AUGUSTA — A proposal to reduce Maine’s moose permits by 24 percent has struck a discord between hunters and those who simply want to view the state animal.

State wildlife biologists made the proposal Wednesday to meet public demand for greater opportunities to see moose, particularly in northern Maine.

The approach represents a shift from the past two years, when permits were cut significantly over concerns about moose survival rates because of winter-tick infestation.

“A couple of years ago we had an exceptionally hard winter and there was strong evidence that a lot of animals were not surviving. That’s not what’s happened this year,” said Maine Wildlife Division Director Judy Camuso, who noted that the statewide herd appears healthier than in recent years.

So why the reduction in permits?

“We want to meet our objective (for what the public wants as far as viewing). So it’s for management reasons rather than biological,” she said.

Under the proposal, the number of permits allocated this year would decline to 2,140 – 675 fewer than last year’s 2,815. All of the reductions would take place in just five of the state’s 29 wildlife management districts – four of them in northernmost Maine and the other Down East.

State biologists have used data collected during aerial surveys to determine that moose are less visible in northern hunting districts.

“It’s a mistake. Basically, it’s not good,” Nathan Theriault, a Registered Maine Guide who works out of Eagle Lake Camps outside Fort Kent, said of the proposed permit reduction.

“We make a living off bear and moose. If you cut down those permits, most of our moose hunts are booked by non-residents, that cuts down the number of non-residents.”

Guy Randlett of Southport, a Registered Maine Guide of 20 years who guides for moose in northern Maine, said there probably has been a slight decrease in moose numbers in Maine, but he doesn’t think it’s as bad as biologists believe.

“It seems like once you get 100 yards off the road you start to see a lot more (signs of) moose,” Randlett said.

But Don Hibbs, co-owner of Nahmakanta Lake camps just south of Baxter State Park, said he has guided moose safaris for 22 years and he sees significantly fewer moose than he did when he started.

“We don’t participate in the moose hunt. All I can tell you is, it’s very clear the population in the last 10 years is a third what it was, maybe less,” Hibbs said.

A district-by-district determination of how many moose need to be seen on the landscape is set by a public working group every 10 years. The last figures were set a decade ago and a new working group is currently producing another set of a goals for moose-population levels.

“So our goals next year might be different,” Camuso said.

That effort will involve surveys, public hearings, public focus groups and written comments. The public hearings for that process will be held in mid-March around the state.

State biologists estimate Maine’s moose population at 60,000 to 70,000 animals, more than any other state in the contiguous United States.

Because of concerns over mortality caused by winter ticks, the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife reduced moose permits each of the past two years. Last year permits were cut 9 percent, from 3,095 to 2,815. In 2014 they were reduced 24 percent, from 4,085 to 3,095, the fewest since 2009.

This year’s reductions were announced at IFW’s Advisory Council meeting Wednesday and met with a positive reaction from board members, who will vote on the proposal in April.

Council members Dick Fortier of Caribou and Matt Thurston of New Gloucester both said they’ve seen and heard the moose population looks healthier.

“I want to manage a healthy moose population. If I have to give up (some permits) for a few years, I’m fine with that,” Thurston said.

Sherry Oldham of Rangeley said she spoke to veterinarians at the University of Maine who have done blood work on the moose in a collaring study, and they suggested the herd is healthy.

“They said the moose look better this year than they did last year. The blood tests (taken from live moose) show they are healthier,” Oldham said. “Although I would like more moose, I’d like them to look healthier.”

Camuso said of the two dead moose retrieved from the moose collar study this winter, both died of natural causes rather than winter ticks.

“When (Maine moose biologist) Lee Kantar flew the aerial survey, he saw more moose than he’s ever seen. He was so giddy about it, he was like a kid in a candy store,” Camuso said.

The moose collar study and the aerial count, now in its third year, have provided a good picture of the moose population this winter, Camuso said.

The majority of the proposed reductions – 350 of the 675 – would take place in Wildlife Management District 4, which is mostly working forestland west of Baxter State Park and Ashland.

“There we’re concerned with the bull-to-cow ratio a little bit,” Camuso said.

Josie Allen, co-owner of Macannamac Camps in the Allagash Lakes Region, trusts the biologists, even though her family’s camp depends on being full of moose hunters in the fall.

“Our approach is wildlife management comes first,” Allen said.

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