AUGUSTA — Maine wildlife biologists are encouraged by recent data showing a significant decrease in winter ticks on moose, leading to optimism that the number of hunting permits in 2018 will be similar to last year’s total.

State Wildlife Division Director Judy Camuso said winter-tick checks on moose captured by biologists three weeks ago found fewer ticks than during any checks over the past four years. She told the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Advisory Council on Friday that those results – combined with the hunter success rate last fall – are likely to keep the number of moose permits in 2018 close to the 2,080 issued in 2017.

State biologists cut moose permits by 48 percent from 2013 to 2016 because of concerns about the moose survival rate from winter-tick infestation.

The parasite has decimated moose numbers in the Northeast. Maine’s moose population was estimated at 76,000 in 2011 but is now believed to be between 50,000 to 70,000, the IFW said.

A 68 PERCENT DROP

IFW biologists will recommend the permit total in March and the advisory council will vote on it later in the spring. Camuso said state biologists won’t know the full extent of moose mortality caused by winter ticks until May, when they have complete results from the moose-collar study.

Maine moose biologist Lee Kantar said the average number of ticks found on calves during the collaring this month had decreased 68 percent in the study area around Moosehead Lake during the same period last year, and 67 percent in the study area in far northern Aroostook County.

“This makes us cautiously optimistic,” Kantar said. “I would hope that the winter tick count has some relation to what we’ll see in the spring. The data suggests pretty strongly there is some threshold, that at some number of ticks you will have more mortality, and at some (lesser) number of ticks, you’ll have less mortality. We have less ticks, we should have less mortality.”

Camuso added that the high success rate during the fall hunt was an excellent sign that moose numbers are strong, because a scarcity of moose would result in a low success rate.

Hunters shot 1,504 moose shot last year for a success rate of 72 percent. Historically, the average moose hunt success rate is 73 percent, the IFW said.

“I found that surprisingly high (given the warm hunting weather),” Camuso said. “I was pleased with that.”

Biologists collared more moose than in any other field period in the study’s five-year history – 83 in eight days this month, Camuso said. They did so during a blizzard – and set a record by collaring 22 moose in one day.

“It certainly doesn’t speak to a lack of moose,” Camuso said.

COLLAR STUDY INSIGHT

Camuso said the moose-collar study has shown that winter ticks have been a leading cause of death of calves and adult moose, although the five-year study may need to be continued in order to provide greater insight, something state biologists will discuss this spring. The same study also has been conducted for five years in New Hampshire and one year in Vermont.

The moose-collar study, which began around Moosehead Lake, allows biologists to find collared moose that die, collect data on the carcasses within 24 hours and determine the animal’s causes of death from a necropsy.

Stephen Philbrick, co-owner of Bald Mountain Camps Resort in Rangeley and a registered Maine guide, said he hopes as biologists determine hunting permits and moose densities they also consider wildlife watchers’ interest in moose.

“Do not discount the value of a live moose to see in the wild. Hundreds and thousands of people come to Maine to see that big boy,” Philbrick said.

Shawn Sage, president of the Buxton-Hollis Rod and Gun Club, also is worried. He wanted to know if there was anyway to combat the winter ticks, as pet owners do with domestic animals.

“It’s just concerning because it affects Maine’s moose population and the moose population puts a lot of money into the state,” Sage said.

Advisory Council Member Matthew Thurston of New Gloucester hopes the department continues the moose collar study.

“The Maine moose is part of the Maine image,” Thurston said. “You can get the opportunity to hunt them here, where in other places it costs $15,000 to $25,000 to do so. We want this opportunity to last forever.”

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: FlemingPph

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