The moose tick problem

The scientific management of Maine’s wildlife populations can be complex and, at times, counterintuitive. There are, however, some fundamental tenets that are timeless. Here are two: 1) An overabundance of animals is not a good thing, and in time can trigger unhealthy populations plagued with disease and starvation, and 2) Recreational hunting with harvest quotas is a proven and effective method of regulating animal population densities.

Today, in certain areas of Maine’s wilderness, there are too many moose sharing the same space. And the winter tick is taking its toll, particularly on moose calf survival and reproduction. According to Maine moose research leader Lee Kantar, “…the number of calves born each year has dropped significantly since the 1990s, as well as the number of twin calves produced. The prevalence of the winter tick has increased dramatically, causing moderate to high mortality in calves trying to make it to their first birthday.”

Controlling the winter tick is the challenge. Kantar says that applying pesticides to the forest or the moose itself is “not effective, realistic or economical.” This leaves culling the herd with recreational hunting as the only practical alternative. The Maine wildlife biologist points out that research shows that lower density moose populations are healthier populations that produce more calves and have less parasites, including winter ticks.

To this end, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIF&W) is proposing a test, starting next fall, to determine if lowering moose densities in the western half of Wildlife Management District 4 (WMD 4) will result in the decrease of winter ticks. This will be done by significantly increasing the number of cow hunting permits in this test area of WMD 4. Kantar says that the increase in cow permits is likely to be in the hundreds.

As the years go by, this harvest quota will be adjusted accordingly depending upon the findings of the test.

Why use WMD 4, in far northwestern Maine, as the test area? Kantar already has good moose research data from that area. Equally important is that this section of WMD 4 has very high moose densities.

Of course, there is another alternative, which is to do nothing and let nature take its course. The problem here is that we risk losing more moose by parasites and experiencing lower and lower calf reproduction. Even this test is no guarantee of tick reduction, but it represents a proactive wildlife management approach based on science. This is at the heart of informed wildlife conservation strategy.

Kantar and the MDIF&W team deserve our appreciation for their hard work and willingness to find well-founded answers to tough wildlife management dilemmas.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. His email address is [email protected]

V. Paul Reynolds

Columnist at Ellsworth American
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. His email address is [email protected]

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