The annual moose hunt is one of Maine’s most revered sporting traditions. Beyond that, the fact that Maine has enough vast wilderness to support moose, its state animal, is a source of pride among residents. But harvest numbers have been slowly shrinking over the few decades, and in 2022, the hunter success rate reached a record low.
Hunters filled just 62 percent of moose tags this season, data from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife shows. If you include a statistical outlier from the adaptive unit hunt, where state biologists are conducting experiments on how moose and ticks interact, the success rate was even lower, just 58 percent. (The overall success rate from the adaptive hunt unit was 26 percent.)
Maine Moose Hunts Past
These numbers fall well short of the 18-year average 73.5-percent success rate. Interestingly, there were more permits issued this year than in recent years. Including the adaptive management hunt, 4,050 permits were available for the 2022 season. The last time more than 4,000 permits were issued was in 2013, when the state distributed 4,110 of them. But that same year, hunters had a 72-percent success rate and harvested 2,978 moose. This year, hunters harvested 644 fewer moose than they did in 2013, and almost 300 fewer than in 2021.
In the years that followed the 2013 season, harvest numbers took a serious dip. They bottomed out in 2017 when just 1,518 tags were filled. But available permits were also lower than usual, so success rates were pretty average around that time. You can see how harvest success has fluctuated in the graph below.
So what does this all mean? In the grand scheme of things, the shifting numbers aren’t as indicative of the overall state moose population as they might seem. Harvest success is impacted by changes in weather, season dates, and hunting rules, not just the overall number of moose on the landscape. DIF&W started managing the moose population in 1999 and they’ve “changed so many things since the beginning of the moose hunt that it’s not really comparable over time,” moose biologist Lee Kantar told the Bangor Daily News.
Tick-ing Time Bomb
The DIF&W says that moose populations are stable in their core range for now. But biologists are increasingly concerned about the toll winter ticks take on cow reproductive success and calf survival. As climate change pushes the first hard snow later and later into the year, ticks and other parasites don’t die off in the cold months when they used to. Instead, they attack moose in the late summer and early fall, especially as moose become more mobile during the rut. The ticks ride out the winter on their hosts and detach in early spring, at which point females can lay up to 4,000 eggs and the cycle starts all over again. (Winter ticks are different than dog ticks and deer ticks.)
Winter ticks killed 60 of the 70 collared calves that biologists were tracking in Piscataquis and Somerset counties in 2021. The moose can carry anywhere from 40,000 to 90,000 ticks at a time, DIF&W told Maine Public Radio. The state agency’s solution? Lower the moose population density to give ticks fewer hosts to thrive on. That’s where the adaptive management hunt unit experiment comes into play.
Started in 2019 and expected to run through 2025, biologists are increasing the number of permits in one part of the unit and distributing a normal number of permits in the other, in an attempt to see if a reduced population density would make a difference in how ticks prevail. This science could support how northern Vermont and New Hampshire handle their winter tick issues as well.
“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 told the Bangor Daily News. “We need to figure out how we’re going to continue to make our way through this.”