His moose population estimate stunned even me and caused me to pull out stories I’ve written over the years about moose hunting and the moose lottery. Today I’ll give you a history of this controversial issue, along with the interesting – and sometimes surprising – information provided to the legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee last week by Lee Kantar, DIF&W’s deer and moose biologist.
Based on his new sampling techniques, using Maine Forest Service helicopters and pilots and a “double counting” system, Kantar estimated the state’s moose population to be an astonishing 75,000. That’s 45,000 higher than the estimates Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife reported up until 2007, when the department’s longtime moose biologist, Karen Morris, suddenly upped her estimate to 60,000 as she approached retirement.
In 2010, as confidence in Kantar’s helicopter surveys increased, Commissioner Chandler Woodcock supported a substantial increase in the number of moose permits, from 3,140 to 3,862. Unfortunately, that did not win back the many hunters who have given up on the moose lottery over the years.
Lottery applications peaked in 1994 at 94,532. Even with the increase in permits, the number of applicants increased only 158 in 2011 from the previous year. In fact, applications from residents, who get 85 percent of the permits, actually decreased by 485!
Lots of History
The modern-day moose hunt started with an experimental season in 1980 with the issuance of 700 permits to residents. At that time, DIF&W estimated the moose population to be 20,000 to 25,000. That was really no more than a guess.
A group of moose lovers, led by John Cole, the publisher of The Maine Times, led a campaign to stop the hunt, placing an initiative on the 1983 referendum ballot. As a political consultant, I worked with Dave Allen of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to defeat that initiative.
After I accepted SAM’s executive director’s position in 1993, I found myself spending a lot of time at the legislature working on moose bills. During that time, the legislature enacted three SAM bills that increased moose permits. Our final bill was sponsored in 1999 by Senator Leo Keiffer and authorized the issuance of 3,000 permits. At that time, Karen Morris said, “to sustain the population of the herd as it is now, you could take from the mid-3000s to the high 5000s” each year.
Shortly after that, the legislature gave DIF&W the authority to establish the number of moose permits awarded each year, while maintaining legislative control of the moose lottery. Soon after gaining the authority to set moose permit numbers, the department cut the number by 500. We’ve been arguing over permit numbers ever since.
The good news is that with Kantar’s new research techniques, confidence is growing in the of his agency’s moose population estimate. Now, we can begin arguing moose permit numbers with confidence that we won’t be harming the overall population.
The agency’s failure to accurately count the state’s largest big game animal is littered with frustration. Here’s something from an October 8, 2000 Roberta Scruggs story in the Maine Sunday Telegram.
“For at least a year, state wildlife biologists say, people have been complaining that they’re seeing fewer moose… ‘I think the sightability of moose has gone down,’ said Ken Elowe… ‘I don’t think anybody would refute that.’ The problem is, no one can be sure (how many moose we have). Wildlife biologists estimate the statewide population is 30,000, but even they say they need more data. The fish and wildlife department has budgeted $280,000 for a full-scale, high-tech census over the next two years – the first major survey since the late 1980s.”
Unfortunately, that $280,000 study proved inaccurate, more moose money tossed into the wind. When that debacle was over, the Bangor Daily News reported on October 25, 2002: “Fearing Maine’s moose population may be on the decline, state wildlife biologists are recommending the number of permits be reduced for the first time in the hunt’s 21-year history… Wildlife biologist Karen Morris suspects that the drop in moose population is related to high levels of calf mortality, a problem that has been studied in New Hampshire… Biologists estimate that Maine’s total moose population is about 29,000 animals… Further research into moose population is planned for next year, she said.”
I was quoted in that article saying, “For an animal that’s so important to our economy as moose, the department’s effort to count the population is woefully inadequate. They’ve got to put some money out and do a credible count.”
This debate continued until the department convened a public working group in 2007 to revisit the 1999 moose management goals and objectives. Dr. Vaughn Anthony, a retired national marine biologist from Boothbay and a member of the 2007 working group representing the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, gave us this report.
“An updated assessment was presented that completely changed everything dealing with moose abundance in Maine… We learned that the sighting data from moose hunters that had been used in the 1999 assessment was not valid and should be thrown out. Instead, population densities were estimated using a regression developed in New Hampshire based on sightings by deer hunters… The new estimate of statewide abundance was now over 60,000… We were also told that moose abundance has not increased in the past eight years since it has apparently maxed out! It is closer to the New Hampshire estimates of 3 per square mile and is, and has been, twice as large as we were told in 1999!”
Well, let’s advance a year to 2008, when I was back at the legislature trying to establish a moose research fund with 5 percent of the moose lottery revenue to be used for an accurate population count and 10 percent of the moose lottery revenue to be used for moose research including the health of the moose herd. The department opposed the bill and it was defeated.
One of the reasons SAM submitted that bill was because of our concern over ticks. An alarming story had appeared in the Portland Press Herald. “New England’s moose are under assault from tiny blood-sucking ticks that have become so numerous in recent years that biologists are concerned about long-term impacts on the animals they infest. Ticks have killed more than half of the moose calves in northern New Hampshire, during a peak year, according to a study there. ‘We call (April) the month of death,’ said Kristine Rines, moose project leader for the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game.”
The article goes on, still quoting Rines, “In the north country where we have our highest moose densities, depending on what you have for weather conditions that year, we have lost close to 70 percent of our calf crop to winter ticks and about 20 percent of the adults.” At that time, Kantar reported that, “Maine… has not studied the phenomenon… that’s something we’d like to look at more closely.”
Kantar has launched a limited project this year to research tick mortality, with the help of volunteers including hunters of shed antlers. But withhttp://www.georgesmithmaine.com/index.php?q=imagefield_assist/load/textarea&textarea=bodyout doubt, the lack of definitive research on this critical issue, gives us another example of how a valuable resource is getting insufficient attention because the agency lacks funding.
The new moose population estimates, more credible than any previous estimates, will continue to fuel demand for more moose permits.
Even the concern over mortality caused by ticks could indicate that moose populations are too dense. In a recent emailed message, Dr. Anthony, who attended Kantar’s presentation at the legislature, noted, “Kantar also mentioned moose parasites (winter ticks). He inferred that any tick mortality should be countered with reductions in moose permits. For this one, he has it completely backwards.
“The high density of moose undoubtedly strongly contributed to the big increase in infestation from ticks,” said Anthony, “and to solve this problem we need to reduce the density (abundance) of moose ASAP. This means a quota exceeding the surplus production for a year or two, not a decrease in mortality.”
Overall, Anthony was impressed with Kantar’s presentation and latest research. “We are making progress,” he said.
For me, approaching three decades of work and debate, I am encouraged that – despite the lack of funding – Commissioner Woodcock, Lee Kantar, and other leaders at DIF&W, are finally on the right track. Although the debate over permits, the lottery, and other moose issues will certainly continue, my only real regret is that Maine’s political leaders neither understand the importance of this animal, nor are willing to come up with the funds needed to know what we need to know about it.