Maine biologist: State’s moose herd is thriving, national population concerns complex

The opening paragraph of a Washington Post story that appeared on the BDN website on Tuesday was quite dramatic, especially here in Maine, a state where moose are an iconic critter that help fuel the tourism and hunting industries alike.

“Moose in the northern United States are dying in what scientists say may be the start of climate shock to the world’s boreal forests,” the Washington Post lead states.

The report goes on to mention parasitic worms that seem to be laying Minnesota moose low. In Wyoming, an artery-blocking worm is the culprit. In New Hampshire, tick infestations are suspected.

And here in Maine? Well, Lee Kantar is glad you asked.

Kantar is the moose biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and on Wednesday, he was eager to dump some water on the “all the moose are dying” inferno.

“The whole issue with moose populations across the lower 48 is complex, and you have to look at it state by state [to understand] what’s going on out there,” Kantar said. “What’s happening in Minnesota is different from what’s happening in New Hampshire, which is different from what’s happening in Massachusetts, which is different than Montana and different than Wyoming.”

It’s not that there aren’t some moose-specific problems cropping up around the country, Kantar said. But tossing all the moose woes into one “the moose are dying” basket doesn’t make biological sense.

“What’s going on is much more nuanced, as far as increases and decreases, across all of those areas,” Kantar said. “So you absolutely cannot paint some broad-brush picture.”

Take Minnesota, for instance. Look at what’s happening there. Just don’t assume that the Minnesota situation can or will repeat itself in Maine.

“Minnesota is at one end of the scale, where they’re seeing dramatic losses in their moose. They’re seeing lots of reasons for that. And not one silver bullet,” Kantar said. “Minnesota has a lot more deer, and deer are part of the system when it comes to [spreading] meningeal or brain worm. The higher deer densities you have, the more prevalence of brain worm, which in many cases means death for moose.”

In parts of Minnesota, Kantar said there are 10 to 15 deer per square mile. When deer are close together in high numbers like that, diseases — and parasites — can spread quickly among the herd, and to neighboring moose.

In northern Maine, where Maine’s most productive moose zones are located, there might be five deer per square mile, according to Kantar.

Another factor to consider, Kantar said, is this: Maine’s northern forests are essentially perfect for moose, thanks to the timber industry.

“Maine is set up, with our commercial forest lands and the cutting cycles and the amount [of wood that is cut], to provide prime habitat for moose,” Kantar said. “As is southern Quebec, which has seen an increase in their moose, event though they hunt moose much more intensively than us. They hunt moose like we hunt deer — [buying permits] over the counter.”

A cow and a calf moose walk along a dirt road in Maine in September. Brian Feulner | BDN

Kantar conceded that ticks and other parasites increase after mild winters. But he pointed out that though southern New England typically has milder winters than Maine, over the past 20 years moose have moved into Massachusetts and Connecticut in greater numbers.

Combine the effects of habitat, parasites, and predators — especially wolves in western states — and you end up with a pretty complicated model, one that’s difficult to sum up in one sentence, or to define in one brush stroke.

“People really need to step back and look at this complex host of things going on out there that are affecting moose populations,” Kantar said. “They need to step back and look at Maine. Nothing has changed from last year to this year with moose in Maine. We have parts of Maine that are doing great for moose. We have parts of Maine, when you get farther south, where we have less moose. And [we have] everything in between.”

All of which isn’t to suggest that Kantar and his Maine colleagues have stuck their heads in the sand, or that they aren’t paying close attention to the situations that exist elsewhere.

“Nobody who manages any species lives in a vacuum. So we’re informed and educated by our colleagues in other jurisdictions, other provinces, other states,” Kantar said. “We’re extremely concerned by what’s going on in other jurisdictions. And we do our due diligence.”

Kantar said he corresponds with moose biologists in Minnesota and New Hampshire weekly. And in order to better understand moose mortality, he said Maine and New Hampshire will begin work on a joint research project in January.

“We’re looking to radio collar, GPS collar, 60 moose — 30 adult females, 30 calves,” Kantar said. “We’re going to monitor those animals over time to be able to quantify, scientifically, how our moose are faring. And at the same time, New Hampshire [will do the same thing].”

When those moose die and a signal is received, biologists will scramble to the scene, where they’ll try to determine what caused the death.

“This is going to [provide] an incredible amount of information,” Kantar said.

Follow John Holyoke on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke



John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.