In an era during which state funds for natural resources are hard to come by, the state’s top deer and moose biologist is embarking on a project that could be the model of productive Maine frugality.
If it works out as he hopes, the project will provide a great deal of useful data on the state’s moose herd.
“We’re obviously struggling, all of us agencies, to get information to guide what we do,” said Lee Kantar, a Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife biologist. “I’m working on really focusing on the moose population.”
And here’s how he’s going to do it.
In a cooperative effort with North Maine Woods Inc., Kantar will distribute 7,000 survey cards to NMW checkpoints for the summer season.
Each visitor can pick one up on arrival, and turn the completed card back in when they leave.
What Kantar will be asking visitors in June, July and August: If you saw a cow moose, how many calves did it have with it? And where were you when you saw the moose?
“If I get a lot of responses, this is going to give me a really clear picture of what our cow moose and calf [population] looks like,” Kantar said. “It helps paint a picture and better inform us as to other information that we need to really get an understanding.”
Kantar said printing the 7,000 survey cards will cost between $200 and $400.
The size of the state’s moose herd has been the subject of considerable debate in the past, and at least one former federal marine scientist has gone on record as saying there may be as many as 60,000 moose tromping through Maine’s forests.
The official state estimate is much lower — about 29,000 — and in 2008 the DIF&W’s director of resource management, Ken Elowe, conceded that reaching an acceptably precise census is elusive, if not impossible.
“Do we have 60,000? That’s a good question. As most of you know, it’s not like counting cows in a pasture,” Elowe told an assembled crowd at that time.
That doesn’t mean, however, that state biologists aren’t trying to answer that question more precisely.
The state conducts a pair of yearly surveys. One involves all moose hunters who take part in the September and October seasons. The other taps into a random pool of deer hunters who are in the woods in November.
The new survey will help fill gaps by looking at specific cow-and-calf interaction, rather than at broader, population-wide totals.
Kantar hopes to more closely determine the productivity level of the state’s cow moose. And if as he suspects, the state’s cows are having fewer calves than they do elsewhere, why is that happening?
Among the potential answers: Habitat issues, diseases or infestation of winter ticks that cause cow moose to emerge from winter in poor condition.
Then he wants to compare the summer survey with the fall survey to see how closely the number of calves corresponds.
“You need to look at what’s going on during the summer. Are we losing calves?” asked Kantar. “The thing is, when you’re looking at cow-calf ratios in the fall, you’re looking at the greater population and it doesn’t tell you about an individual cow and what she has in tow. If I can find out what an individual cow has in tow, it helps me better understand.”
This survey is designed to focus on the productivity of the herd’s females, rather than counting moose of all genders.
“When we add up all the cow-calf numbers in the fall [survey], you’re really looking at the number of calves per 100 cows,” Kantar said. “You can’t break that down because we’ve never asked people in those surveys, ‘for every cow you see, [how many calves are you seeing]?’ That’s what this survey will do.”
Kantar said current information indicates there may be large losses of calves during the summer months.
“We need to make sure [we know] if that’s really occurring, what’s going on with that. This is pretty critical information,” he said.
And getting that information from the folks at North Maine Woods makes perfect sense: There’s plenty of land in NMW territory, plenty of moose to count, and a built-in system of gates where visitors can pick up and return survey cards.
The North Maine Woods region encompasses 3.5 million acres serviced by 5,000 miles of gravel roads, according to Al Cowperthwaite, executive director of NMW. The Katahdin Iron Works-Jo Mary Multiple Use Forest — also managed by NMW — covers 175,000 acres. Total visitors passing through the NMW and KI-Jo Mary gates in 2008: about 105,000.
Cowperthwaite said his organization was happy to take part in the survey, which continues a trend at NMW.
“Almost every summer we have some kind of survey,” Cowperthwaite said. “[We did] the Allagash Wilderness Waterway user-satisfaction [survey], and frequently some graduate students are doing studies.”
Visitors to the North Maine Woods can fill out a new card every time they visit, and Kantar hopes those wilderness travelers choose to participate in the study.
“The whole understanding of how many moose we produce and how many make it into fall is absolutely critical knowledge to understanding our moose population,” Kantar said. “This will be a pilot program this summer so we’ll see how it goes. If we get a lot of participation we’ll hopefully continue to do it down the pike.”
Still more about moose …
During our conversation, Cowperthwaite told me a story that’s tragically common this time of year.
On Saturday, Cowperthwaite was driving on a rural Aroostook County road — not in North Maine Woods territory, for the record — when he had a closer-than-desired encounter.
“I hit a moose trying to [drive to the shop to] get my truck fixed,” Cowperthwaite said. “I guess I need a new truck now.”
Cowperthwaite wasn’t injured, and said he hoped his experience would serve as a reminder to Maine motorists.
He explained that in his neck of the woods — his office is in Ashland — this is the time of year when moose are near the roads. On the way to work on Wednesday morning, he saw four or five more moose on Route 11.
“It’s a great plug for road safety,” Cowperthwaite said. “I’m not the only person that’s going to hit a moose this year. People should be watching because they are out right now.”