Lately, the Bangor Daily News has run articles stating that the moose population is stable compared with other states where moose herds are shrinking.
In nearby New Hampshire, for example, biologists are on dire alert and have initiated a study to figure out what is happening.
Our biologists, meanwhile, have claimed that our herd is doing fine. They say this even though they have only just been blessed with funding to do a GPS beacon study — to attach radio collars to moose to track their survival rates.
Based on my personal experiences, the mid-state area and the southern tier of the North Woods have suffered losses for a decade, and that loss has been — and still is — ignored by our state wildlife agency.
I am not a wildlife biologist, but I am a master Maine Guide, and I have extensively roamed the woods for 30 years. I have watched the moose herd gradually decrease in numbers for some time.
The state tracks moose population by counting them from the air. While helpful, it’s not the most scientific way possible to determine what’s actually happening on the ground; and it’s only been done for a few years, so there’s no good long-term population data to determine trends.
Before people cry “armchair biologist,” let me say that there is no greater experiment than long-term witness. From Calais to Jackman, woodcutters, truckers, fishermen on remote ponds, hunters, guides, tourists, camp owners, people who fly on a daily basis and professional photographers will tell you that they do not see nearly as many moose as they used to.
Many moose they do see have ravaged coats from carrying ticks all winter, and it is easy to see the engorged ticks on them before they drop in spring. Snowpack depth in spring, when the ticks fall to the ground, impedes their reproduction cycle. Maine’s recent warmer winters and springs, with little or no snow cover, are more conducive to tick survival. They reattach in the fall, and the cycle continues.
I also believe that moose are being over-hunted. Hunting permits issued last year numbered 4,110 — a record level — which produced a kill of 2,971 moose. Increasing permits at a point of likely moose decline is alarming.
Concerning these matters, the track record of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has been questionable in the past. Officials ignored warnings of deer wintering habitat destruction for years until the herd crashed in numbers. Coyotes were wrongly demonized, and funds were wasted from state coffers to kill them, while a major study done at the University of Maine formalized loss of habitat as the destructive player.
Instead of admitting to a problem, the problem is allowed to fester. One must wonder if the economics of hunters coming north has covered up the need for science.
All sorts of Maine businesses depend on moose for income, such as innkeepers, professional photographers, wilderness resorts, guided kayak outfitters, remote camps, restaurants and stores in towns such as Rangeley, Greenville and Millinocket. Our economy is always being fed by moose watchers, hunters and moose safari travelers.
In fact, wildlife watchers far outspend the hunting community, and moose-watching continues year round. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife needs to manage our moose herd for maximum survival, for the herd’s benefit primarily, but also for our pleasure and economic benefit.
Our state agency must admit the problem now, and permits must be reduced, especially cow permits, until the problem becomes manageable. (It seems irrational for the state to project handing out 1,260 cow permits for the 2014 season, in November, one month after the breeding season.)
Reducing permits does not threaten moose hunting. It allows us to step back while we figure this out.
The long-term eyewitness accounts of very reliable people for over a decade have been ignored, while moose numbers seem to decline. This needs to stop.
All interests can have their take, but none of us will benefit from any more time lost to denial. The question most asked by paying tourists — “Where do I see a moose?” — needs to have many answers.
Cecil Gray of Skowhegan has been a Maine Guide for 30 years. He is also a nature photographer.