Something Wild: In Maine, Fewer Moose Mean Healthier Moose?

“Every time I see a moose, it’s mesmerizing. I’ve seen thousands of moose. I take aerial photos. And I’ve dealt with moose. I got really close with moose. And I’m not bored for a second. You are a magnificent animal.”

Lee Kantar has been a Maine state moose biologist for more than a decade. Something Wild spoke to him to learn more about the New England moose population and an approach the state of Maine is taking to combat moose die-offs caused by winter ticks.

He spoke to Something Wild’s Chris Martin and Dave Anderson. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

David Anderson: I feel like we’ve seen a lot less moose in our area in the last 15 years. According to the internet, there are 3,000 moose in Vermont. New Hampshire has an estimated 3,300 moose. And Maine has 60,000. What is unique about Maine’s northern forests compared to New Hampshire and Vermont that accounts for the difference in population?

Lee Kantar: Well, it’s scale. I grew up in New Hampshire, so I’m not throwing you under the bus. But it’s a line of mooses. There is no moose from New Hampshire. And there is no moose from Maine. We are all the same.

The commercial forest area encompassing the heartland of elk in the state of Maine is 16,000 square miles. The state of New Hampshire is approximately 9000 square miles. So there’s your scale.

David Anderson: The fact is, you can’t talk about moose without talking about winter ticks. These tiny creatures look for a moose host in the fall and then spend their entire life cycle, from larva to nymph to adult, on the same moose until next May, drawing blood from that moose at every stage of the game, and then reproducing exponentially.

Chris Martin: The state of Maine is exploring a new approach to help moose stay healthy in the face of winter tick devastation. Because Maine is so large, they can split their moose hunt into different times and areas, an approach called “adaptive management.”

Lee Kantar: We took one [wildlife management] unit that is approximately 2000 square miles. We split that in two. So we basically had a control side of the unit where we have the status quo for permits and then we have an experimental side where we increase permits, basically cow and calf permits to try to lower the population.

We’ll be able to say in 5 years, well, it didn’t make a difference, or well, it made a difference. And now here is another tool; where do we go from here?

David Anderson: Thus, if tick densities are highest in the areas with the highest elk populations, there is reasoning that reducing the total number of adult elk per square mile would result in a reduction in winter tick numbers and an overall healthier herd.

Lee Kantar: Well said. Ticks are the tiny predators because they effectively eat our moose. And so the idea of ​​having an adaptive unit where we reduce moose density by shooting cows and calves is totally counterintuitive to anyone. And it’s a very tough sell, but it’s a scientific approach. It is absolutely essential to receive this data and information to inform us.

This is a challenge with all wildlife species because it is about the health of the individual and then the health of the population. And so a moose can be in horrible, horrible health – sorry – I just got word that I have a mortality detected on one of my moose collars.

David Anderson: Any good news for the future of moose in northern New England?

Lee Kantar: You know, the challenges of climate and climate change and how it’s going to affect things is another challenge of magnitude and scale. We talk about our earth and we also talk about northern New England. We don’t know what that will mean for the narrowing of elk abundance in New England and southern Canada over time. If we get more rain events and more extreme rain events, will some of those events be snow? And what does that mean for the spread of winter ticks and their impact on moose? So we get into some complexities that keep me from speculating about what the decades ahead will be like.

David Anderson: There is one bright spot, and that is that people love moose. So we have this to ourselves.

Lee Kantar: Right. And as more people get out there and understand it and see it, maybe they’ll want to help conserve our natural resources, including moose and these landscapes. I have chosen to work with one of the greatest creatures on this planet. So I’m a very happy guy, despite the challenges we’re facing.

Something Wild is a partnership of New Hampshire Audubon, The Forest Society and NHPR and is produced by the team at Outside/In.