AUGUSTA, Maine — With winter ticks impacting the moose population this winter, the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife announced Friday it is reducing the number of moose permits available to hunters this fall.
The department will issue 3,095 permits statewide for the 2014 hunting season. That is down 25 percent from the 4,110 that were available last year. 2013 had the highest number of permits issued since 1980, when the moose season reopened after being closed for more than four decades.
The reduction is by far the largest since 1980. The department’s history of recreational moose hunting shows smaller reductions in 2002, when the total number of permits issues decreased from 3,000 to 2,964; in 2003, when the total decreased by another 371; and 2006, when 96 fewer permits were issued than the 2,921 issued during the previous year.
The annual lottery for moose hunting permits is scheduled for June 14 at the University of Maine-Presque Isle.
The decision was based in part on data indicating a three times higher than average winter mortality rate, state fish and game officials said in a news release.
“Based upon the research of our biologists, I feel it is prudent to decrease the number of female moose permits available,” Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock said. “Decreasing the amount of permits will help lessen the impact of winter ticks on the state’s moose population.”
In particular, the department reduced the number of antlerless-only permits that are available to hunters in wildlife management Districts 1-5, 7-9 and 12-13. This is the northern and northwestern part of Maine, including the northern portions of Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, Piscataquis, Penobscot and Aroostook counties.
Winter ticks have been documented in Maine since the 1930s. Periodically, there are peak years when the number of ticks increase substantially.
Each year, Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife biologists sample moose for winter tick densities at moose registration stations during the hunt. This past fall, biologists noted one of the highest tick counts in the past 10 years.
In making the recommendation to reduce permits, department biologists also used data from the radio collar moose study that early data from the study shows there was about a 30 percent mortality rate for adult females, which is above the average 10 percent winter mortality rate for female moose.
Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife biologists also have documented a number of moose winter kills throughout the state. Many of the moose carcasses are engorged with winter ticks, and some are practically bare of hair as the moose have tried to rub the ticks off.
“Maine has had winter ticks for decades, and Maine’s moose population has encountered peak tick years before, as they happen periodically,” said Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife moose biologist Lee Kantar. “Even with the increase in ticks this year, by decreasing the number of antlerless permits available, we can continue to meet our population objectives for moose.”
According to the moose section on the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife’s webpage, moose die from a variety of causes, including harvest, road kills and other accidents, predation, disease, starvation and old age. Legal and illegal harvest alone account for 2,000 to 3,500 moose deaths each year.
Winter ticks, brain worm and lungworm are three parasites that can kill moose in Maine. Winter ticks and lungworms tend to affect calves overwintering for the first time because of their relatively small body size.
U.S. wildlife officials attribute the increase in winter ticks to shorter winters caused by climate change.
Also according to the website, moose were plentiful in New England during the 1600s, but by the early 1900s, moose populations in Maine had declined to about 2,000, largely because of unrestricted hunting and an increase in brainworm attributed to rising deer populations, which carry brainworm but suffer no ill effects.
During the 1900s, laws protecting moose from excessive hunting and improving habitat conditions allowed the moose population to increase. The moose population is estimated at 76,000, according to state game officials.
Before 1830, there were no laws restricting the harvest of moose. In 1830, however, the first law established an open season of two months, the department said. Moose hunting was not allowed from 1875 to 1879 but reopened in 1880. A bag limit was established in 1889, limiting each hunter to one bull.
In 1915, the moose season was closed statewide, the department noted. The season reopened in 1919 for a short 11-day season with a one bull bag limit. The season reopened periodically from 1920 through 1936, when the moose season was closed and remained closed until 1980. In that year, state lawmakers passed a law allowing up to 700 permits for Maine resident hunters. A six-day season was set and restricted to an area north of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. A bag limit of one moose of any sex or age was allowed.
By 1982, a law was passed that allowed annual seasons of up to 1,000 permits, 10 percent of which could be issued to nonresidents, north of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. A bill that expanded the moose hunting district was passed in 1985 and went into effect in 1986.
Since then, the number of permits issued and the area open to hunting both have increased, and the harvest of a limited number of antlerless moose has been allowed.
The year 2000 was the last year in which the legislature limited the total number of moose permits each year, the type of permit and season. That responsibility lies with the department, which sets population goals and objectives specific to each of the state’s 26 Wildlife Management Districts.
The goals and objectives aim to maintain populations that maximize hunting and viewing opportunities, reduce the population enough to significantly reduce collisions with motor vehicles or a compromise between those goals.