65 percent — an all-time low — of Maine moose hunters filled tags in 2014

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The state’s moose hunters struggled to fill their tags in 2014, recording the lowest success rate — 65.3 percent — since Maine’s modern moose hunt began in 1980.

From left, Scott and Alex Humphrey, 13, stand next to a moose that Alex Humphrey shot Monday morning on the first day of the 2014 moose hunt. Brian Feulner| BDN

From left, Scott and Alex Humphrey, 13, stand next to a moose that Alex Humphrey shot Monday morning on the first day of the 2014 moose hunt. Brian Feulner| BDN

The state’s moose biologist said a number of factors played roles in a relative lack of hunter success. Still, moose hunters have far better luck than hunters targeting other game in Maine, whose success rates are much lower.

“The bottom line is, success rates are excellent,” Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Lee Kantar said in an interview. “You compare this to deer hunting and they’re excellent.”

According to DIF&W statistics, 15 percent of deer hunters are typically successful each season. Turkey hunters (32 percent) and bear hunters (25 percent) also lag behind moose hunters.

In Maine, hunters are not allowed to target moose unless they earn a coveted permit through a state-run lottery. Last year, 3,095 permits were allotted.

Last year’s hunt marked just the second time since 1980 that the statewide success rate dropped below 70 percent. In 2011, 68.9 percent of hunters filled their tags. The all-time record was set in 1991, when 95.9 percent of moose hunters were successful.

Kantar itemized a number of factors that can contribute to a lack of hunter success.

“We’ve had changes in season dates — we’ve gone from an October season to September, October [and] November [seasons in the same year], we’ve had changes in permit types since 2000, we’ve had some areas that we’ve added cow permits to,” Kantar said. “There’s some apple-and-orange stuff here [when it comes to comparing year-to-year success] and success depends on the month you’re hunting and whether you’re hunting a bull or a cow.”

Kantar said a decline in the state’s moose population, likely linked to winter ticks, has also lowered state’s moose population. Kantar said an official estimate has not been reached but he said the herd now probably numbers in the low 60,000s. Three years ago the state estimated the moose herd at 75,000.

State biologists try to get as specific as they can when recommending the allocation of permits in order to make sure a predictable impact is made on the population of a given Wildlife Management District, he said.

Therefore, most permits call for a hunter to target one gender in a particular WMD.

The most unpredictable factor — and the one that can have the most impact — is the weather, he said. And this year’s weather was far from ideal for moose hunting.

Hunters drawn to participate during the September season found that bull moose were responding to calls during the days leading up to the hunt. Then opening day arrived, and everything changed.

“It was warm. You talk to people who were out, and it wasn’t good conditions,” Kantar said.

Kantar said warm weather not only drives moose away from roads and into cooler spots, it also discourages hunters and makes them less apt to fill a tag on a given day.

And although conditions improved later in the week, the loss of a prime hunting day or two was felt in the final tally.

“Just generalizing here, 75 percent of the moose are harvested within the first three or four days [of a six-day season],” Kantar said. “So if you’ve got opening day and you’re all excited and you’ve got this [warm] weather … these things play a factor.”

And the second key season, in early October, was also affected by abnormally high temperatures.

“[During the October season], you wake up on Monday and it’s a beautiful day — crisp, crunchy, beautiful — and all that changed on Tuesday in the north country,” Kantar said. “We had temperatures in the 70s and the rest of the week was very, very warm.”

And while Kantar and DIF&W biologists can’t predict what kind of weather this year’s hunters will encounter, he’s confident that management efforts are paying off, and the state is learning more about the state’s moose herd every year. In addition, biologists are ready to step in and recommend further changes to the moose hunt if the herd struggles.

“Looking at the survival data from our radio-collared moose last year, we know that winter ticks during the winter of 2014 had an impact on moose,” Kantar said in a press release. “It was an impact that was likely above normal, somewhat similar in its impact to a tough winter on deer.”

As a result of the data that was gathered last winter, the DIF&W reduced the number of moose permits allotted for 2014 by 25 percent.

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.