The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife last week announced it was cutting moose permits for the fall hunt by 25 percent this year. It’s a decision the department put forward as a short-term solution to a temporary drop in moose population, putting the blame on a “peak year for winter ticks.”
But it could be more of a preparation for the future in managing the moose population. Maine recently began a long-overdue five-year study to gauge the health of moose. Based on early results of that study, and on the results of similar tests in other states, the state should be ready to deal with a new reality for North America’s second largest animal.
Moose carry winter ticks by the tens of thousands, and the parasites can severely weaken a moose, particulary small, young ones, during the tough winter months. This particularly harsh winter did nothing to cut down on the tick population — in fact, the heavy snow may have helped by providing insulation from the cold. Biologists say it is the most winter ticks they’ve seen in years.
Last year, Maine began to study the moose population. Radio collars have been placed on 70 moose and their movements will be tracked to figure out survival rates.
Early reports from the study showed a mortality rate of 30 percent for adult females, three times the norm. That led the department to drop the number of permits to 3,095 statewide, down from 4,110 last season, the most significant decrease in three decades. Only antlerless permits were cut.
The department hopes the situation will change by next year, with the growth in tick population only a short-term peak, and the drop in moose population only a short-term valley.
But elsewhere in the United States, moose populations are falling fast. In Minnesota, the number of moose has declined from more than 8,000 to roughly 4,200 since 2010, the state’s Department of Natural Resources reported in January. In New Hampshire, the populations has fallen from 7,500 in the mid-1990s to 4,000-4,500 today.
The conditions in New Hampshire, where the slightly warmer climate aids parasites like ticks, and Minnesota, where wolves give moose a predator, are different.
But the numbers of ticks are steadily rising here, and continued climate change won’t help. From that perspective, it’s not hard to see Maine moose soon enduring the same problems as those in New Hampshire.
So while it’s not encouraging news that the Maine moose population is experiencing difficulty at least this year, it is promising that the state responded by cutting the number of permits. We suggest the state take a cautious approach to any increase in the number of permits, and use the data collected from the study to chart a path forward to a healthy moose population.