December 11, 2018
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Seeking ‘healthy’ herd, biologists propose 20 percent increase in moose permits

Jim Cole | AP
Jim Cole | AP
In this photo taken on Aug. 21, 2010, a moose stands in a clearing in Franconia, N.H.

After five years of declining moose permits, the state’s wildlife biologists altered course on Wednesday, proposing a plan that would increase the number of permits by 20 percent for this year at a meeting of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s Advisory Council.

That increase, if approved, would bump the number of moose permits allotted from 2,080 in 2017 to 2,500 for this year. The permits will be awarded during a state-run lottery to be held in June in Skowhegan.

Lee Kantar, the state’s moose biologist, said the increase reflects a change in the framework by which state wildlife professionals will be managing big game species in the future. The state’s previous 15-year management plan ended in 2015, and for the past two years the DIF&W has sought public input while setting management goals and objectives. That new management plan is undergoing some final tinkering and editing, but a new philosophy has emerged when it comes to moose.

One constant opinion cited by members of the public who responded to surveys in the formulation of the new plan: A healthy moose herd is important.

“One thing is this idea of ‘healthy moose,’ to us, really means figuring out ways to figure out reproduction of moose — reproductive capacity, how many calves are born each year, the age at which moose first breed — and to try to work on ways to minimize the effects of things like parasites and disease, which we’re understanding better in our five-year study,” Kantar said.

For the past five years, Kantar and others, including biologists in New Hampshire and Vermont, have been researching moose populations and survival rates, and the data has helped inform future management efforts.

Biologists have estimated the state’s moose population as high as 75,000 in 2011, but more recently have said it was likely closer to 60,000 as winter ticks took a toll on the state’s herd.

The population has remained high enough that hunting moose is still an activity that has a very high success rate. In 2017, 1,518 of those 2,080 hunters — 73 percent — successfully filled their tags. In far northern Wildlife Management Districts 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6, where the biologists are proposing to increase the number of permits allotted, more than 80 percent of hunters were successful.

By contrast, the DIF&W said deer hunters are typically successful 15 to 20 percent of the time.

Biologists have learned that winter ticks take a higher toll on moose calves in more southern and western parts of the state than they do in the north.

And biologists are now asserting that having abundant moose populations doesn’t mean the herd is healthy. In fact, too many moose can be a bad thing, and lead to problems that punish the entire herd in certain parts of the state.

“When you have high densities of animals it can create a dynamic where you have increases in parasites and a reduction in productivity,” Kantar said.

Kantar said that in retrospect, the state was managing moose at some pretty high population levels back in 2015, when the 15-year plan expired. Tinkering with that approach in order to make the herd healthier made sense, he said.

“The upshot is, we should be managing moose at a more moderate level,” Kantar said. “The checkpoint is, are we seeing improvements in production? Are we seeing less incidence of parasites? [We want to] take a hard look at that stuff as we move forward.”

The permit increase for 2018, if approved, would largely affect the state’s northern districts, where adult moose survival rates have been better than 90 percent among Kantar’s study group.

“There’s going to be some slight increases in the far north, in cow permits, and some slight increases in bull permits,” Kantar said. “That’s really in zones 1 through 6. So we’re still only talking about the northern tier, where moose populations have been stable.”

And while the theory of “Two Maines” has been bandied about in the state for decades, referring to an economic and social divide between the southern and northern parts of the state, Kantar said the term describes the state’s moose management conundrum as well.

“When it comes to moose, there are two Maines. There is the more south and central part of the state — and we’re not talking about Kennebunk, we’re talking about central Maine and western Maine — where we’ve seen some decreases in moose and things are probably more similar to what they’re seeing in northern New Hampshire,” Kantar said. “And then we have the northern part of the state, where not only are the management districts really big, but it’s our prime, core range of moose where we’ve got commercial forest lands, unorganized towns, and those moose are related and look more like moose in southern Quebec and Northern New Brunswick, which has been a moose mecca. “

And it’s in those moose-rich northern spots — including Wildlife Management Districts 1 and 4, which are on the Maine-Quebec border and cover some 3,500 square miles — where biologists have decided to allow more moose to be harvested, and more permits to be allotted.

“We feel like that is a fine place to add some additional opportunity to increase bull permits,” Kantar said.

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