‘Beneath the Harvest Sky’ moose safari scene: Common Maine practice, or rare violation of the law?

When filmmakers Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly set “Beneath the Harvest Sky” in Van Buren, they sought to capture the unique qualities of life in northern Aroostook County.

BTHSTheir effort was a success: You can practically feel the frost on a potato harvest morning. You feel the teen angst of the characters. And you may even flash back to your wild-and-foolish teen years when the characters head to an outdoor party, hop into a truck and chase a moose down a dirt road.

Alas, it’s that “moose safari” scene — a bit of comic relief in a pretty somber tale — that could end up the most controversial in an otherwise powerful film.

Harassing wildlife (as in, chasing a moose in a motor vehicle) is illegal and frowned upon by our state’s wildlife law enforcement personnel.

And just a few weeks back, another videotaped moose episode — this one involving snowmobilers and an ornery moose — went viral after it appeared on the BDN website.

Gaudet said that video likely played a role in any negative attention being directed at the scene in his film, though he said he has not personally heard any negative comments about the scene.

“I’m sure if that other video wasn’t out there, nobody would be saying anything,” Gaudet said.

Warden Cpl. John MacDonald of the Maine Warden Service echoed that sentiment..

“I think the only reason [this incident] surfaced was because of the moose-snowmobile video,” MacDonald said.

So here we are: The moose got its 15 minutes of fame in a movie that has been widely praised. But the Maine Warden Service is reviewing a copy of the movie trailer and MacDonald said wardens will decide whether to investigate the matter further.

“We assigned it to someone to look at to review and see if there might be some possible violations there,” MacDonald said.

That, among other things, is what game wardens do: investigate possible wildlife violations.

Gaudet defended the scene, and said it accurately depicts Aroostook County life.

“No moose were harmed in the making of the film,” Gaudet said in a follow-up email after a Wednesday phone interview. “We worked with people in Aroostook County with experience doing what we were attempting to do, and we took every precaution to ensure the safety of everyone involved. We did not coin the term ‘moose safari’ and it is an activity that happens in northern Maine that we tried to capture in our film.”

And that, among other things, is what filmmakers do: Try to capture slices of life that are so realistic that they resonate with their audience and elicit a response.

Unfortunately, those two realities may clash in this case.

MacDonald said he doesn’t think many Maine motorists chase moose with their cars or trucks, but admitted that because the activity would likely take place on rural dirt roads, the activity could take place more often than wardens might think.

Based on anecdotal and personal accounts, I suspect Gaudet’s assertion is closer to the truth than we might like it to be.

While I’d never heard the term “moose safari” used in that context, I have known folks who might have followed moose down dirt roads a little more closely than might be prudent … or , for that matter, legal. In fact, I’ve heard the practice called “heel-clicking.”

And truth be told, I’ve found myself behind road-running moose on several occasions, and while I thought I was being patient and giving the critter the space it deserved — often stopping and turning off my headlights to see if it would amble away — I never actually asked the moose for its opinion.

During one incident, I stopped and waited as an increasingly panicked moose repeatedly ran head-first into a chain-link fence, trying to get back to the forest it knew was nearby.

Was I harassing the moose? Not intentionally. Did the moose care that I was just trying to get to work, or that I was willing to stop and sit 50 yards away and wait for it to figure out a suitable exit strategy? Not likely.

A warden once told me that a moose ran away from his truck and vaulted off a bridge into a river gorge, where it was washed away in the rapids. The warden wasn’t harassing the moose … but the moose probably didn’t see it that way.

What we ought to be able to agree on: Wild animals are unpredictable, and giving them space is probably the best idea. Chasing them with vehicles is probably not.

MacDonald said he was unsure if the Maine Warden Service was asked for permission to film the scene. He also said that permission would not have been granted to film something that might be considered a violation of the law.

Here’s hoping the “moose safari” scene is used as a teaching moment, rather than as a more serious act by some nefarious “intentional violators” that the Warden Service often says it is dedicated to bringing to justice.

Gaudet and Pullapilly just wanted to make a movie. And they made a good one. In Maine. That’s a good thing.

And here’s hoping that the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife pays close attention to Gaudet’s assertion: This may be a much more common activity than wardens think, especially in some particularly moose-filled parts of Maine.

A public relations campaign explaining why the department discourages the activity might go a long way toward educating those who might want to embark on their own “moose safaris” in the future.

The BDN hosted the Bangor premiere of “Beneath the Harvest Sky.”

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.