A bull moose crosses a logging road near Kokajo, on the eastern side of Moosehead Lake in June 2001. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

This is the third of four stories outlining the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s recently unveiled big game management plan, which includes deer, bear, moose and turkeys.

When state wildlife officials last formulated a long-range management plan for moose back in 1999, the population was booming, and both wildlife watchers and hunters could count on finding the state’s iconic critters in likely spots.

Today, the population is lower, and as biologists have gathered valuable data over the last eight years, a grim reality has begun to creep into discussions: We may still have too many moose, and the density of moose in some regions may be linked to thriving parasites and an unhealthy herd.

That’s just one challenge facing officials as the latest 10-year plan has been unveiled for public comment.

Lee Kantar, a moose biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said the timing of this plan is perfect.

“Our gathering of new information about moose has coincided with this new management plan, and what better way for things to happen but you’re developing a new management plan and you have new and better information to guide your decision-making,” Kantar said. “That’s significant.”

[Timeline: How Maine has managed its moose herd over the years]

The state has embarked on key moose research in the last decade, including an ongoing mortality study that’s illuminating the role winter ticks have on young moose in western Maine.

“The environmental conditions have made it a better place for ticks to live, to the detriment of both humans and some young moose. That’s a change, and unfortunately … high densities of animals correspond to high densities of parasites,” Kantar said. “We’ve seen in some parts of the moose woods a high incidence of parasites. In our western study area, our moose calves, in their first winter, have taken it hard from winter tick and other internal parasites.”

And Kantar said Mainers will likely have to get used to that new reality as biologists strive to help the herd get healthier. Seeing more moose does not necessarily mean that the moose population is faring well.

“One thing that’s likely to happen in western Maine, in one way or another, is that there’s going to be less moose than people have seen over the years,” Kantar said. “That’s either going to be a byproduct of ticks, or perhaps there will be some management actions we can take as well to try to reduce the parasite issue that we’ve been seeing there.”

The three stated goals of the moose management plan are:

— Maintain a healthy, sustainable moose population while providing hunting and viewing opportunities.

— Continue researching the relationships between moose and parasites, habitat condition, climate and management.

— Ensure public satisfaction with Maine’s moose population and increase the state’s understanding of moose biology, ecology and management.

Maine’s modern moose hunt began in 1980, when 700 permits were allotted by lottery. There was no hunt in 1981, but beginning in 1982, moose hunting has been allowed on an annual basis. As many as 4,110 permits, in 2013, have been allotted. In 2017, a total of 2,080 permits were sold, with 10 percent of those going to nonresident hunters.

There was no moose season in Maine from 1936 through 1979.

[Maine’s wildlife biologists want to shrink the bear herd, but they’ll face some challenges]

In surveys of Mainers taken in advance of the new management plan, 63 percent of respondents said they thought the state’s moose management was “excellent” or “good.” In addition, 90 percent strongly approved of legal moose hunting.

Kantar said one of the strengths of the new plan is a result of the work that went into its formation. He said the sheer number of people who were surveyed led to a well-rounded group of Maine stakeholders, from hunters and wildlife watchers to landowners.

“This round, more than ever, we reached out to as wide of an audience in the state that we could to understand what they were thinking about about bear, moose, deer and turkey. The difference was that in 2016 versus in 1999 and 2000, we have all of this social media,” Kantar said. “We had a professional organization that does this for a living go out there and get the correct sample size of the public so that we could understand the broad perspective of everybody — not just hunters, but people who live in the state of Maine — and how they value wildlife.”

[Officials enlist Mainers’ deer knowledge to help manage the herd]

Kantar said that in a future when moose densities might be lower doesn’t mean people will never see moose. It might, however, mean those intent on seeing one will want to change their tactics.

“Driving up randomly in the North Woods hoping to see a moose is a lot different than [what] someone who’s a bird watcher would do, trying to see a list of birds. They’re going to go to a specific habitat at a specific time of day, and have very specific expectations of what they’re going to see. They’re going to take their time and they’re going to go slow,” Kantar said.

“I think there’s going to have to be a change on how people go to watch moose. Everybody I talk to says they want to go to a body of water and see a moose, even if it’s a time of year when you wouldn’t normally see them,” he said. “We all love to see moose, but it’s going to be a little bit of a change of thinking.”

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John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...