Snow is in the air, and in parts of Maine, helicopters are as well. It begs the question as to whether change may soon be in the air, too.

Maine Forest Service ranger pilots and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologists are flying over specific areas of the state, counting the number of moose for the third year in a row.

It has been a beneficial operation for both the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

“This program is good for both agencies. IFW gets the biological data they need and the ranger pilots get to help the state using their skills flying over Maine’s challenging terrain,” said John Crowley, chief pilot for the Maine Forest Service.

In the coming weeks, that aerial census information, along with other biological data, will be used to determine how many lucky hunters will get a chance to hunt moose in Maine next year.

Moose hunters had a record year in 2012. Preliminary totals show 2,886 hunters were successful in their quest to bag a moose, the highest moose kill in Maine history. The success rate for hunters was equally impressive at 77 percent.

Could the change in the air be that we see even more permits next year?

The aerial moose census has certainly opened up some eyes, both on the ground and in the air, due to the large number of moose that has been counted. The state’s moose population is estimated to be in the 76,000 range.

So far this year, the moose census group has flown four flights, getting moose population data in Wildlife Management Districts 1, 5, 7 and 9, which include parts of Aroostook County, the Moosehead Lake region and the Rangeley area.

And the crews have counted lots of moose.

“We classified 151 moose in just over a couple of hours. We were quite pleased with that as there was a lot of good info there,” said Lee Kantar, the state deer and moose specialist, “Certainly when we get over 100 moose to classify, we are doing pretty good.”

Moose counting has been good in several areas of the state. On one flight, the crew counted 168 moose in WMD 2 in Aroostook County, although they flew for a longer duration.

On the Rangeley area flight in WMD 7, they counted on average 1.1 moose per minute. On the WMD 2 flight, just under a moose a minute (.97).

And the data that they get from the air is crunched with the data that they collect at tagging stations, with hunter surveys and tooth/age studies giving a more complete picture of the health and size of the moose population in a certain area.

All that information will be discussed and debated when it comes to setting the number of permits. That’s because even with the revised upward population estimates, there comes conflicting concerns about the moose population. Some want to see more moose permits now, others would like to see a slow increase, or even a freeze in the number of permits.

Yet in some areas, the permit numbers are increasing already. WMD 2 has gone from 95 bull permits in 2009 to 300 cow and 300 bull permits (600 total) in 2012. That’s a sixfold increase in just three seasons.

A broader swath of northern Maine, which possesses prime moose habitat, has also seen an increase.

“In zones 1-6, from 2009 to 2010, there was a 12 percent increase in the number of permits. In 2011, there was an increase of 27 percent. That’s almost a 30 percent increase in permits in those zones in 2011,” said Kantar.

So how many permits will be issued for 2013? That will be debated over the next few months, and it is a responsibility that Kantar does not take lightly.

“I think it is our job to be careful,” said Kantar concerning a rapid increase in the number of moose permits, “and I only say that because this is a resource that we can not get back if we kill them all.”

In the meantime, if the weather cooperates, Kantar, IFW biologists and Maine Forest Ranger pilots will continue to take to the air, counting moose in order to get an even more complete picture of Maine’s moose population for this year and beyond. 

Mark Latti is a Registered Maine Guide, and the Landowner Relations/ Recreational Access Coordinator for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.