RANGELEY — When Kameron Culbertson first drove out to the Rangeley Lake region in late July to start work on a pilot project with Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, he brimmed with confidence.

The Morrill resident and member of Unity College Class of 2019 thought he had a good idea about what to expect from his upcoming research on moose wallows — the pits made by bull moose during mating season. Culbertson fully expected to have all his plans realized.

The moose had other plans.

“Basically, everything I hypothesized was completely wrong within the first two times of going out,” he said, four months later, with a good natured shrug and a laugh. “It was a little frustrating. I have all these answers I want for these questions. But I didn’t find any.”

It was a hard lesson: life doesn’t always go as predicted. There’s a reason researchers actually go out and do the work. A hypothesis is one thing. Confirming that hypothesis is often quite another.

“There are so many factors that can potentially come into play to understand why wildlife collisions occur along a roadway. For moose collisions, we may not even recognize all the potential contributors. Maybe moose wallows are important and maybe they’re not,” Assistant Professor of Wildlife Biology Dr. Jack Hopkins said.

“Understanding animal behavior from field investigations, versus controlled experiments in a lab, is often complicated,” Hopkins said. “Our first step in this pilot study is to collect data we think are important for informing our next move. At this point, we can’t and shouldn’t be drawing any conclusions about the relationship between wallows and collisions with moose.”

It’s a pitfall that many students fall into, Hopkins said, which is why it’s crucial that these young scientists get involved in research before they graduate.

The moose wallow pilot survey focused on a small stretch of Route 17 between Byron and Rangeley Plantation — a hot spot for moose-vehicle collisions with 53 accidents since 2003. Both MDIFW and the Maine DOT are interested in the potential connections between wallows and car accidents, as collisions between moose and motor vehicles in Maine cause a disproportionately high number of injuries compared with collisions with other animals.

First things first: locate wallows and measure their moose use. In 2001 and 2015, MDIFW and Maine DOT located and measured wallows along the roadway. This fall, Culbertson combed the woods along the highway looking for these GPS-marked wallows, installing game cameras at sites where signs of use were still evident. Similar to early surveys, Culbertson also collected data on the wallows themselves, including soil chemistry, vegetation types, slope to the road, and other measurements.

Culbertson and the rest of the team discussed potential explanations as to how moose wallows could relate to motor vehicle accidents. One thought was that maybe if there were wallows on both sides of the road, and they could track particular moose from wallow to wallow, they could identify trails leading to or across the road. That would certainly help account for the high collision rate in that area.

But the team never found any wallows across the road from each other. For a four mile stretch, every single wallow was on one side of the road, switching sides only after the road went up over a mountain. With eyes on the ground, it became clear that the environment on one side of the road was not exactly wallow-friendly. What had seemed like a solid idea quickly crumbled.

Another aspect of the project was the idea that researchers could identify and track individual moose traveling between wallows using the trail cameras. But Culbertson has doubts after preliminary scans of the data; sometimes all researchers get of the moose in a trail camera photo is an antler or a leg. A rear end, even.

“You can’t exactly tell a moose to pose for you,” he said. But Dr. Hopkins warns that even this call is a bit too early to make. With 7,000 photos to sort through, they may be able to identify individuals and understand their movements and activity patterns — and they’ll certainly try.

Throughout Culbertson’s learning experience, the main question for the moose wallow survey has remained the same: how do moose wallows relate to road collisions? It’s just that other questions, and potential answers, keep springing up as they learn more. Maybe wallows that are close to the road are linked to mortalities, or that the moose that use them frequently are the ones that end up in accidents. The images and data Culbertson has now will help MDIFW measure the general activity patterns at each wallow, understand why some are more “popular” than others, and determine if trends related to wallow use exist. It is only after these analyses that they can make any conclusions.

“The exciting part now is that I have a couple thousand pictures of moose to look through. That will be nice. I’ve always been fascinated by trail camera pictures,” Culbertson said, “and everybody likes moose.”

Unity College student Kameron Culbertson studies a moose wallow near Route 17 around Rangeley in 2017. Culbertson is working with Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to find a relationship between moose wallows and moose-car collisions on Route 17 around Rangeley.


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