When a new year arrives, many have traditions that involve resolutions and celebrations. For Maine’s moose biologist, the arrival of a new year has come to mean something else: It’s time for the state to “recruit” a new crop of moose to aid in future research efforts.
This marks the seventh year that Maine will capture and put GPS collars on moose so they can be tracked in a mortality study, according to Lee Kantar of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
A helicopter crew from Native Range, a business based in New Zealand, will begin flying Jan. 4, weather permitting, according to Kantar.
On the docket: Capturing 130 calf moose in Wildlife Management Districts 2, 4 and 8, and fitting them with collars. Of those moose, 35 will be captured in WMD 2 in extreme northern Maine, and another 35 will come from WMD 8 west of Moosehead Lake. A total of 60 will come from WMD 4, which is just west of Baxter State Park.
WMD 4 is a new study area, and Kantar hopes to spend three to five years working with moose there.
It’s an ambitious schedule, but Kantar said the crew is a veteran one that knows how to catch moose from the air. The technique involves the use of a net gun that propels a net over the calf. After that, the crew hops out of the helicopter, weighs the calf, fits it with a collar and ear tags. Kantar said the crew should only need a couple of minutes per moose to get its work done.
“[The helicopter crew] knows the program, and they just go straight out,” Kantar said. “They don’t stop unless there’s high winds or no visibility.”
The captures don’t always go exactly according to plan, though. Back in 2014, a crew member found himself in a bit of a battle with a spirited moose, and the encounter was caught on video. That technician was uninjured.
In advance of that collaring work, Kantar will begin flying with Maine Forest Service helicopter pilots on Jan. 1 to conduct surveys that determine the sex and age composition of the moose herd in specific areas.
“We like to stay ahead of [the capture crew] to do that, but as close to the actual capture as possible, so that we have fresh GPS points [to pass along, showing where moose have been seen],” Kantar said. “We’ll give them the [GPS] points of our cows that we have collared right now that have calves with them.”
Kantar said that over the previous six years of research involving the collaring of moose, valuable data has been raised about the state’s moose herd.
“I think the number one thing is you want to know what the biggest source of mortality is, and how it affects the population,” Kantar said. “And I think we’re pretty confident [now] saying that winter tick is the driving issue [in moose calf mortality].”
Through the use of the collars, which send out a signal if they’ve been stationary, biologists can quickly respond to examine moose that die during the winter, often determining a cause of death. In some WMDs during some winters, more than 50 percent of collared calves have died. The primary cause has been a load of thousands of winter ticks.
“There’s nothing else out there that we can detect that’s lurking, that’s causing a problem with these animals,” Kantar said. “It’s [largely due] to winter tick. And we also know that [winter ticks] are primarily affecting calves that are trying to get through their first winter, and not adults.”