Winter’s effect on animals a concern


BANGOR (AP) – The winter’s mild temperatures and lack of snowfall will have various effects, both good and bad, on Maine’s wildlife this spring, according to biologists.

The mild winter, for instance, was good for Atlantic salmon that didn’t have to contend with prolonged frigid temperatures that can turn streams into blocks of ice, limiting water flow and starving the fish of oxygen. At the same time, the lack of snow could result in lower river levels this spring, trapping the fish inland and stifling their drive to swim out to sea.

Biologists are also expressing concern that the lack of snowmelt and spring rains could effect the state’s frogs, salamanders and other amphibians that spawn in vernal pools, those seasonal wet spots where baby amphibians spend their first days and weeks each spring.

“The lack of snow could translate into the pools drying out before the eggs and larvae have time to develop into adults,” said Malcolm Hunter, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Maine.

“Losing one season’s breeding effort may not be a disaster for populations because these species live multiple years, but obviously it is not good. Heavy spring rains could make up for the lack of snow if we are lucky.”

The Bangor area received about 37 inches of snow between last November and April, which is 25 inches less than normal and less than half the snowfall of a year earlier. Temperatures were also above average.

The winter of 2005-06 ranked as the fifth-warmest and the fourth-driest, in terms of snowfall, since 1953, said Vic Nouhan, a meteorologist specializing in climate issues with the National Weather Service’s office in Caribou.

Although April’s precipitation figures are close to average, the total rainfall this spring is below average, Nouhan said.

Maine’s moose population could suffer this spring as a result of the mild winter.

The moose is the animal of choice for the winter tick, a species that can spend almost its entire life on a single animal. A single moose can harbor tens of thousands of winter ticks.

Cold, wet autumns and snow-covered grounds in early spring suppress tick populations, but a warm, dry spring could lead to a boom in the tick population.

That could be harmful for some moose, particularly younger or weaker ones, come next winter.

Karen Morris, a wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said moose infested with ticks will sometimes scratch or rub themselves in a futile attempt to relieve the irritation caused by the ticks.

As a result, moose lose fur, suffer open sores and spend less time stocking up on the nourishment needed to weather the winter.

“Some moose will have thousands” of ticks, Morris said. “They take a lot of blood when the animal is in its poorest health condition of the year.”