A cow moose and its calf run through the woods north of Moosehead Lake in 2016. The moose were part of a radio-collaring study conducted by Maine moose biologist Lee Kanter. Gabe Souza/Staff file photo

A state biologist is considering a different approach that could mitigate the damage that winter ticks are having on Maine’s moose herd.

Moose biologist Lee Kantar pitched a new study Tuesday that would increase the cow harvest during the 2021 fall hunt in half of a hunting zone in northwestern Maine along the Quebec border. Kantar’s theory is that a smaller moose population would lead to an even greater reduction of winter ticks and result in a healthier herd. Kantar explained the concept during a virtual meeting with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s Advisory Council.

Kantar said it’s clear after seven years of the state’s radio-collar moose study that Maine’s herd – estimated at 60,000 – is slowly dwindling as a result of the winter tick parasite, which has become prolific here in the past 20 years.

“After doing all of this work, I still believe the (calf) mortalities are primarily driven by the winter tick infestation that starts in the fall and stays on the moose well into April and May,” Kantar said. “The thing about winter tick, not only do they affect overwintering calves with direct mortality, but they also impact the pregnant cows. And because of the low reproduction rate and because calves are having such a tough time getting through the first winter, the population in the state is probably slowly declining. In the western part of the state, it’s been hit hard by the tick. In the northern part of the state, it’s a slow grind.”

Milder winters are a big reason the winter tick has become prolific here. The parasite has been documented in Maine since the 1920s, Kantar said, but it never crippled the Maine moose herd until the winters here started getting milder, allowing the parasite in northern Maine.

“In Maine and New Hampshire, the die-off of young animals we’ve seen, it’s unprecedented,” Kantar said. New Hampshire is also conducting a moose radio-collar study.

State biologists want to roll out the new moose study in 2021. Staff file photo

To date, 605 moose have been collared by Kantar and his team in northern and western Maine – including 60 in the new study area, Wildlife Management District 4, which is just west of Baxter State Park. Since 2014, two study areas in western and northern Maine (Wildlife Management Districts 8 and 2) have shown high moose adult survival rates among collared moose – with mortality rates often 10 percent or lower. But the calf mortality in both study areas, is high most years – as high as 60 to 74 percent.

In Wildlife Management District 4, Kantar wants to divide the district into two sub-zones, creating a study area that would only make up 6 percent of the core moose range in Maine. Then over the next five years, he wants to consider increasing the cow harvest with more cow permits in the western sub-zone while continuing to collar calves and compare calf survival and winter tick loads between the two sub-zones.

Advisory Council member Shawn Sage – a hunter and the president of the Buxton-Hollis Rod and Gun Club – asked if the approach is based on existing scientific research that shows the fewer moose there are on the landscape to feed on, the less winter tick infestations there are.

“You hit the nail on the head,” Kantar said. “When you have tens of thousand of ticks on a moose – and you have thousands of moose – it creates a situation where they are expanding over time.”

Maine Wildlife Division Director Nate Webb said Kantar’s theory has worked with other types of wildlife.

“The approach that we’re proposing in WMD 4 is based on well-established principles informed by decades of wildlife science from across North America and the world,” Webb said. “Although we’re not aware of any moose studies that have used the exact approach that we’re proposing in Maine, similar research has been conducted for other wildlife species.”

Other hunters were skeptical.

Maine hunter Dave Kelso, a retired moose guide, doesn’t think Kantar’s theory will work and if Maine’s moose herd is whittled down it will just be a smaller herd, not a healthier herd. Kelso thinks biologists should just let nature run its course.

“Why do we have to destroy the village to save it?” he asked. “That’s what he’s proposing. It sounds like a slaughter to me.”

Registered Maine Guide Ron Ricciardi of Allagash thinks sportsmen should give Kantar a chance to test his theory, especially in a small study area.

“I’ve been hearing that (theory) for the longest time,” Ricciardi said. “I think we should give him a chance. Just stick to one zone and use it as a test area. It seems reasonable. The moose are going to die anyway from the ticks.”


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