A number of years ago I and my two friends Terry and Lisa took a pre-Christmas trip downstate for a little holiday shopping.
Apparently the wildlife had the same idea, because driving back home we counted about a dozen moose on the stretch of Route 11 between Patten and Ashland, a situation which left Lisa in the back seat, her nose pressed against the car’s window looking out, chain smoking and muttering, “What about the ones we don’t see?”
Anyone who has driven in northern Maine on Route 11, Route 1 or any of the roads leading north knows that moose are common sights.
For some, it’s the reason they have driven so far off the beaten path — to get a glimpse or even a photo or two of Maine’s largest animal.
For others, the moose is nothing more than a road hazard capable of unimaginable destruction.
This past week was a bad one up here in the County for moose-vehicle accidents.
On Monday Fort Kent resident Cheryl Albert was killed when the car in which she was riding struck a moose on Route 11. In a separate incident, an ambulance transferring a patient struck a moose outside of Van Buren.
Clearly, some up here are saying, something needs to be done.
Enter “Open Season on Loose Moose,” a Facebook group started by Fort Kent resident Myra Theriault, who has her own very personal reasons for wanting to clear the roads of these four-legged moving obstacles.
In 1999 her brother was killed while riding a motorcycle that struck a moose.
“This is something that has been haunting me for 13 years,” she said. “I still have a hard time driving at night and in light of what just happened to Cheryl [Albert], that kind of kicked things into gear.”
Adding fuel to the fire was a collision her son had with a moose several weeks ago that totaled his car, but spared his life.
“I seem to have had more than my share of experiences with these accidents,” she said.
So Theriault started her Facebook page and within a week has collected 46 members.
“Dear family and friends, please join me in my mission to change Moose Lottery to, ‘Open Season On Loose Moose.’ It’s time to make a change!” reads her simple invitation to the group.
“I’m hoping as soon as the elections are over in November we can sit with our local legislators and work something out to try and change things to get away from the lottery system and [have] a moose season like they do for deer,” Theriault said. “I know the state may lose money from not having a lottery, but boo-hoo.”
The moose population, Theriault said, needs to come down.
That population, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, is around 29,000 statewide, with some of the larger numbers up here in the north.
Changes to the moose hunting laws already have shown some promise, according to state biologist Lee Kantar.
Four years ago additional hunting days and permits were added to the moose season around the Presque Isle and Caribou area, Kantar said, in an effort to alleviate moose-vehicle accidents and to lessen crop damage by the animals.
“Can we say it’s working?” he said. “We can say the number of accidents did go down that first year but then up again and if they do go down, we can’t definitively say it’s because of that controlled hunt.”
Some of the credit could be attributed to increased driver education and moose awareness campaigns by the Maine Department of Transportation, which publishes a brochure outlining the dangers when driving on roads within large animal habitat.
The brochure cautions against prime moose moving times — dawn and dusk — and advises drivers to slow down in moose population areas and always be alert for movement on the sides of the roads.
“Given the size and mass of moose, the likelihood of serious personal injury is far greater with moose and thus it is absolutely critical for drivers to be constantly vigilant during this time of year,” Kantar said.
Duane Brunell of the Maine DOT Safety Office said in an IF&W release, “Due to a moose’s large size, every moose-vehicle accident has the potential for serious injury, so drivers need to be alert at night, especially in wooded or marshy areas. You need to slow down, scan the roadsides for moose and always wear your seat belt.”
As the weather warms, roadsides are one of the first places to turn green throughout the state. After their winter diet, moose are hungry for salt, which can be found on the side of roads, and for tender green plants. This brings them in close proximity to vehicles of all shapes and sizes.
“Another problem is moose … especially young moose … who find themselves suddenly on their own because cows now have offspring,” said Kantar in the same release. “Moose in May and June that get into the most trouble are likely yearlings that have been ‘kicked off’ from the mother who has calved in May and likely have a calf at heel in June. So please, drive safely.”
From dusk until dawn is the most likely time for moose-vehicle collisions, and 7 p.m. to midnight is when most occur, because moose move more during the evening after temperatures cool from their daytime highs.
Changing the moose hunting season in any way to increase the kill rate would not be popular with all Maine residents or visitors, Kantar said.
“The flip side of this is you have people who feel we already put too much pressure on the moose,” he said. “These are the people who come and want to see a moose and view them, so we are always having to balance what works for hunting and viewing opportunities.”
Maine’s DOT has undertaken some creative steps to help reduce collisions, including adding illumination to roadsides and putting rip-rap along side roads known to be frequented by moose, since the animals find it uncomfortable to walk on and thus avoid it.
There also are warning signs posted up and down Maine’s roadways.
Kantar did say Quebec has an open season on moose, but the problem is the success rate now enjoyed by hunters under the lottery system would drop drastically.
“With an open season you would see the big bulls taken at a higher rate and those are the ones the viewing public want to see,” he said. “You would lose that positive aspect of moose that so many people clamor for and there is no guarantee that would lower or prevent moose-vehicle accidents.”
Theriault does not agree, saying the lottery system encourages hunters to take the big bulls, leaving the younger ones who are more apt to stray out onto busy roadways.
“These little ones really increase the population,” she said. “My goal is to do away with the lottery and change it to a regular, open season to help reduce the overall population.”
She certainly agrees drivers need to be aware, but noted that whether a driver is going slow or fast, if a moose walks out in front of a car, there is going to be an accident.
“Maybe fences along the roadways would help,” Theriault said. “Anything would help at this point, but it’s not enough — moose can’t read signs to stay off the roads.”
She invites anyone interested in sharing an opinion to check out her Facebook page and post a comment.
For Theriault and her supporters on Open Season on Loose Moose, there is really only one solution.
“The population needs to come down,” she said. “They are taking lives.”
I think my friend Lisa would agree. Among her mutterings on that holiday shopping drive included her immortal phrase, “Kill them all.”
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who writes part-time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.