GREAT GOTT ISLAND, Maine — Small islands are not known as places where unwanted visitors are welcome, especially if they eat a resident’s carefully cultivated crop of apples.
Which is why one Great Gott Island resident was thinking about shooting a cow moose that locals have come to call Virginia.
This ocean-bound island, located off bigger and better-known Mount Desert Island, does not have regular ferry service but it is close enough to MDI for a moose to make the mile-long swim, which Virginia apparently did a few months ago. After the moose — which game wardens estimate to be around 2 years old — arrived at Gotts Island, as locals call it, it soon found a small, private apple orchard that residents say has been producing fruit for nearly 100 years.
According to Game Warden David Simmons of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Virginia helped herself to the fruitful bounty, tearing into the trees and causing substantial damage. The property owners, he said, were unhappy that the moose was destroying not only their apples, but their efforts to graft trees together to develop a specialty strain of apple. The moose also chewed on the couple’s cherry trees, the warden said.
“The gentleman we spoke to was losing a lot of graftings,” Simmons said. “For whatever reason, the moose was raising the devil with his fruit trees.”
For now, wardens and island residents, none of whom live on Great Gott Island year round, have decided to let nature run its course, according to Simmons.
Attempts this week to contact the orchard owners have been unsuccessful. The Bangor Daily News is not naming them in order to protect their privacy.
Melissa Cormier, a Maryland resident who had visited friends on the island the past few summers, said this week that she and her friend, Carly Weinberg, nicknamed the moose after the writer Virginia Woolf. The moose, Cormier said, “seemed to need an island of her own … and we are a little afraid of her.” Woolf is known for writing “A Room of One’s Own” and for being referenced in the title of Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Cormier said the moose has taken on celebrity status on the mile-wide island, which has only about 14 or 15 families. There are deer on the island that also eat the vegetation, but islanders have learned how to protect their plants from the smaller ruminant mammals, she said. Virginia presents a bigger challenge.
“She’s been munching on a lot of trees,” and not just in the one orchard, Cormier said Friday. “I think she’s been out there the whole season.”
Weinberg said Friday that Virginia has been eating apple, maple, oak and horse chestnut trees on her family’s property, which they’ve had for generations. Nonetheless, despite the moose’s appetite, Weinberg said she and other residents have adopted it as a mascot. The cover photo of the Gotts Island Mail Facebook page shows Virginia standing among flowers in an island clearing.
“Most people are really excited about it,” said Weinberg, who has returned to her home in Rockland for the winter. “There’s not a lot of wildlife out there. There’s deer and birds but that’s about it.”
A few weeks ago, at the behest of the orchard owners, Simmons and another game warden, Brian Tripp, went out to the island to get a firsthand look at the situation. Simmons said the owners have tried to put up better fencing around individual trees and to scare the animal away with a boat horn, but still it comes back.
Simmons said the owners could legally shoot the moose, given the amount of damage it has done to their apple trees, but that other island residents have called the warden service and asked that the animal be spared. The orchard owners decided not to have the animal shot, he said, after he told them how their neighbors felt about the idea.
“I talked to nine different island residents,” Simmons said. The orchard owners “didn’t think anyone would mind.”
Simmons said moose are uncommon on Maine’s coastal islands. He recalled a few reports over the years of fishermen seeing one swimming in the ocean and said he once tranquilized a moose in Bar Harbor, behind Holy Redeemer Catholic Church on Mount Desert Street, and then relocated it to the mainland town of Franklin, about 25 miles away. It is legal to hunt moose on MDI — where hunting for deer or for anything in Acadia National Park is never allowed — but he said moose show up on the island so infrequently that no hunter with a hard-won lottery moose license would try.
“Nobody’s going to MDI looking for moose to hunt,” Simmons said.
Shooting moose with a tranquilizer dart and then relocating them is not an option this time of year, when moose hunting is permitted in Maine, because state health officials don’t want anyone eating a recently drugged moose, the warden said. Besides, he added, relocating a moose estimated to weigh 700 pounds likely would be problematic given the lack of vehicles or roads on Great Gott Island and the difficulty of getting it onto a boat.
“It might be an option with lots of help,” the warden said.
Simmons said he thinks the moose will swim back to MDI on its own before too long, as the temperature drops and island vegetation dies off. There is no flowing water on Great Gott, he said, and whatever freshwater ponds there are will freeze and become undrinkable.
Weinberg said she and other island residents are glad Virginia will be left alone. Having the moose out there for the late summer and fall has been a novel experience, she said.
“I don’t think Virginia should be shot,” Weinberg said. “She’s an amazing animal.”
As far as she is concerned, she added, the moose can stay on the island as long as it wants to.
“I love it [on Gotts Island],” Weinberg said, “so why wouldn’t she?”