Maine doesn’t know enough about its moose

Paul JacquesToday I am posting the first of three columns about Maine’s moose. Part I includes a bit of history of moose issues, management, research and the lottery. Part II, to be posted tomorrow, February 3, covers issues debated in the last two legislative sessions and brings us up-to-date. Part III, to be posted on Wednesday, February 4, recognizes the important advances DIF&W has made recently in its moose research and management, reviews some current issues, and offers a few recommendations for the future. After each of the three columns, readers will be invited to share their opinions on these issues.

In 2009, Representative Herb Clark of Millinocket sponsored An Act to Protect Moose Populations and Hunting Opportunities at the request of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. At the time, I was SAM’s executive director. Seven members of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee cosponsored the bill. But it still failed.

The bill would have created a dedicated moose fund with 5 percent of moose lottery revenue to be used for an accurate population count and 10 percent for moose research including the health of the moose herd. During the 18 years that I served as SAM’s director, I probably spent more time on moose than any other issue.

For the first moose hunt, in 1980, 700 permits were issued for a moose population estimated between 20,000 and 25,000. In 1983, a group of moose lovers, led by John Cole, publisher of The Maine Times, led a campaign to stop the hunt, placing their initiative on the ballot. SAM’s executive director, Dave Allen, led the campaign to defend the moose hunt and hired me to help him in a consulting role.

We won a significant victory, 61 to 39 percent. In addition to winning the hard-fought battle, we increased SAM’s membership from 4,000 to 16,000 during that campaign.

During my tenure as executive director, the legislature enacted three SAM bills that increased the number of moose hunting permits. Our final bill was sponsored in 1999 by Senator Leo Kieffer and authorized the issuance of 3000 permits. At that time, DIF&W’s moose biologist, 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. Remember  – Karen estimated the population at 20,000 to 25,000 at that time. So she was saying we could annually harvest up to 20 percent of our moose.

In 2014, based on DIF&W’s moose population estimate of 70,000, we harvested less than 3 percent!

Eventually the legislature gave DIF&W the authority to determine the number of moose permits each year through its rule-making process. Soon after gaining that authority the agency cut the number of permits by about 500. And every year since, we’ve been arguing about the appropriate number of permits.

Moose Permit Numbers

The right number of permits was hard to determine, given that we knew so little about the population and health of our moose herd. Here is how the debate went.

From a Roberta Scruggs news story in the Maine Sunday Telegram, October 8, 2000.

“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 (DIF&W’s top wildlife professional)… ‘I don’t think anybody would refute that.’ The problem is, no one can be sure (how may 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…’Nobody knows how many moose there are’ said Bill Silliker. ‘It’s all wild guesses.”

Scruggs reported in 2001 that Elowe, “expected to increase moose-hunting permits substantially, (but) now he doesn’t dare. ‘We want to be conservative,’ said Elowe, ‘and I know we don’t have the information base that I feel comfortable with right now to go higher.”

From the Bangor Daily News, 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.”

Please pay attention to that comment about moose mortality. You will hear the issue raised again, this year! That’s right, 14 years later, we are still trying to figure out the mortality rate of moose calves.

I was quoted in the same 2002 BDN 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.”

Well, this debate continued until DIF&W convened a public working group in 2007 to revisit the 1999 moose management goals and objectives. Dr. Vaughn Anthony, SAM’s representative on the working group, 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!”

Needless to say, that was extraordinary, and a strong indication that we were not coming close to offering the number of moose permits that we could, while sustaining a large and healthy moose population.

What we don’t know

But there was still a lot we didn’t know about Maine’s moose. A story in a National Wildlife Federation magazine in February 2007 titled, “The Mystery of the Disappearing Moose,” reported that climate change may be the reason Minnesota’s moose population plunged from 4000 to just 237 animals.

And then there was this alarming story in the Portland Press Herald on June 24, 2008. “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 had killed more than half of the moose calves in northern New Hampshire, a state that was far ahead of us in its moose research. “We call April the month of death,” said Kristine Rines, moose project leader for the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game.

Rines also reported, “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.”

It was disappointing, to put it mildly, to read in the same article, “Maine… has not studied the phenomenon, although its moose herd is clearly affected. ‘We don’t know the extent to which it’s causing additional mortality. We know it’s a big factor,’ said Lee Kantar (DIF&W’s moose and deer biologist). “That’s something we’d like to look at more closely.” Winter ticks were also blamed for moose die-offs in Michigan and Alberta, Canada.

Good news!

Let’s skip ahead to 2012, when we learned that Maine had a lot more moose than we thought. Lee Kantar had divested himself of his deer duties and was now concentrating on moose, a good move on the part of DIF&W.  And in early February of that year, Lee estimated our moose population at an astonishing 75,000. That’s 45,000 more moose than was estimated until 2007, when we were told we might has as many as 60,000.

When we got the exciting new estimate, Dr. Vaughn Anthony noted that the department was issuing only 3,800 moose permits that year, representing just 5 percent of the herd. He said a population of 75,000 could be sustained with an annual harvest of 8,000 to 14,000 animals.

“We’re leaving $50 million in the woods,” Anthony exclaimed, basing that figure on the average amount of money spent by each moose hunting party.

The department had increased moose permits in 2010 from 3,140 to 3,862, hoping to win back some of the many hunters and lottery applicants it had lost over the years. But that did not happen.

Lottery applications peaked in 1994 at 94,532. Applications from residents actually declined by 485 in 2010, despite the increase in permits.

While the number of applicants in 2010 and 2011 was the lowest in the 29 year history of the state’s modern day moose hunt, things turned around a bit in 2012, when 54,338 hunters applied for moose permits, a gain of 4,451 over 2011. Applications from both residents and nonresidents increased.

Unfortunately, applications went back down in 2013. A total of 52,604 applications were received for moose permits that year, a 3 percent decline over 2012. Nonresident applicants declined most steeply, by 4 percent, dropping to 14,040. Applications from residents totaled 38,564, a 3 percent decline from the previous year.

Cash Cows

Nonresident moose hunters have been DIF&W’s cash cows. In 2012, the agency raised $1,160,000 from the moose lottery, and $633,000 of that came from nonresidents who got only 363 permits. Residents actually spent less that year in the lottery, just $527,000, while receiving 3,362 permits.

DIF&W got $1,745 in lottery revenue from each nonresident permit, and $157 from each resident permit. The increase in revenue in 2012 still left the agency far short of the $1,628,000 it raised from the moose lottery in 2008.

And despite the sharp increase in the moose population estimate, the agency actually decreased permits in 2012, from 3,862 to 3,725.

Sportsmen Say Survey

Please share your opinion on these critical issues, by completing the Moose Hunt survey #1 in the Sportsmen’s Say Survey section of my website. The question asks you opinion on the accuracy of DIF&W’s moose population estimate.

You can access the survey here.

The Survey’s name honors legendary outdoor writer Gene LeTourneau and is sponsored by Moody’s Collision Centers.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.