August 19, 2017

Is Maine Going in the Wrong Direction With Moose Harvest Plans?

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mooseI have questioned whether the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) should be reducing moose densities rather than taking efforts to keep population levels where they are or even considering increasing them. This question, from my perspective, is based mostly on whether or not the objectives created by MDIFW for moose population density goals within categorized Wildlife Management Districts (WMD), is in the best interest of the health of the moose herd.

In an article by the Associated Press, it said that Maine plans to reduce moose permits for this year’s coming moose hunt to, “the fewest number in 12 years and a reduction of nearly 10 percent over last year.”

In addition, the article quotes Lee Kantar, MDIFW head moose biologist, as saying, “We have to be cautious. Coming out of this winter, we’re already seeing less of an effect [from ticks].”

This, on the surface, would appear to be the prudent and responsible thing to do. But perhaps we first need to ask if Maine’s present moose population is too high.

While Maine is undergoing moose studies and aerial count surveys, the guesstimation on the moose population in the last 3 or 4 years has run from a high of 90,000 to a more conservative estimate of around 75,000. This same article, referenced to above, states that Maine officials currently estimate the population at around 60,000 to 70,000.

It is my understanding that MDIFW will be or perhaps they already have, begun work on a new moose management plan. The current one is outdated and appears to have not been adhered to. For example, the current assessment states that in 1999, the time the assessment was done (only 16 years old but we can gather some valuable information from this), the estimated moose population in the state was 29,000. At that level, MDIFW assessed the population densities for each of the WMDs. Densities seemed to range anywhere from 0.8 moose per square mile (WMD 10, 11, 19 and part of 18) to a high of 3.4 moose per square mile (WMDs 9 and 14).

In examining each of the assessments, it appears that all of the zones where labeled as being at least half the estimated carrying capacity (the number of moose that habitat could handle). Under ideal conditions, and in some areas, the report states that moose could be as high in density as 5.6 moose per square mile.

If the moose population estimate at 75,000 was accurate, then that puts it at approximately 2.6 times the 29,000 estimate of 1999. If all things were relative, simple math says that moose must be well above carrying capacity, at least in some areas.

The Moose Management System plan calls for a recommended goal of moose density at 55% – 65% of carrying capacity (K). If the 1999 objectives were even close to reality, Maine is certainly managing moose populations at far greater than 55% – 65% of carrying capacity. These estimations calculated at the time were for both moose density and carrying capacity.

Granted, new science brings changes to goals and management strategies, but these numbers sure leave some of us scratching our heads wondering what was going on and still is.

By the way, it should be noted that in these reports that I have referred to, it was estimated that the moose populations were not expected to grow over the next 10 years. What happened? Either the 1999 estimates were so far off they were worthless, or the calculation used to model the population trends for moose was flawed – as were perhaps the carrying capacity.

So, we come back to the same question as to whether Maine is attempting to grow and manage too many moose? In the management plan, it is stated that one of the two major considerations being taken in determining at what level the population of moose should be, is demands by the viewing public. While this activity might be exciting to the viewers and offers guides and others to pocket some extra cash, is manipulating moose densities to a level high enough to keep moose watchers happy a scientific and prudent thing to do?

Perhaps it is time to consider other factors when determining at what level to target moose populations. If 29,000 moose in 1999 were somewhere just slightly less than the 55% – 65% of carrying capacity (as estimated), what, then, is 75,000 moose doing to the moose and the state?

I visited the New Hampshire fish and wildlife website to see what they were trying to do with their population. They presently are at a crossroad of determining what to do, i.e. should they have a moose hunt at all because of population reductions.

New Hampshire’s most densely populated moose area is in the Connecticut Lakes region – 2.23 moose per square mile. In 1994, 3.12 moose per square mile was considered above carrying capacity. And, New Hampshire also has a tick problem. Are these related?

While some seem to just be puzzled by this confounded tick problem, I am wondering just how puzzled some scientists are. Maybe this is a good opportunity to get some of the grant money to do more studies? In digging through New Hampshire’s Moose Assessment, and found this bit of a jewel:

Musante (2006) has shown that winter tick is our greatest mortality influence and our monitoring programs have revealed that it is ubiquitous in time and area in the northern regions. Scarpitti (2006) and Bergeron (2011) have suggested that available browse does not seem to [be] an issue in the northern regions although actual browse productivity studies were not conducted. Both Scarpitti (2006) and Bergeron (2011) also indicated that tick loads alone could influence body weight and productivity as did Garner (1993). This means that in areas where the moose population is large enough to support ticks, the Central region and northward, we have lost a relatively easy method of using reproductive output to measure where we are in relationship to K as defined by food availability. Winter tick is now felt to be the biggest influence on pregnancy rates and weights of yearlings and adults. As such, it is now a measure of the populations relationship to K as defined by levels of animals that can be supported without severe adverse impacts from parasitism. (emboldening added)

This statement clearly admits that first, there must be a population of moose large enough to support ticks, and second, that in determining at what density moose should be in relation to carrying capacity, it must be considered the impact of ticks (parasitism).

Maine has decided to be “cautious” in not reducing moose numbers lower than the current estimate of 70,000 (or in order to grow more moose?) Is MDIFW considering the two things above that I just mentioned? By all accounts, Maine certainly has a large enough moose population to support a tick infestation. But is MDIFW considering that perhaps the population is too high and is only exacerbating the tick problem?

Somebody has to make a decision on this because in all honesty I don’t think we can rely on global warming or global cooling to cure the tick problem.