The story behind Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire moose question

Hillary Clinton holds up a moose she was given by a member of the crowd as she spoke Wednesday at "Politics and Eggs" at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. –Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe

Hillary Clinton has gotten some tough questions in her career. But campaigning Wednesday in New Hampshire, she was pressed on a topic she said she’d never got before: moose.

At a Politics & Eggs event at St. Anselm College in Manchester, local wildlife biologist Eric Orff asked Clinton to help save New Hampshire’s declining moose population, which he attributes to climate change.

“Our poor moose are down 40 percent, as our winters have grown shorter and our summers even hotter,’’ said Orff, a consultant to the National Wildlife Federation and a retired New Hampshire Fish and Game biologist.

“I know you’ve really worked hard on climate change issues, but another factor is the ethanol situation,’’ he said. “Even Al Gore thinks that maybe it’s nonstarter, and I know, as a wildlife biologist, across the country as wildlife habitat is turned into crops, it’s exacerbated the problem.’’

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“We want you to be a cheerleader and help save our moose,’’ Orff said, to a smattering of laughs and applause from the audience — which at roughly 400 people, according to event organizers, was the event’s biggest crowd ever.

“Wow, I can tell you that’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that,’’ Clinton replied enthusiastically, adding that she would “certainly look into this.’’

Orff held up a small moose stuffed animal, which he then brought to the stage to give to the former secretary of state.

“I will put this moose on my desk, Eric,’’ Clinton said as she picked up her gift. “And I will remember the moose of New Hampshire. Thank you.’’

New Hampshire’s declining moose population

According to New Hampshire Fish and Game, the state’s moose population has dropped from nearly 7,500 in the late 1990s to about 4,000 today. A 2014 Fish and Game study found the drop in moose population was primarily due to an abundance of winter ticks, which in turn was caused by warmer, shorter, and less-snowier winters.

“This weather pattern is becoming the norm in New Hampshire,’’ the study said. “As a result, our moose are carrying heavy tick loads almost every year, resulting in increased mortality and lower body weights, with an associated drop in birth rates.’’

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“In New Hampshire, our winters have warmed some four degrees since 1970,’’ Orff — who was not immediately available for comment — told PBS in April 2014. “So, the warming of the winter means less snow, means more ticks, means fewer moose.’’

Due to fivefold increase in levels of tick infestation — up to 150,00 per moose — Fish and Game officials say the parasites draw so much blood that many animals — particularly younger moose — die from anemia.

A 2010 photo of two moose in Franconia, New Hampshire. —Jim Cole / AP

But what connection does that have to ethanol?

As Orff said Wednesday, many environmentalists, like Gore, have turned against the corn-based fuel additive, which also so happens to be an economic boon — and political third rail — in Iowa, home to the nation’s first presidential caucuses.

According to the Iowa Corn Growers Association, 47 percent of Iowa corn goes into ethanol production, which is federally required to be blended into nearly all fuel sold in the United States, as part of the Renewable Fuel Standard.

But ethanol, which was heralded as an alternative, renewable fuel, has lost its luster among many for its environmental and economic effects. In March, Thomas Pyle, the president of the environmental advocacy nonprofit American Energy Alliance, wrote the Renewable Fuel Standard was “one of the worst examples of corporate welfare in America.’’

The World Resources Institute found that the production of ethanol actually emits more carbon dioxide than oil, directly undermining efforts to address global warming. Ethanol-blended fuel is additionally less energy efficient, wrote Pyle, not to mention that the increased demand for corn and other crop-based biofuels makes food prices increase — particularly in developing countries, according to a 2012 Tufts study.

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Furthermore, as The New York Timesreported as far back as 2008, the use of corn and other crops for biofuels encourages converting land use from forest to farmlands, which further contributes to increased carbon dioxide emissions.

Why is this relevant to Clinton’s 2016 campaign?

In 2010, Gore called the U.S.’s investment in ethanol a “mistake,’’ linking his support of the biofuel to his own presidential ambition.

“I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president,’’ the former vice president said.

As a U.S. senator, Clinton opposed the mandate forcing oil refiners to use ethanol-blended gasoline. But that changed in 2008, when Clinton — like Gore — made a run for the Oval Office. She reaffirmed her support for the federal requirement in May.

“The Renewable Fuel Standard can continue to be a powerful tool to spur the development of advanced biofuels and expand the overall contribution that renewable fuels make to our national fuel supply,’’ she wrote in an op-ed for a local paper in Iowa, where candidates are pressured to support of ethanol.

In 2016, the early-voting, midwestern state plans to make “support for its federal mandate a bigger issue than it has ever been,’’ wrote The Hill in February.

“Key business and government leaders in Iowa plan to leverage the 73,000 people tied to ethanol, other biofuels and the corn and soy that go into them to push presidential candidates to support the federal mandate under the renewable fuel standard (RFS),’’ The Hill wrote, “And shame candidates who oppose it.’’

And ultimately, 73,000 Iowans have a lot more political sway than a dwindling population of 4,000 non-voting moose.

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