A provincial study is showing increased level of winter ticks in moose as compared with last year.

The B.C. Wildlife Health Program Moose Winter Tick Survey is a three-year study, now in its second year. It ran from January 1st to April 30th this year and found that more than 60 per cent of moose showing signs of hair loss were associated with winter ticks which can potentially be fatal for moose.

The results of this year’s part of the study were released by provincial wildlife biologists earlier this month. The same study found roughly 50 per cent of moose in the province showed the similar hair loss symptoms as last year.

Winter ticks have long been a problem for moose and other animals, such as caribou, deer, elk and bison (although moose are the preferred host) throughout much of Canada, with levels of infestation fluctuating from year to year. Most ticks tend to occupy different host animals at different life stages, but winter ticks usually stick with one host for their entire life cycle. The negative health impacts can be devastating even fatal for moose, which, when heavily infested, can be driven to rub their winter hair right off. The result in severe cases is “ghost moose” that have rubbed virtually all their hair off and so appear white in colour rather than the typical dark brown-black.

Other impacts on the moose include blood loss. Often infected moose can be carrying as many as 30,000 ticks each, and severely infected moose can be carrying as many as 100,000 each. The last major outbreak of winter tick infestation in moose in B.C. was in the late 1990s.

The provincial study was launched last year to establish a baseline measure of the extent of the infestation and will continue through next year. Although conducted by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) with field work done by wildlife professions, forestry and environmental consultants, and members of First Nations communities, a significant part of the data collection is being done by citizen observation. with more than 500 moose observations made this year.

In a press release, the ministry cautioned that the higher infestation rate this year does not necessarily mean that more moose are carrying the tick, although it does suggest that ticks are a common problem. It pointed out that while 500 moose were observed this year, there are estimated to be 120,000 to 200,000 moose in the province.The ministry added that biologists need to collect more data before they can get an accurate picture of winter tick prevalence.

The Echo contacted the ministry to find out if the rate of winter tick infestation in the Kootenay region was the same or significantly different than the provincial rate, but was told there isn’t enough data to say for sure.

“According to ministry staff, the Kootenay region is not known as a place for ticks mainly due to low moose densities in most areas of region. Thus there isn’t enough data or observations on moose in Kootenay region to make any sort of conclusions,” FLNRO spokesperson Greig Bethel told The Echo.

The bulk of the citizen-made moose observations in the study came from northern regions of B.C., with relatively low levels of observations from the Okanagan and Kootenay regions.

The ministry will be requesting more citizen observations next year and is asking for people to identify moose in five broad categories, corresponding with their relatively level of tick infestation (and subsequent hair loss): no loss to hair coat; mild (five per cent to 20 per cent) hair loss, which usually appears first on the neck and shoulders; moderate (20 to 40 per cent) hair loss; severe (40 per cent to 80 per cent) hair loss; and “ghost moose”(more than 80 per cent hair loss).

The ministry press release said that winter ticks pose no health risk to humans.

Another FLNRO press release relating to moose announced a new interactive B.C. Moose Tracker app, designed to allow B.C. residents to help wildlife biologists monitor moose populations and inform conservation efforts. The app will be available through iTunes, and will let users upload information on the number, sex and location of moose they encounter in the wild directly to an online database.

The data generated will then help biologists monitor moose populations by alerting them to emerging issues. The app (which was developed with help from the B.C. Wildlife Federation and the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation) will also include a digital version of the 2016-2018 Hunting and Trapping Regulations Synopsis a searchable summary of hunting regulations throughout the province.

“The province is committed to ensuring sustainable wildlife populations throughout B.C. and informs its management decisions with the best available scientific research. The Moose Tracker app gives us a cost-effective way to identify demographic trends and inform B.C.’s moose management framework,” said Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Steve Thomson in the press release.

Bethel told The Echo that the Moose Tracker app can’t be used by hunters to locate moose in the backcountry.

“Users cannot download the database,” said Bethel. “Hunters only record the management unit, typically a vast area, where the moose was spotted. Otherwise, the database does not record any information that would allow users to track moose.”

“Hunters hold a tremendous amount of knowledge about what’s happening out on the landscape. They have long supported and participated in important conservation initiatives, and this app provides a new means for them to contribute to the sustainable management of wildlife in B.C.,” said Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation chair Ross Peck in the release.

To download the app visit www.gov.bc.ca/wildlifehealth/moosetracker.

More information on the winter tick study and how to participate (including downloadable observation survey forms) can be found at www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/plants-animals-ecosystems/wildlife/wildlife-health/wildlife-health-matters/moose-health/moose-winter-tick-survey.