Legislative committee acts on moose bills

It was all about moose Tuesday afternoon when the legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee met in work session to tackle two moose bills. One was mine, LD 177, sponsored at my request by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton. The other, LD 738, was sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, on behalf of a few sporting camp owners.

The committee had asked that Lee Kantar, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife’s moose biologist, attend the work session to answer questions. For the work session, and in response to comments from committee members at earlier work sessions, I prepared an amendment to my bill that directed the department to increase the moose harvest to 10 percent of the total population over the next three years. I will attach my work session memo and amendment to this column.

“I will be the first to admit that the department needs a nudge sometimes to be innovative in our thinking,” said Jim Connolly, DIF&W Wildlife Division director. “But these bills go too far and take the decisions out of the hands of the department. You will be astonished by the increase in permits since the year 2000 when the legislature turned over these decisions to the department.”

Kantar said you could not compare moose to deer or bear. They breed differently and mortality issues are different. Ticks are a key factor in moose mortality. Kantar expressed confidence in his new population surveys — helicopter flights that he described as “dangerous,” — and said that the moose population increased by only 4 percent in the last year in WMD 2, the district he described as “the best.”

“We’re maximizing the harvest in that district right now. You can’t nuke the moose there.”

He said he was very concerned about the impacts on moose of climate change and ticks. He also said that recent hunts taking out adult cows have reduced the possibility of growth in moose populations in those areas.

“The population in those areas is in decline, by design,” he reported.

“We are maximizing hunting opportunity,” Kantar said. “If you continue to increase permits, mature trophy bulls will be jeopardized.”

He seemed very concerned about any increases in cow permits, and in the possibility of a serious reduction in trophy bulls, something he said was most important to guides and outfitters. He said some districts were now below desired populations, and, “they are not coming back anytime soon.”

I have to admit, Kantar’s presentation was impressive, even though he really discouraged the committee from supporting my bill calling for an increase in permits. He buried them in data, while noting there is a lot he doesn’t know about moose mortality.

“We’re in a position here where we need to see where we are and quantify our losses from all sources of mortality.”

He said he hoped to research these issues, modeled on work being done in New Hampshire and Vermont. Minnesota has embarked on the biggest moose research project in history — worried that their moose are going extinct. Minnesota is spending a lot of money on this, including collars that alert biologists when a moose dies.

“We’ve had four easy winters, and this has been good for deer but bad for moose, increasing the problem of winter ticks,” Kantar said. He reminded legislators that after a few warm winters, the moose harvest success rate dipped to 69 percent, and “hunters thought the sky was falling.”

He said there are a few districts where he’ll be increasing permits this year, but there are others where the number of permits will be decreased.

Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, expressed concerns that the department had not provided this information at the public hearing on these moose bills.

“This is a lot of information that I didn’t hear at the public hearing when we had a lot of people both for and against the bills. This is a different presentation that I am used to hearing at a work session,” he noted.

LD 177 Work Session

The committee struck a number of provisions in this bill at an earlier work session, and amended one section to give moose permits to resident hunters over the age of 70 who have the maximum number of bonus permits and never won a permit.

Kantar did his job, completely discouraging the committee from directing the department to increase permits.

“I think Lee Kantar knows what he is doing out there and is giving all the permits he can,” said Rep. Mike Shaw, D-Standish, a sentiment that most committee members seemed to share.

An increase in permits was a key part of my bill, along with a provision establishing a guaranteed draw for Maine residents (a system that would give Mainers a permit every five or six years). My bill also directed 25 percent of the money raised from the moose lottery and hunt to moose research and marketing. It has frustrated me for a long time that DIF&W feels it has to be conservative on the number of permits because they don’t know enough about moose health and mortality. None of these suggestions got any traction today at the work session.

On an issue not related to my bill, Rep. Steve Wood, R-Sabattus, argued that moose permits in WMDs 22, 23, 25, and 26 should be limited to residents.

“We’re giving ourselves a black eye giving nonresidents permits in those districts,” because the chances of getting a moose there is so slim, he said. There was a lot of discussion about this. The committee decided to give hunters who win a permit in those zones the option of giving up the permit and retaining bonus points for future drawings.

The over-70 amendment and the WMD 22, 23, 25, and 26 amendment were all that was left of my comprehensive bill at the end of the work session. Still, I was happy, having given the committee a chance to deal with moose comprehensively, and to be educated on all of the key moose issues. They left the session today a whole lot better informed about moose than they were on Day One of the legislative session.

LD 738 Work Session

This bill awards up to 250 moose permits to state-licensed lodges and sporting camps that offered moose hunts in the previous year. The amendment’s language is very specific about who gets the permits, how many are issued, and how the permits can be used.

“I think this is an excellent bill,” said Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting. “I wish I’d thought of it. We have an obligation to move forward,” to help an ailing hunting industry. “I agree,” replied Rep. Mike Shaw, D-Standish. “I put the exact same bill in two years ago.”

Rep. Steve Wood, a Maine guide, said he’d heard from other guides who oppose the bill, because all guides are not eligible for permits. He said he’d abstain from voting because it might appear that he had a personal interest in the bill, as a Maine guide. He did explain why he thought the bill is a bad idea, “picking winners and losers” among guides and lodges.

Shaw pointed out that by awarding the permits to lodges, both guides and lodges would benefit, while only guides would benefit if they got permits directly without the partnership of the lodges.

Here’s how the system would work:

The total number of moose permits must be greater than the number issued in calendar year 2012. All hunters must hold valid Maine hunting licenses. The fee per permit would be $1,500. And the number of permits offered for sale to the sporting camps must be capped at 250.

The revenue received from the sale of the permits must be used to offset any loss from the moose permit auction by youth conservation education programs. Currently 10 permits are auctioned with proceeds going to the conservation education programs.

Ten percent of the prior year’s aggregate permit allocation would be reserved for eligible lodges (this would result in 250 permits this year). Eligible lodges are Maine Department of Health and Human Services licensed eating and lodging facilities offering American plan fully-guided moose hunting and lodging packages, that have guided or contracted with Maine guides or outfitters to guide at least two such hunts in the prior year.

Eligible lodges may request reserved moose hunting permits, limited to the number of American plan fully-guided moose hunts conducted in the prior year. If the number of tags requested exceeds the available tags, they are allocated to applicants by lottery.

If tags remain after all eligible requests are filled, the department will distribute the remaining tags to the eligible lodges on a weighted average basis,  related to tags requested (or may be auctioned similar to the current “Governor’s Tags”).

Tags may only be used for American plan fully-guided hunts within the eligible lodge’s zone or two contiguous zones. Tags would be transferable until the permit is issued, and would be valid for one time use during the current season or next season.

Got it? Yes, it’s complicated!

And frankly, I had a hard time understanding how the allocation of permits to lodges will be determined. Apparently, the number of permits issued, above the number issued in 2010, will be used to determine the number of permits available to lodges. In 2013, 4,110 permits will be issued, 970 more than were issued in 210. So the allocation to lodges in 2013 will be 97 (10 percent of the 970). At least, I think this is how it’ll be done!

The committee got into a very confusing discussion of how the permits would be selected (by zone, by sex) and then awarded to lodges. I don’t think I’m the only one who ended up confused about this aspect of the proposal. When the actual language of the amendment is ready for the committee’s review, I will try to explain this again. If I can figure it out!

Bill Swan, DIF&W’s director of licensing, told the committee “it would be a nightmare” to try to get this in place for 2013. So the new opportunity to lodges won’t begin until 2014.

And here’s a final thought from Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, who “reluctantly” voted in favor of the amended version of the bill: “I think we’re opening a can of worms. I think this will be back next year.”

The committee voted unanimously in favor of the amendment, except for Rep. Wood who abstained.

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.