Lee Kantar destroyed my moose bill
This is the second of three columns about Maine’s moose. Part I, posted on February 2, includes a bit of history of moose issues, management, research and the lottery. Part II covers issues debated in the last two legislative sessions and brings us up-to-date. Part III, to be posted tomorrow, February 4, poses a few questions, recognizes the important advances DIF&W has made recently in its moose research and management, and offers some challenging suggestions for the future. After each of the three columns, readers are invited to share their opinions on these issues.
When Maine’s moose biologist, Lee Kantar, briefed the legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee in February of 2012, he felt strongly that we had a population of 75,000 moose. And he was convincing, basing his estimate on new sampling techniques, using Maine Forest Service helicopters and pilots and a double counting system.
Adapted from Quebec and New Brunswick, this proven method was initially used to count deer in a few Wildlife Management Districts with a grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund – a program proposed by a partnership between Maine Audubon and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine which won the support of Governor Angus King and the Maine legislature.
Based on Lee’s moose population estimate, I’d proposed legislation that directed DIF&W to monitor the moose population, harvest, and hunter success rate each year, and increase the moose harvest to 10 percent in three steps: 6 percent harvest rate in 2014, 8 percent in 2015, and 10 percent in 2016. If the hunter success rate dipped below 35 percent, the harvest percentage the following year would not be increased.
This left the science – and number of permits – in the hands of DIF&W’s professional staff, basing the number of permits each year on their research of the moose population and the previous year’s hunter success rate. But it also would provide the additional hunting opportunities I was convinced the moose population could handle.
If the department’s moose population estimate remained at 75,000, and the hunter success rate was 70 percent, for example, the number of permits issued, to achieve the desired harvest rates, would have been 6,400 in 2014, 8,500 in 2015, and 10,700 in 2016. This would have resulted in a harvest of 4,500 moose in 2014, 6,000 in 2015, and 7,500 in 2016. But if the hunter success rate dipped, or the population estimate went down, both the number issued and the number of moose harvested would be reduced.
I thought this was a rather modest proposal. Newfoundland, for example, has a moose population of 100,000, an annual harvest rate of 20 percent, and a hunter success rate of 70 percent. In 2012, Maine hunters harvested 10.7 percent of our deer, 10.4 percent of our bears, but just 3.9 percent of our moose. Why should moose be managed differently than deer and bears, I wondered? I also recognized that, having lost their deer hunting industry, folks in the north country could use a boost from moose hunters.
Kantar Kills My Bill
I have to say, Lee Kantar is always on top of his subject matter, articulate, well prepared, and passionate about his work. He destroyed my bill, with ease. And the bill didn’t die because of what Lee knows about moose. It died because of what he doesn’t know.
“The big unknown is mortality, and the causes of mortality,” he told legislators. “So we have to be cautious in the number of permits we issue.”
It is frustrating that we never have the information and data needed to maximize the moose harvest, after more than 30 years of hunting these critters.
“We are very fortunate that all of these things have come together, to provide the highest quality data Maine has ever had,” Lee reported, while noting that he wanted to look at Minnesota’s situation where the moose population has crashed, and New Hampshire’s concerns about ticks and lungworm mortality.
As he took the committee through the situation in many of the Wildlife Management Districts, I was impressed. I learned that Senator Troy Jackson had gotten a 742 percent increase in moose permits in his district. Perhaps I should have asked Troy to sponsor my bill!
Lee reported that in WMDs 1, 2, and 4, we can and have increased permits tremendously. But he said he’d talked with North Maine Woods about the need for more infrastructure behind the gates to take care of a substantial increase in moose hunters. He was concerned about this.
And he said he’d been looking harder at mortality from ticks, brain worm, and highway collisions. “It’s very difficult to determine the cause of some deaths,” he reported. For example, brain worm is impossible to determine after the moose dies. And deer densities of 15 or more per square mile create a brainworm problem for moose.
Lee said that a lot of moose calves are killed by bears, yet he had no plans to research this. “But we know from other studies that bears could significantly impact moose calves – and we know that something is going on here” related to this. That reminded me of the video we used in the 2004 bear referendum. A lady in the Millinocket area had videotaped a bear carrying off a moose calf, while she shouted, “He’s killing the baby. He’s killing the baby.” It made a very effective radio ad!
Lee also surprised us when he said, “We have discovered a new tapeworm in the lungs of moose in the northeastern part of the state that exist in a canid-moose system. It can come from dogs and coyotes.” And because of this, he advised hunters, “to use latex gloves when cleaning moose.” The concern was that this tapeworm can get into the blood of the hunter – especially if the hunter has a cut. “If I was field dressing a moose, I would wear gloves,” said Lee.
Lee Kantar estimates that the maximum sustainable yield for moose is between 4 and 6 percent, much lower than the harvest rates recommended by DIF&W’s Big Game Working Group in 2007. In six WMDs, 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 to 14 percent in its moose management plan, still considerably higher than the agency has offered.
Lee manages for different objectives depending on the WMD, and noted that moose viewing is important in some districts, and in others, we need to reduce moose/car collisions. And obviously, moose populations vary throughout the state.
In an interview in 2013, he also told me, “Slight changes of calf mortality estimates have an amazing impact on overall population numbers.” At that time, he was utilizing data and research from Vermont and New Hampshire on this issue.
“We’re nipping at the sides (of these issues),” he said, doing winter tic counts and working with New Hampshire. “Our next big project will be to look at calf mortalities and evaluate and quantify calf losses over time. New Hampshire is doing good work on this,” he reported.
Let’s step up to 2015 and see what’s new. In January, DIF&W issued a press release announcing that the agency “will take to the air in year two of an intensive five-year moose study that will provide a greater understanding of the health of Maine’s moose population, particularly factors that impact their survival and reproductive rates.”
“A trained crew that specializes in capturing and collaring large animals is utilizing a helicopter and launched nets to capture and collar female moose and calves in the area located in and around Jackman and Greenville… The radio collar is just one component of the research that IFW conducts on moose,” reported IFW Outreach and Communications Director Mark Latti.
“IFW also utilizes aerial flights to assess population and the composition of the moose herd. During the moose hunting season, biologists also examine teeth to determine a moose’s age, measure antler spread, monitor the number of ticks a moose carries, and examine ovaries to determine reproductive rates.”
Last year the department collared 30 adult cows and 30 calves. Nine of the cows (30 percent) and 21 of the calves (70 percent) died by the end of last winter. That shocking result caused the agency to sharply reduce moose permits in 2014 from 4,100 to 3,095, an unprecedented reduction in a single year.
In 2013, 72.4 percent of the 4,110 moose hunters were successful. Last week, DIF&W reported that 2,022 of the 3,095 hunters with moose permits in 2014 were successful in getting their moose. The statewide success rate was 65 percent, lower than the previous year, but still an amazing success rate for hunters of a big game animal.
In response to my questions about this winter’s research, Latti reported that “the goal is to have 35 cows and 35 calves collared and on the air, and we have 70 collars available to deploy. We have 18 adult cows that survived from last year, and 8 calves that survived last year who are now adults, giving us 26 adults. Over the summer/fall/winter Lee was able to collar six more cows, bringing that total to 21 adults, with 38 collars remaining.”
“Since one of the primary goals of the study is to assess calf survival during their first winter, we need to collar new calves each year. That is why Aerotech is capturing and collaring 35 calves (this winter). That brings us to 67 moose collared, leaving the remaining 3 collars for adult cows which Aerotech will capture and collar for a total of 70 altogether,” said Latti.
On April 2, 2013, DIF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock delivered his agency’s testimony against my bill to increase moose hunting opportunities, offering alarming remarks. “Given unknowns about calf and adult mortality, mandated permit increases across the board could result in a moose population crash.” Apparently my bill was more risky for Maine’s moose than black bears, ticks, and brainworm combined.
But Chandler did offer some insightful and interesting testimony.
“This bill does not address the public objective for mature bulls, in the population for hunting and viewing opportunity,” said Chandler. “Increased bull harvests will negatively impact the amount of mature bulls available to harvest and view. Large increases in bull permits will also negatively impact moose breeding dynamics and synchronicity of calving season.” Darn it! I just never anticipated the synchronicity problem.
But it was what he told us his agency does not know about moose that was truly discouraging, making me wonder if we would ever know enough to maximize moose hunting opportunity.
“Moose biologists across the moose range do not have consensus on allowable harvest rates,” he reported. “Allowable harvest must account for unknowns or estimate mortality rates; current calf mortality rates in Maine are moderate to high. Adult mortality rates are critical and in some years may also be of concern,” he testified.
“We do not have moose estimates for all management districts and some of the low density units cannot be estimated,” he acknowledged.
What we don’t know certainly won’t kill a moose, but it is “leaving money in the woods” and denying hunters thousands of moose hunting opportunities every year. My next column will offer some challenges to and suggestions for Lee Kantar and our Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Please share your opinion on these critical issues, by completing the Moose Hunt survey #2 in the Sportsmen’s Say Survey section of my website. The question Should Maine issue enough hunting permits to assure a 10% harvestof the moose population each year?
You can access the survey here:
The Survey’s name honors legendary outdoor writer Gene LeTourneau and is sponsored by Moody’s Collision Centers.