FORT KENT, Maine — Last summer while driving to southern Maine, Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, hit a moose on Route 11 in central Aroostook County.
About four months later, his son did the same thing.
Neither man was seriously injured, but the accidents were a painful reminder to Jackson of how many moose-vehicle accidents happen in northern Maine — 31 last year along the stretch of Route 11 from Fort Kent to Patten, according to data compiled by the state Department of Transportation.
Over a 10-year period, there have been 335 moose-vehicle collisions on Route 11, with one fatality.
“The moose population in [Aroostook] County is much higher than in the rest of the state,” Jackson said. “They are a true hazard to motorists.”
Jackson has submitted LD 929, “An Act to Expand Moose Hunting Season,” in an attempt to bring those moose-vehicle accident statistics down.
The proposed legislation, which has been co-sponsored by Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, Rep. Ken Theriault, D-Madawaska, Rep. Peter Edgecombe, R-Caribou, and Rep. Richard Cleary, D-Houlton, would add a week to the current two-week hunt and increase permits for the Aroostook County zones.
LD 929 was referred to the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife last week. Jackson is a member of the committee.
“This is really about safety on Route 11,” Jackson said. “I don’t know how many people I’ve come across on that road who have just hit a moose. We see [moose] all the time up there.”
An area that populated with moose, Jackson said, could easily support additional permitted hunters over a third week in the season.
Currently, the hunting zones running along the Route 11 corridor in Aroostook County allow 100 permitted hunters.
This is due in large part, Jackson said, to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s designation of that area for moose watching.
“As biologists, our principal responsibility is to conserve our wildlife resources,” Lee Kantar, Maine’s moose and deer biologist said. “When it comes to big game animals like moose, sometimes you have populations that are high in areas and the public would like to see them.”
There are three designated moose management areas in Maine.
The so-called “recreational area” covers the interior portion of the northern Maine woods — including the Route 11 corridor — where the biologist said there is a robust population for viewing with some hunting access.
Eastern Aroostook County has been designated a compromise area where there are viewing opportunities but greater access for hunters to help ease negative impacts on agricultural practices and to reduce moose-vehicle collisions.
The greatest attention to keeping the moose population down is in southern Maine, which Kantar said is designated a “road safety area” where management is designed primarily to reduce accidents with moose.
Jackson thinks more road safety management attention should be paid to northern Maine.
“There are only 100 [moose hunting] permits allowed in Zone Two,” he said. “But to the east in Zone Three around Caribou and Van Buren there are 400 to 500 permits.”
Jackson understands management decisions must be based on sound wildlife biology, but he fears years of cost and budget reductions have interfered with the process.
“The department of wildlife is so underfunded they don’t have the people to get an accurate count of the moose population,” Jackson said. “The last official count [in 1999] in Maine said there were 25,000 moose, but I’ve heard estimates it’s more like 60,000.”
Kantar said that latter estimate is probably a true reflection of the moose population but stressed there is more to managing wildlife than mere numbers.
“You can’t just increase permits,” the biologist said. “You need to base your reasons on sound science.”
Based on scientific data collected over the years and public comment, DIF&W has increased hunting permits in Zones Three and Six which cover an area from Fort Kent to Houlton.
According to Kantar, in 2003 65 permits were awarded in those zones. Another 255 were added in 2004 and an additional 25 in 2007.
However, Kantar did say there are indications the moose population is decreasing in those zones, and he added that residents should not view increased kills during the legal hunting season as a quick fix in removing moose from the roadways.
“There will always be a lag time between increasing [hunting] permits and harvesting [moose] and the decrease in population,” Kantar said.
This is because the permits are awarded primarily for the hunting of cow moose, which brings down the reproduction ability in that area.
“It takes some time for that to be reflected in population numbers,” Kantar said.
“Just having more permits does not help if the hunters head into the deep woods away from where the moose are having a negative impact,” Kantar said. “But you can target areas strategically so hunters can harvest moose in those problem areas.”
Among the targeted areas Kantar is looking at are those around Easton and Presque Isle where farmers have reported moose damaging crops.
“We use the best data we have available to figure out the puzzle that is wildlife management,” Kantar said. “We need a system and we have a system in place to manage our wildlife resources.”
There is little doubt increases in the moose hunt would bring with it some increased economic opportunities in northern Maine.
“This bill is great for The County on so many levels,” Martin said. “Not only will it help keep our roads a bit safer, but an extra week and extra permits will undoubtedly result in increased revenue in the area.”
“More hunters means more business for local guides, restaurants and hotels,” he said. “I think increasing the permits is a great idea for safety and for the economy.”
At the same time, Jackson wants to make sure his bill targets the moose population he believes poses the biggest threat to drivers — and he feels that’s not in southern Maine.
“For someone to say they won’t worry about moose-vehicle collisions on Route 11 kind of irks me,” he said.
No action has yet been taken on LD 929, but Jackson said he anticipates a public hearing on it this spring.