The group that oversees huge tracts of the state’s industrial forest is warning hunters and other potential travelers to expect plenty of company in the coming weeks, and is asking for visitors to be considerate during their trips to northern Maine.
“While the woods were not very busy in May due to the virus, traffic picked up in June and use in July was 30 percent over last July,” said Al Cowperthwaite, executive director of North Maine Woods Inc. “All indications point to a very busy fall.”
North Maine Woods represents a community of landowners who own 3.5 million acres of the state’s commercial forest. It maintains a series of gates into those lands and charges fees to visitors.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, North Maine Woods announced in April that it would close primitive campgrounds to the public. The North Maine Woods opened for day use on May 1, and camping was allowed beginning on June 1 for Maine residents and those out-of-state visitors who had quarantined for 14 days.
“In July 2019, we hosted 7,219 visitors. This July we had 9,457,” Cowperthwaite said. “October is now the busiest month of our May to November operating season. Last October we had 23,986 visitors and I’m going to predict we could see another 30 percent increase this fall over last year.”
And while that October total might sound high, Cowperthwaite said it’s important to remember that the number of visitors is spread over the entire month.
“While 24,000 visitors appears to be a large number, if they were all in the area at the same time, they’d have nearly 150 acres to themselves,” he said. “But folks are concentrated on the road networks, especially during the moose and bird seasons.”
Besides, visitors don’t go to the North Maine Woods to hang out in a crowd.
In a news release, Cowperthwaite explained that a new law that opens grouse season to open earlier than had been previously allowed means moose hunters and bird hunters will be in the woods to begin those seasons the same week. In the past, the first week of moose season was followed by the first week of bird season, with no moose hunters in the woods. Grouse season opens Sept. 26, while moose hunting will begin for some hunters on Sept. 28.
Adding to the crowds, Cowperthwaite said travelers in the North Maine Woods have been seeing a lot of ruffed grouse — also called “partridge” — and many have shared that fact on social media. In addition, the number of moose permits allotted in Wildlife Management Zones 1-4 has been increased by 20 percent over 2019.
Cowperthwaite asks that hunters try to avoid the major wood-hauling roads as much as possible, and focus their attention on side roads.
Add in low gas prices and the fact that traveling hunters are not allowed to travel to Canada, which is usually an option, and Cowperthwaite expects the North Maine Woods to be bustling.
Cowperthwaite said visitors to North Maine Woods lands can help reduce the number of conflicts this fall. Among his recommendations for bear hunters, who will head into the woods beginning Monday, Aug. 31:
— Be safe and cooperative at checkpoints. While employees are wearing masks, and have created barriers between themselves and customers, they need people to help by wearing masks too. North Maine Woods hosts hunters from all over the country, even from states with high COVID rates, so keep employees safe.
— Be patient at checkpoints. Many moose hunters are first time visitors to North Maine Woods, so it takes more time for staff to register them than it does regular customers.
— Drive safely. Increased hunter traffic on roads will impact workers and logging truck drivers. Please pull over whenever you meet them and do not leave vehicles in the middle of the road when chasing partridge or moose.
— Be responsible when dressing out game. Please do not clean birds or moose at campsites or leave moose paunches in the roadway.
— Respect other users. Trapping is perfectly acceptable in the North Maine Woods. Tampering with someone else’s trap or with an animal in a trap is a felony offense.