich in minerals.

A thousand-pound adult eats between 25 and 50 pounds of foliage a day in the summer. In the winter, when vegetation is less bountiful, its consumption decreases to between 10 and 20 pounds of twigs and pine needles. A moose's winter favorite: Christmas trees or balsam firs.

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Its "only a mother could love" looks are the result of its adaptation to the icy boreal woods. With its long legs, it can easily run through the forest over tumbled tree trunks, eluding predators. The bulb-shaped nose, covered on the inside with hundreds of tiny veins that warm up sub-zero air, protects its lungs.

Its two-layered, insulating coat is one of nature's finest. One woolly layer acts as its thermal underwear. The outer layer of long, hollow hairs serves a double function. In the winter, it protects the animal from icy winds. In the summer, it helps the animal to swim. In fact, moose are prodigious swimmers. They can swim at roughly 5 miles an hour.

At up to six-feet tall and 1,800 pounds, moose are bigger than most other mammals and usually do not budge when confronted. This is why, experts say, it's fairly easy to watch them without having them dart. Unfortunately, this trait carries forward when moose are faced with moving vehicles. According to Karen Morris, the state biologist, there are more than 600 moose-car accidents a year in Maine, most of them in the spring, when moose come out on the roads to lick salt. And moose can be dangerous not only on the road. In two circumstances moose should not be approached: when a cow is with her calf and during the mating season, from mid-September to mid-October.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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