Make no mistake – moose in Maine are big.
Big in stature, certainly, but perhaps even bigger in popularity.
The sight of a majestic bull moose brings joy to wildlife watchers, and tens of thousands of hunters dream each year about the chance to hunt moose (don’t forget – online moose applications are due by May 14!).
The state animal, designated so in 1979, is found throughout Maine. But just how many moose are found throughout the state has been a subject of debate among sportsmen, wildlife watchers, conservation groups, chambers of commerce and others. Until now.
Over the past two winters, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has been conducting aerial moose surveys to get a better answer to the question of just how many moose there are in Maine.
Lee Kantar, Maine’s moose biologist, has been riding shotgun in a Maine Forest Service helicopter. The four-person crew includes a forest service pilot, Kantar and two other wildlife biologists who scan for moose from the helicopter as it cruises 40 miles an hour a mere 200 feet from the ground.
The helicopter is essential to the project. Its speed, range and maneuverability are ideal.
The whir of the helicopter blades and roar of the engines cause moose to move, and as they move, biologists count them.
Kantar listens to the biologists as they identify the moose. He notes discrepancies between the biologists’ observations, ensuring a more accurate count.
They cover one wildlife management district with each flight. The pilot flies seven 25-mile transects, each one kilometer apart. Each transect takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to fly, and when you add flight time to a remote destination, it can mean a 10- to 12-hour day.
“I can’t say enough about the Maine Forest Service. Top notch pilots, great maintenance crew it’s a great partnership,” said Kantar.
This year, the group flew over seven wildlife management districts. Moose densities ranged from about one moose per square mile to, well, something more than that.
“We had districts where there were more than five or six moose per square mile, and District 4 (northern Somerset and northern Penobscot counties) was one of them,” said Kantar, “That was a real surprise, which was why we went back and flew that district three different times.”
Some districts, such as Wildlife Management District 11 (southern Aroostook and northern Washington counties), did not have as many moose.
“Eleven is considered one of our compromise zones (moose population is balanced for safety and recreation). That (the aerial census) is why we cut moose permits in that district. We accomplished what we were asked to do there,” said Kantar.
The aerial census helps determine how many moose permits should be allocated in each district, helping to manage the moose population.
“Our big concern, and job No. 1, is to balance what all Mainers want, whether it is more hunting opportunity or more viewing opportunity and everything in between,” said Kantar. “That is a huge job and it has to be looked at on a district by district basis.”
While the aerial counts give an accurate real-time view of local moose populations, showcased alone they are not definitive.
“We still have some missing ingredients with all of this, and that is the question of winter mortality,” said Kantar. “Winter mortality is difficult to gauge, and will most likely require flights in one district over a span of consecutive years.”
And the million dollar question: How many moose are there?
Kantar said earlier estimates peg the state’s moose population between 60,000 and 90,000, and he testified earlier this year before the Legislature’s fish and wildlife committee that the population is about 75,000.
Determining a more accurate number will take a bit longer, requiring a more in-depth look at the survey results in each district, as well as other factors such as winter mortality. Southern Maine moose numbers must also be factored in.
Kantar hopes to have a more accurate population range this summer.
“We have a very rigorous and functional technique that works. Bottom line is that this is a good thing for Maine. We have a great thing going that I hope continues.”
Mark Latti is a registered Maine Guide, and the landowner relations/recreational access coordinator for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.