By Zach Howard
CONWAY, Mass (Reuters) - Pete, a wildly popular, semi-tame Vermont moose who lived on a northern elk-hunting farm, has died after being tranquilized during an annual grooming procedure, Vermont officials said on Friday.
The beloved moose had been spared a death sentence earlier this year when a special state wildlife law was passed with a clause allowing him to live on the Big Rack Ridge game preserve, in Irasburg.
Vermont Fish & Wildlife commissioner Patrick Berry said he had asked after Pete when he spoke with the preserve's owners on Friday and was surprised when they told him the antlered animal had died.
The revelation caps a period of uncertainty about Pete's welfare in which his friends and fans were saying for weeks that they hadn't seen him and asked state officials, including Berry and Governor Peter Shumlin, to help find him.
Pete had lived on the farm since he was found as a calf, mauled by dogs, two years ago.
The law, signed in May by Shumlin, was, in part, an effort to save Pete. It moved authority over so-called captive hunting to the state Fish and Wildlife Department from private hands.
Controversy had erupted in 2009 when Vermont wildlife officials planned to have Pete killed because the law at that time banned keeping wild animals in captivity. The elk on the preserve were imported and considered legal but Pete, being wild, was not.
One concern about keeping wild animals on the preserve was the risk they could contract ailments such as chronic wasting disease from other animals or the feed, officials said.
Many Vermont residents launched a campaign, setting up web pages and social media sites to help save Pete.
"I join the friends and fans of Pete the Moose in expressing my sadness at his passing," Shumlin said in a statement. "My thanks to those who voiced concern about the fate of the animal and who have -- like me -- believed in the pardon for Pete."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)