Maine Moose Census Raises New Questions About Moose Numbers
By V. Paul Reynolds


Counting moose in the Maine woods is not as easy as counting sheep. Despite a moose’s imposing size and generally sluggish demeanor, it can be elusive. But Maine now has an official moose count - sort of.

The Maine Fish and Wildlife Department (MDIF&W) has just released the results of its spring aerial survey of Maine’s moose population. According to MDIF&W, which contracted with a private firm for the aerial survey, moose densities in Wildlife Management District 9 (WMD 9) east of Moosehead Lake "were determined to be at least 1.3 moose per square mile."

MDIF&W’s Ken Elowe says that the survey findings were "adjusted" to take into consideration those moose "likely missed" by the infra-red sensing device. From that, a population estimate of 1,280 moose is given for WMD 9, a district in which 100 hunting permits have been assigned for this fall. Crunching the numbers, this means that less than 10 percent of this district’s moose will be harvested this fall. A reasonable figure not likely to jeopardize a moose population that has been growing at a rate estimated at close to 15 percent a year. Deputy IF&W Commissioner Fred Hurley says, "Bottom line is that this moose count (for WMD 9) puts us within the safety zone. Our harvest quota remains acceptable."

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The survey was done for a number of reasons:

1. MDIF&W has been given full authority by the state legislature to manage the moose herd by setting harvest quotas.

2. Tourism interests were getting nervous out of concern that the moose watching trade might be losing critters for viewing.

3. The Big Game Working Group - a committee of citizens advising wildlife managers -suggested in its report last year that a moose census was long overdue.

4. Safari Club International agreed to partly underwrite the $50,000 tab for the moose survey.

Although the Fish and Wildlife folks can be credited with trying to do the right thing, there must be some furrowed brows among state wildlife managers, especially those who prefer science over showmanship. >From a public relations standpoint, the survey serves a purpose. For example, the Bangor Daily News accepted the survey’s reliability at face value, reporting that this is "the first time the state...has had an accurate count of moose anywhere in Maine."

Accurate? The numbers don’t seem to add up. Prior to the aerial survey, in a 100- page Moose Assessment, wildlife biologist Karen Morris reports that WMD 9 has an estimated moose population of 3.4 moose per square mile, not 1.3 as reported by the aerial survey.

This is a significant disparity: 1,280 moose versus 3,260! It is made even more glaring by the fact that WMD 9 has been Maine’s prime moose habitat! It proclaims loudly that either the aerial survey was badly flawed, or the state has been grossly over-estimating state moose numbers. Other indices, such as the sky-rocketing increase in moose-car collisions and consistently high hunter success ratios, suggest the problem may be with the former, the infra-red aerial study.

Commenting on the aerial survey, Morris says that she "was surprised by the numbers." She agrees that the "indices seem to be going in different directions." She says that there were problems with the survey. The moose count was done in early April, instead of fall when it was supposed to be done. Late snowcover may have kept many animals under cover hidden from the aerial scanners.

Morris’s 1999 report further states that the moose population in this district was at its full carrying capacity and that, in general, Maine’s moose numbers were far in excess of desired population levels. (Wildlife managers like to see big game populations stabilize at about 50 to 60 percent of carrying capacity for healthy populations.) Morris would ideally like to see WMD 9’s moose population stabilized at more than three animals per square mile.

In the long term, the $50,000 survey may have created a bigger problem than it solved. In fact, Morris says "Our survey seems to raise more questions than it answers." From inception, the survey method itself may have been inhereently flawed. For it was just too costly to permit undertaking a reliable, broad-based population survey of Maine’s geographically disbursed moose herd.

Morris hopes to conduct the next aerial survey in a zone adjacent to WMD 9. Her belief is that these new numbers may shed some light on the WMD 9 puzzle. Hurley says that the Department will seek a "Heritage Grant to underwrite the cost of another aerial survey this fall."

So which is it in WMD 9? Are there 3.4 moose per square mile or 1.3 moose per square mile, 1,280 animals or 3,260?

Stuck with these widely contrasting population figures, the Department - if its moose management plan is to have full public acceptance down the road -must find a way to resolve this disparity.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal.

Moose Assessment Excerpts

The following are reprinted excerpts taken from a 1999 Moose

Assessment written by state wildlife biologist Karen I. Morris:

-Maintaining a stable population at or below half the carrying capacity of the habitat is difficult. To keep the high growth rate of the population in check, harvest rates have to be high, thus increasing the potential for harvest mistakes.

-These indices indicate that the moose population is larger now than in 1985 for all moose hunting zones....and indicate that the moose population is above target levels.

-Over the last 12 years, the total amount of early successional forests, and therefore the amount of food fo moose has increased by 39 percent.

-If no action is taken to maintain moose numbers within the ability of the land to support them, the moose population may exceed carrying capacity and then decline to a lower level.

Fish and Wildlife Department Release

AUGUSTA, Maine - This April, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) conducted an aerial survey for moose in the Moosehead Lake area. Moose densities east of Moosehead Lake were determined to be at least 1.3 moose per square mile.

With financial assistance from Safari Club International, IFW contracted with AirScan Inc. to conduct an aerial survey this past spring. The survey was conducted by specially trained observers from an aircraft equipped with infrared sensors, video equipment, and a computer that aided in the detection of moose. Infrared sensors detect the body heat of an animal and portray the animal as a bright white image against a dark background on a video screen. AirScan has conducted numerous wildlife surveys, including moose surveys for New Hampshire’s Fish and Game Department.

"The survey shows us that there are enough moose in that area to both justify the number of permits available to hunters and to provide plenty of opportunity for wildlife watchers," said Ken Elowe, director of resource management for IFW. 100 permits were issued in that area for the 2001 moose season. "It can not detect moose under the cover of coniferous forests, so we know there are more moose present that the survey could not detect."

The high costs of these aerial surveys (approximately $50,000 per wildlife management district) limits the area of the state that IFW could survey this year. Wildlife Management District (WMD) 9, which encompasses the Greenville and Moosehead Lake region, was selected as the most critical area of the state to survey. Moose hunting and viewing are very popular in that WMD.

"After the legislature voted to allow us to manage the moose population in Maine, it became clear that we needed better population information," said Elowe, "there is a new era of management - and expectations. The public has told us that they want to balance moose watching with hunting, and we need more accurate population counts to do that."

Due to the high cost and the limited area that can be surveyed each year, in order to decrease the cost of keeping track of the moose population, IFW is proposing to develop a model which would require only a fraction of the state’s 30 WMDs to be surveyed for moose. This model will use population estimates from a few aerial surveys, along with the number of moose seen by deer hunters, to estimate moose densities. New Hampshire Fish and Game is using a similar method to estimate moose densities in their state.

In this WMD, Thirty-seven randomly selected areas, ranging in size from 5.8 mi2 to 10.9 mi2, were surveyed. In all, 256.5 mi2, or 27% of the land area of WMD 9, was surveyed. A total of 259 moose were seen during the survey. This figure was adjusted for the number of moose likely missed and the size of the survey area, to come up with a preliminary population estimate of 1,280 moose for WMD 9 (959 mi2) or 1.3 moose / mi2.

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