Mainers have been complaining that moose seem harder to find compared to the early days of the hunt.
And they may not be wrong, as hunters in 2022 experienced the least successful season since the inception of the modern moose hunt in 1980.
Sixty-two percent of hunters (2,199 of 3,530) successfully killed a moose during last year’s traditional statewide hunt, according to preliminary data recently released from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The previous low of 65.3 percent occurred in 2014.
The harvest came on the heels of a 2021 season during which 68 percent of hunters were successful, which at that time ranked as the third lowest. It is part of an ongoing decline in moose hunting success, as fewer than 70 percent of hunters killed a moose for the third time in the last four years.
Trying to understand those numbers in the context of what’s going on with moose, habitat and hunters in Maine is complicated.
“We’ve changed so many things since the beginning of the moose hunt that it’s not really comparable over time,” said DIF&W moose biologist Lee Kantar, the state’s expert on the animals.
DIF&W assumed responsibility for the moose hunt rulemaking process in 1999 and Kantar said frequent changes to season dates, quotas, weather and even hunter strategies have occurred since then.
Kantar said Maine has experienced an overall reduction in its moose population because of winter ticks. The insects are killing large numbers of vulnerable calves each year in some of the state’s best moose habitat.
“There’s fewer moose,” said Kantar, noting the state’s most recent estimate of 75,000 moose was made in 2012.
“If we didn’t have winter ticks, we could have as many moose as people ever wanted coming out of our ears,” he said. “It’s a problem that has been with us for a while here, and that shows in a slow decline in the moose population.”
Kantar said there are still more than enough animals for hunters to harvest a moose. The state has increased the number of permits from 2,080 in 2017 to 4,030 in 2021. Last season there were 4,050 permits issued.
That’s 95 percent more hunters in the woods over a span of five years.
“Permit changes across the board have always been based on what we believe can be harvested,” Kantar said.
There are a variety of factors affecting hunter success, including the timing of the seasons, location, weather, the presence of other hunters, vehicle traffic and hunter effort. And the majority of hunters have only six days to hunt.
Kantar said the unfamiliarity of many hunters with moose habitat and behavior, coupled with a reliance on an outdated belief system from the 1980s — when clearcuts were more common, the animals were more visible and success rates higher — are key issues.
“The success part is up to hunter behavior,” Kantar said. “There’s a lot of homework there. There’s a lot of ground to cover.”
He also said the nature of moose hunting is such that, even with sufficient preparation, sometimes a hunt simply does not come together.
Hunters again found it challenging to harvest a moose during the second year of the state’s adaptive unit hunt. Those numbers are calculated separately.
That multiyear effort, focused on the western half of Wildlife Management District 4, is part of a DIF&W initiative to determine whether thinning the population in a particular region reduces the spread of winter ticks and thus lessens calf mortality.
Last year, almost 90 percent of calf moose collared in Maine died before spring because of ticks.
There were 520 antlerless permits distributed to moose hunters for the three weeks that made up the 2022 adaptive hunt. Only 125, or 36 percent, harvested an animal.
That included 18 percent and 17 percent for the second October week and the November hunt, respectively. During the first October week, 40 percent of hunters were successful. Last year, it was 52 percent overall.
“Cow hunting, especially when you go post-rut, that’s a challenge,” Kantar said, referring to the period after the mating season.
Despite efforts by the department to provide hunters with information on its website about hunting cows and calves during the adaptive hunt, there have been challenges to kill moose as part of the study.
“It’s complicated, but the nature of our adaptive hunt is we have room to make some changes if we need to and we’ll look at all that stuff,” Kantar said of departmental discussions in the coming weeks in preparation for setting the parameters for the 2023 hunts.
“With moose, the driving force on the landscape is winter tick,” Kantar said. “We need to figure out how we’re going to continue to make our way through this.”