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Forests lure moose to Massachusetts

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When biologist Stephen DeStefano was growing up in Massachusetts, moose were a distant memory. "Back then, people would have laughed at you if you said there were going to be moose in Massachusetts someday," says Dr. DeStefano, now a research professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Thirty years later, he's driving the back roads of the Quabbin Reserve, about 80 miles west of Boston, looking for moose.

Considered a cold-climate species, moose once ranged as far south as Pennsylvania in the Northeastern United States. But with New England's transformation from a forested to agrarian landscape in Colonial times, they largely disappeared from the area. Beginning in the 1980s, however, a breeding population began to reestablish itself. Now Massachusetts boasts some 1,000 moose.

As moose crossing signs sprout along highways, foresters nervously wait to see how this large herbivore – the average moose eats up to 60 pounds of roughage daily – will affect the forest's makeup, especially its valuable timber trees. Wildlife experts, meanwhile wonder what moose are doing in Massachusetts at all, a state with such a large and growing human presence.

In an effort to answer this and other questions, DeStefano, who also heads the US Geological Survey's Massachusetts Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, began tranquilizing moose and fitting them with GPS collars last March. Whatever his eventual findings, everyone sees the moose's return as an example of nature's resiliency, another chapter in the largely unintentional reforesting and rewilding of New England.

When European settlers arrived in the Northeast in the 1600s, they encountered a forest that stretched more or less uninterrupted to the Mississippi River. By the mid-19th century in New England, only 30 percent of that forest remained, mostly on land too rocky and inaccessible to farm or graze. Hunted and deprived of habitat, many animals – beaver, wolves, and moose among them – disappeared from the area.

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