Down East 2013 ©
“Most moose hunters successful” the Bangor Daily News headline said last week. Which got me thinking about just how flexible the word “most” can be.
In his Nov. 20 column, John Holyoke reported 2202 moose were registered in the two week season in September and October moose hunt. He called the estimated hunter success rate of 76 percent “impressive.”
Well, if that rate holds up – the new southern Maine moose hunt doesn’t end until Nov. 29 — it would be better than the 71 percent success rate in 2007. But last year’s rate was the lowest percentage since the modern moose hunt began in 1980. In the 1990s, the moose-hunting success rate averaged 92 percent and it hit 96 percent – still the record – in 1991.
Why should you care? Because state wildlife biologists have always said the Number 1 sign that Maine’s moose population is declining would be a drop in the hunting success rate. And fewer moose is a matter that concerns all of us, not just hunters.
One of the first acts by the first Maine Legislature in 1820 was to put a moose on the Maine seal. Protection for moose was the goal of some of the first state wildlife laws enacted in 1830. But the laws didn’t provide enough protection. In many old stories and journals, sightings of moose were noted with amazement – as if an elephant had strolled by. By 1935, so few moose remained that hunting was forbidden for the next 45 years.
It took decades, but the moose population finally rebounded and their popularity soared. Now moose are as much a symbol of Maine as lobsters and a lot more cuddly. Stores in every corner of the state are filled with moose paraphernalia, including moose-shaped pasta, moose cookies and the ever-popular chocolate moose. Clothing decorated with moose can be worn from top to bottom, inside and out, for people of all ages.
For wildlife watchers, moose have become such an attraction that tourists come here from most states and many countries, in hopes of seeing one. The same impulse that takes people to the pyramids, the Empire State Building and Niagara Falls makes them want to see the largest mammal in North America. Despite everything else Maine has to offer, a moose-less trip is a disappointment for many tourists. Even for Maine residents, the sight of a moose can brighten an otherwise ordinary day.
“Do you ever see one and drive by it without looking? Never,” Buzz Caverly, Baxter State Park's former director, once said to me. “There's something about moose that inspires people.”
So with all that emotion and economic activity riding on Maine’s moose, it would be really nice to keep track of how their population is doing. The state’s estimate of 29,000 moose statewide, based on hunting success, sighting rates and road kills, hasn’t changed in a very long time, despite some serious debate over the issue. No one can say with any certainty what’s going on now.
In the 1990s, when success rates and vehicle collisions were both climbing, there was discussion about raising moose-hunting permits to 6,000. But then people in northern Maine, especially around Greenville, started complaining that they were seeing fewer moose. Many observers, including wildlife biologists, thought moose were still abundant, just harder to see from the roads because so many clear-cut areas had grown taller than the biggest bulls. Another theory was that hunting pressure had reduced the population and made the survivors more wary. Some pointed out that hunting permits had increased from 2000 to 3000 (in 1999) and said that raised the chances more hunters would be inexperienced or just plain unlucky.
People also have speculated about herbicides, disease and massive overloads of ticks. A New Hampshire study found an average moose carries about 35,000 ticks, but can have as many as 160,000 in bad years. Ticks killed more than half of the moose calves in northern New Hampshire during a particularly bad year. And other people think that there are still plenty of moose and the problem exists only in other people's heads.
IFW attempted to get a more reliable census of the moose population with infrared aerial surveys at the start of this decade but for a variety of reasons – including, of course, not enough money — that didn’t work out.
“We're not saying we're never going to do a moose census,” Matt Dunlap, who was then a legislator from Old Town and not the Secretary of State, said during the budget crisis in 2001. “We're going to do it next year instead of this year. Absolutely. I'd almost guarantee it.”
Fortunately he said “almost” because we’re still waiting and still wondering. As Lee Kantar, the state moose biologist, told Press Herald reporter John Richardson last June, “We have some areas where we think we're seeing an increase (in moose) and some places where we're seeing a decrease.”
So we still don’t know enough about Maine’s moose population and, given the current state budget crisis, we aren’t likely to know any time soon.
But we can say for sure that the standard for a “successful” moose hunt has dropped quite a bit.