Before Maine’s annual statewide moose hunt got underway this week, two dozen successful hunters had already bagged a trophy and were on their way home.

Since 2009 the state has conducted a five-week controlled hunt in central Aroostook County to help farmers who’d been losing crops to hungry moose.

“Moose like broccoli,” Lee Kantar, state moose biologist, said. “You look up there in Aroostook County, and you have this broccoli crop that starts sprouting in the early summer and which is quite palatable to the moose and it extends into the fall.”

The central Aroostook broccoli fields are surrounded by classic moose habitat, Kantar said, making the cropland perfect banquet grounds for the big game animal.

“We were having a real issue with moose eating the broccoli,” Emily Smith of Smith Farms in Presque Isle said.

Smith said she didn’t keep track of exactly how much of the 4,000 acres of broccoli the farm plants annually the moose were destroying but said it was a significant amount.

“It was enough of a problem that we knew we had to work with the state and other groups to control it,” she said.

Working with farmers, landowners, outfitters, biologists, game wardens and other interested parties, Kantar said his department came up with the idea to designate five weeks leading up the the regular moose season for the controlled hunt in Aroostook.

“We really looked at what was the problem,” the biologist said. “In 2009 there were a lot of moose in the landscape, and there were also issues of people driving into places they should not be because they saw moose in the agricultural fields that was producing a host of landowner-hunter conflicts.”

At the same time, he said, farmers like Smith wanted the moose out of their broccoli but did not have the time to hunt themselves.

“So we started to think about cooperative ways to deal with the moose coming into the fields and getting the farmers and hunters together,” Kantar said. “It turned out a lot of the growers are incredibly accommodating once they were brought into the conversation.”

One hundred permits were issued that first year, Kantar said.

“We limited to specific townships [and] started issuing permits before the regular hunt but also to cover the critical time when the moose were doing the most damage to the crops,” he said.

Those permits are limited to Limestone, Caribou, Woodland, Presque Isle, Fort Fairfield, Washburn, Westmanland, Castle Hill, Easton and Connor. According to Kantar and Smith, the hunt has worked and there has been a marked decrease in moose damage in the broccoli fields.

“We have not seen the moose eating the broccoli the last few years like we were before the controlled hunt,” Smith said. “Those moose, they really do like the broccoli.”

The hunt has worked well enough at the number of permits given out dropped from 100 to 25 three years ago, Kantar said.

“The hunt has morphed over time,” he said. “It’s been very successful, and that success really comes from getting such a diverse group of stakeholders involved at the start.”

At the same time the number of permits dropped to 25, Kantar said, the decision was made to designate them for a specific population.

“Those permits now all go to disabled military veterans,” Kantar said. “It’s a situation where we can remove the moose from the fields while at the same time providing these veterans an incredibly special experience in northern Maine.”

This year 23 of the 25 special moose hunt permit holders tagged a moose, according to Keri Hentosh who, with her husband David Hentosh, owns Smouldering Lake Outfitters in Bridgewater.

For the past several years Smith Farms has worked exclusively with the Hentoshes to bring the hunters into their broccoli fields.

“It’s really a once in a lifetime opportunity for these veterans,” Keri Hentosh said. “It’s so great to meet these guys from all over the country and watch them enjoy the hunt and have the opportunity to talk to each other and open up about their military experiences.”

As far as Smith is concerned, it’s a win-win.

“I can’t think of a group of people more deserving to go on a special hunt than our veterans,” she said. “It’s good for everyone. It’s good for us because it’s taking care of the moose damage, and it’s good for the vets who get to experience the moose hunt.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.