Maine’s newly released 10-year Big Game Management Plan clearly claims that, when it comes to managing our biggest and most popular big game animal, there is uncertainty. Moose ticks are the wild card.
The $64 million question is: How are moose ticks impacting our moose population? In 2010, about the time that wildlife biologist Lee Kantar took the helm of moose management for Maine, we implemented a winter aerial survey of moose numbers. At the time, Kantar characterized this survey undertaking as a “scientific look at moose population dynamics.” Eight years later, there are things we know and things we still don’t know. We do know from gathered data that ticks are taking a serious toll of calf moose. In some cases as much as 50 percent of these young moose die each winter.
Moose ticks and the impact that these parasites have on adult moose, and especially yearling moose, appear to be driving the moose management strategy for the foreseeable future. Lee Kantar says that, because of the ticks, we may have to shrink our moose herd to keep it healthy. Kantar says that the winter moose aerial surveys that have been ongoing will help him and his staff make useful moose management decisions. The question of course is: In today’s tick environment, how many moose is too many? Purportedly in 2012 we had an estimated 76,000 moose. When asked, and pushed, Kantar resists making even an estimate on present moose numbers. Neither does the game management plan say much of anything about current moose numbers. It does tell us moose population history. In the 1900s we had about 2,000 moose. In 2012, following the aerial surveys, there were estimated to be 76,064 moose in the North Woods.
This is somewhat puzzling. In the game management plan there are population estimates on our other big game species — deer, bear and turkeys. Kantar no doubt has a good reason to “breast his cards” when curious outdoor writers push him for a number. Perhaps he is noncommittal because the aerial studies suggest contrasting population trends: moose densities are high in some WMDs but not in others.
Common sense suggests that objective moose population data is crucial, that it is the key to attaining the management plan’s number one goal: to stabilize the moose herd in Maine. If there is no yardstick — no population baseline — how can you ever measure, how can you know if you have met population objectives?
Here is Kantar’s response to my query about current moose numbers:
“As I mentioned, we continue with aerial surveys to update numbers — but are not there yet. We have a darn good picture of what the moose population looks like and health as measured by moose productivity, age at first calving, cow-calf weights, female age distributions, winter tick counts as well as reporting on moose mortality — annually (remember we have fitted over 375 moose with GPS collars over the last 5 years). A healthy moose population will be indicated by increased ovulation rates, younger mean age of breeding, increased twinning rates and stable female age distribution. It will also be seen in higher calf-cow ratios and declines in winter tick loads and mortality rates. So I believe we have a good handle on moose population numbers, but are not going to break it down to the decimal so to speak at this point.”
When the moose aerial studies were commenced in 2010, getting a handle on the ever-elusive question of how many moose there actually are was an avowed purpose of the surveys, along with understanding moose mortality and productivity. Eight years later it seems that, although we have gained useful data on moose sex ratios and causes of mortality and other indices, we have fallen short in counting heads.
This seems to be one of those cases that, when comes to estimating the population of our valuable and iconic woods animal, it is, indeed, rocket science.