Moose by the numbers: Where are they? What are your odds of hunting one?

Posted June 12, 2013, at 4:01 p.m.
Last modified June 12, 2013, at 6:06 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Maine has a lot of moose: 76,000 of ’em, according to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s latest estimate.

On Saturday, prospective hunters from Maine and elsewhere will turn their attention to Greenville, where the state’s annual moose permit lottery will begin at 3 p.m.

A modern record of 4,110 permits will be up for grabs. Each permit allows the holder, with aid from their designated second shooter, or “subpermittee,” the chance to take part in one of five hunting sessions scheduled for September through November.

Lee Kantar, the DIF&W’s head moose biologist, said merely having a lot of moose is only half of a successful equation.

“We certainly have a lot of moose compared to most places in the U.S.,” Kantar said. “We [also] have amazing access to the commercial forestland and private landowners graciously allow us to get onto that land to hunt moose.”

Kantar said the state’s herd is healthy and strong. And thanks to three years of aerial surveys conducted in some of Maine’s best moose habitat — their “core range” — Kantar has a much better idea where (and how many) moose are browsing in those key Wildlife Management Districts.

The DIF&W will offer moose hunting opportunities in 25 of the state’s 29 WMDs this fall. But the best moose territory — an area above a line that stretches roughly from Bethel in the west to Princeton in the east — is where the vast majority of the state’s moose live.

In some WMDs, including 1, 2, 3 and 4 in extreme northern and northwestern Maine, Kantar estimates that moose may be as plentiful as 5-8 per square mile. In a remote WMD that can cover close to 2,000 square miles, that simply means this: There are far more moose than people.

In WMD 4, north of the Golden Road, south of American Realty Road, and stretching from the Canadian border east to Baxter State Park, you won’t find paved roads, nor organized towns, or many permanent residents. You will, however, find moose. Thousands of them.

Kantar is wary about how the public might view population numbers, particularly when the state, lacking data, spent years citing a very conservative population estimate of 29,000 moose statewide.

New data have given the biologists a better idea of the population, but does not mean that Maine suddenly has many more moose than it did 10 years ago, he cautions. And current management priorities have worked well, he said.

“One of the biggest concerns with all of these [population estimates] is the public getting hung up on numbers,” Kantar wrote in an email. “Population dynamics and change is continuous with many forces acting on growth and decline. IF&W is doing due diligence in its management, maximizing permit allocations while ensuring the conservation of moose, and meeting the public goals of hunting and viewing opportunity. All of this [is taking place] with a resource that hugely depends on the management and access to private lands and among a public that at times has very divergent wants regarding moose.”

Kantar’s basic point: When some folks hear that Maine has more moose than originally thought, their reaction is “Let’s shoot more.” When others hear the same thing, they think, “Get the camera. Let’s head into the woods and see if we can spot some.”

Balancing the goals of divergent user-groups is a key component of management decisions, as are quests to improve traffic safety and to make sure the herd is healthy and not susceptible to disease or health woes that accompany overpopulation.

And Kantar said modest increases in the number of permits that are allotted each year — nearly 1,000 more permits will be awarded this year than were given out 2010 — give biologists more management flexibility and maintain the qualify of a hunt that he says is “world-class.”

Moose mean money

It’s hard to quantify the economic effect of the annual moose hunt — Doug Rafferty, director of information and education for the DIF&W, said he’s not aware of any such study — but there’s no doubt that the state’s iconic critter is a cash cow (or bull).

It’s hard to track how many hunters are “do-it-yourselfers,” and how many opt to pay full freight and hire a registered Maine guide when they head into the woods. In 2013, a total of 4,110 permit-holders will head into the woods. Few of those hunters will travel alone. Many will have entourages that include several friends and family members.

And all of those hunting parties will have to buy food, gas, ice and other necessities that will sustain them during a week in the woods. After a successful hunt, meat processing and taxidermy fees may also begin to add up.

Rafferty said the department believes that hunting in general, including moose hunting, generated $1.4 billion in Maine in 2012. And he said hunting and fishing license sales in Maine increased last year. Fishing license sales increased from 292,698 in 2011 to 304,791, while hunting license sales went from 203,638 to 209,990.

“There’s nothing solid we can pin [the increase] on, but last year was a little bit longer [season] in terms of the weather being cooperative,” Rafferty said. “It might just be pent-up demand. People wanted to get out and get at it, and they did.”

It’s easier to track the direct effect of the moose hunt — and the moose permit lottery itself — on the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

According to figures provided by DIF&W director of licensing Bill Swan, residents paid a whopping $527,045 in 2012 to merely take part in the lottery. Nonresidents pitched in another $633,400 to put their names in the digital hopper and take their chances.

Through 2011, Mainers were allowed to buy as many as six chances in the lottery. That practice changed in 2012, and now residents may purchase a single chance, for $15.

Nonresidents, who are competing against each other for just 10 percent of the total permits (402 permits this year), have no such restriction. They can buy a single chance for $15, three chances for $25, six for $35 or 10 for $55. Or, they can buy packs of 10 chances — as many as they want — for $55 apiece.

And nonresidents aren’t skittish about trying to increase their high odds of winning: Applicants “from away” spent an average of $43.21 each on moose lottery chances a year ago.

But the money the state receives in moose permit lottery proceeds is only a piece of the pie.

After a Mainer’s name is drawn during the lottery, they’ll still be ineligible to hunt until they purchase a $52 moose permit. Those permit sales accounted for another $174,824 in revenue during 2012.

And the permit for nonresident moose hunting costs $585, meaning that although only 363 non-residents were allowed to hunt a year ago, they paid another $212,355 to purchase their permits, according to Swan.

Applying for the moose hunt and subsequently purchasing the necessary moose-hunting permits accounted for a grand total of $1,547,624 in 2012.

That total accounts for 7.2 percent of the money — $21,347,429 — that the DIF&W received through the sale of licenses, permits and registrations in 2012, according to the department. That money pays for the bulk of the DIF&W’s operating expenses.

Odds of winning a permit

Some hunters will tell you that they’ve been applying for a moose permit since the state staged its first modern hunt in 1980. Others began applying when that experimental hunt became an annual affair in 1982.

And those who’ve never been selected are often frustrated.

State wildlife officials have tried to swing the lottery in their favor by requiring successful hunters to sit out of the drawing for three years after earning a permit. And those who enter the lottery annually earn “bonus points,” for each year they’re unsuccessful, ranging from a single extra chance in the lottery for each of their first five unsuccessful years, to two points a year for their next five years, then three points for years 11-15.

As a result, according to DIF&W computer programmer Mark Ostermann, who maintains the program the department uses to run the lottery, the state has statistically figured that nearly everybody’s lucky day is coming … eventually.

“The 2012 change to the calculation of bonus points [which added in more points the longer a participant’s name wasn’t drawn, as long as that prospective hunter enters the lottery each year] will mean that ‘statistically’ longtime (every year since 1998) resident applicants should have won by 2020,” Ostermann wrote in an explanation of the system. “[That will be the case] if they are willing to accept a bull or antlerless permit in any district. Longtime nonresidents should have won by 2036 if they are willing to accept a bull or antlerless permit in any district.”

For those who have not earned bonus points, the lottery remains a longshot — even longer for those who aren’t Maine residents.

According to Ostermann, a Maine resident with a single chance in this year’s lottery will have just a 1.9 percent chance of emerging from Greenville with a permit. On the bright side, resident applicants who have been playing the lottery since 1998 and who have never won will have a better than 40 percent chance of winning.

And nonresidents? Their chance of winning with a single chance in the lottery is just 0.2 percent. And those longtime participants who have eagerly entered for the past 15 years will still only have a slightly better than 5 percent shot at going moose hunting this fall.

Whether you’re a Mainer or not, Kantar knows the prospect of finally winning a moose permit will draw droves to Greenville.

“There’s a lot of people who show up to hear their names drawn, and all the people who put in for moose-hunting permits are obviously extremely excited in anticipation of hearing their name called,” Kantar said. “And why not? It’s got to be one of the best hunts anywhere, [during] a fantastic time of year, and [moose] are a tremendous resource that the state of Maine has.”