Moose hunt up for legislative action

The legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee is showing a lot of interest in awarding more moose permits to stimulate a distressed hunting economy, maximize the opportunity for Mainers to hunt the state’s biggest game animal, and begin partnering with the hunting industry.

Two concepts will be central to a work session discussion next Tuesday (May 14): substantially increasing permits, and providing a small number of those permits to licensed sporting camps and lodges that are currently hosting moose hunters. The committee has asked DIF&W’s moose biologist Lee Kantar to attend the work session to answer their questions.

I expect one question posed to Lee will be, “What is an acceptable harvest percentage for the moose herd?” Based on Lee’s assurances that the moose population is currently 75,000, we harvested only 3.9 percent of those moose in 2012 (2,937).

I already know his answer. When I asked him this question last year, he replied, “The maximum sustainable yield is between 4 and 6 percent,” a starkly lower percentage than recommended by the agency’s Big Game Working Group in 2007. In six Wildlife Management Districts, the group recommended harvests of 12 to 20 percent, and in six others, 25 percent! The department rejected those recommendations, settling on harvests from 8 percent to 14 percent in those 12 WMDs, still considerably higher than Kantar is now recommending.

I really don’t understand why DIF&W allows much higher harvest percentages for other game animals, but insists on such a low percentage for moose. In 2012, we harvested 10.4 percent of our bears (3,207 out of a population of 31,000). And DIF&W’s bear biologists have repeatedly emphasized that we need to kill more bears.

We even harvested 10.7 percent of our deer herd (21,355 out of a population of 200,000) – at a time when we are trying to rebuild the herd. And the department has announced that it will award a lot more any-deer permits for 2013.

That begs the next question, “If we can harvest 10.7 percent of our deer and 10.4 percent of our bears, why not 10 percent of our moose?”

Although the committee is reluctant to dictate permit numbers to the department, some members are considering a gradual increase of the harvest. The proposal would still leave the agency in charge, because the number or permits would be based on their own population estimate each year.

Here is one possibility. The committee might direct DIF&W to continue to monitor both the moose population, harvest, and hunter success rate each year, and gradually increase the harvest to 10 percent. The legislation could direct a harvest of 6 percent in 2014, 8 percent in 2015, and 10 percent in 2016, at which point the entire moose hunting system and lottery would be reviewed by again by the legislature.

Based on a population of 75,000, this would require a harvest of 4,500 moose in 2014, 6,000 in 2015, and 7,500 in 2016. At the current success rate of 70 percent, this would provide 6,400 permits in 2014, 8,500 permits in 2015, and 10,700 permits in 2016.

The beauty of this is that the number of permits would be entirely based on the scientific research and data collected by DIF&W. Each year they would start with their population estimate – updated each winter – and multiply that by the previous year’s moose hunter success rate, to determine the appropriate number of permits to be issued.

If the previous year’s success rate dipped, the number of permits issued the following year would be less than my projection. If the success was higher than 70 percent, the number of permits could be increased.

 Stimulating the hunting economy

In other parts of the country it is common for states to partner with the outdoor industry to maximize the economic benefits of its game animals, without diminishing the opportunities of the state’s residents to hunt those same animals. We don’t have that tradition in Maine, but it’s time to recognize the value and importance of such a partnership here.

There is a very modest proposal before the IFW Committee next Tuesday to award some moose permits to licensed lodges and sporting camps. Some Maine guides oppose the proposal because they would not be eligible for the permits – although they could benefit from them by guiding for one of the lodges and sporting camps, as many guides do now.

I believe this makes sense. Even those guides who would not immediately benefit ought to understand that if this partnership works, more such opportunities may be possible in the future. As we’ve lost our deer hunting economy, and seen a steady economic decline across all industries in our rural and north woods regions, it’s time to try new things and be open to new ideas.

Moose Research

The IFW Committee has rejected two of the provisions of a bill that Senate Tom Saviello sponsored at my request, LD 177, An Act to Expand Moose Hunting Opportunities, at least on a preliminary basis. The bill will be up for more discussion next Tuesday.

I suggested that one of those provisions, a switch to a guaranteed draw for moose permits for Maine residents, be withdrawn, in favor of keeping the focus on an increase in permits. We can talk about a new lottery system down the road. Once the number of permits get above 10,000, it will be easy to switch to a system in which every Maine applicants gets to hunt moose every five or six years.

But the other provision of LD 177 that has not found favor is very important. The bill directed 25 percent of the $1.3 million moose lottery revenue to the existing Moose Research and Management Fund, to pay for more research – especially of moose health – and marketing of the hunt.

IFW Committee members asked good questions of DIF&W, but did not focus on what we do not know about moose health. In fact, the principle reason that Lee Kantar continues to oppose significant increases in moose permits is that he doesn’t know enough about moose mortality.

Kantar told the IFW Committee in February, “The big unknown is mortality and the causes of mortality. So we have to be cautious in the number of permits we issue.”

My response would be: it’s the responsibility of the agency to gather this information, so that the state can enjoy as much hunting opportunity as possible and rebuild its hunting economy.

This isn’t a new issue. I’ve tried in the past to get the legislature to direct moose lottery money to research, and been unsuccessful. When I wrote about this topic last year, Wally Jakubas, DIF&W’s Mammal Group Leader, wrote to tell me the agency had been doing some research on moose ticks. He also said, “I agree with your sentiment that more money is needed to support moose monitoring and research.”

And here’s what else he wrote. “Kantar has launched a limited project this year to research tick mortality, with the help of volunteers including hunters of shed antlers. But without doubt, the lack of definitive research on this critical issue, gives us another example of how a valuable resource is getting insufficient attention because the agency lacks funding.”

And this part of Wally’s message is particularly discouraging. “The key piece of this puzzle that is currently missing is what effect are winter ticks having on recruitment rates (i.e., the number of calves that reach breeding age). We submitted a proposal for this research in 2007 with Dr. Fred Servello, but were told we did not have the funds to support this research.”

In 2007, the agency recognized this need, but didn’t fund it. Today, we suffer the consequences, with DIF&W continuing to be very conservative in issuing moose permits because of what they don’t know about moose. To me, this is completely unacceptable.

I believe Kantar is right – we do have 75,000 moose. And that’s all I need to know to urge the IFW Committee to act positively next week to substantially increase moose permits, begin a partnership with the hunting industry by issuing the members of that industry a few of those permits, and allocating sufficient funds so that next year, Lee Kantar will know all he needs to know about moose.

Wildfire

Coincidentally, the topic of the current Wildfire show is moose. Harry and I take on some of these issues with Ed Pineau, a sportsman and lobbyist. You can watch the show online at the Maine Audubon website.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.