Applications for hunting permits to be allotted during the annual Maine moose lottery on Saturday are at a 15-year high – and many in the state’s hunting community believe that the coronavirus pandemic has played some role in the increased interest.
The state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife received 65,634 applications for this year’s lottery. That’s an 11-percent increase from 2019 and marks the first time since 2008 that more than 60,000 applications have been received. You have to go back to 2005 to find greater interest in the Maine moose hunt.
While opinions on the reasons for the spike vary, one common theme echoes throughout Maine’s hunting community. The pandemic has in some way fueled greater interest in Maine’s modern moose hunt, which enters its 40th year this fall.
In all 3,135 permits will be allocated for this fall’s hunt, which is also an 11-percent increase over last year. But there’s not always a correlation between a large increase in moose permits and applications increasing in step. When Maine biologists increased moose permits from 2,080 in 2017 to 2,820 in 2019 – a 36 percent increase over two years – applications rose by only 10 percent during the same span.
The rise in permit numbers in recent years stems from state biologists’ belief that Maine’s herd is healthy and robust, despite the winter tick parasite that has hampered the moose herd previously. This year’s 315 additional permits, however, will go exclusively to six hunting zones in far northern Maine, where state biologists say the parasite has not had as much of an impact.
The state estimates there are 60,000 to 70,000 moose statewide, the largest concentration of moose in the contiguous United States.
Maine Moose Biologist Lee Kantar believes there is a clear correlation between the recent restrictions and stay-at-home orders related to the pandemic and the widespread desire right now to be active in nature – and he thinks that’s reflected in the new interest in the moose lottery. But he also thinks more hunters are taking note of Maine’s healthy herd, while the winter tick parasite has taken a toll on moose herds from Maine to Alberta, Canada.
“Perhaps people also realize what a phenomenal resource we continue to have with moose despite any struggles with winter tick,” Kantar said. “Maine should be considered a top choice of anywhere for moose hunting.”
By comparison, last year Vermont – which has an estimated 2,300 moose – did not have a hunt, and will allocate just 55 permits this year largely because of winter tick. Similarly, New Hampshire also will issue only 51 moose permits this year due to a shrinking moose herd, in part because of the parasite. Other states along the country’s moose range in the Lower 48 states – primarily those states bordering Canada – have seen declining moose hunts largely because of the parasite. In 2013, Minnesota ended its state moose hunt. Out West other moose-hunting states – such as Idaho, Montana and Colorado – give limited permits.
“Out in Montana, it takes a wing and a prayer to get a moose permit,” said Registered Maine Guide Jeff Watts, who guides for moose in western Maine.
Maine moose guides say the fear of being in crowded airports and flying because of COVID-19 likely inspired more non-resident hunters this year to enter the Maine moose lottery for a shot at participating in the state’s premier big-game hunt, since Maine’s moose lottery typically draws hunters from all 50 states and a majority from Pennsylvania and New York.
The moose lottery allots 90 percent of the permits each year to Maine residents, as required by state law.
Some think the pandemic and restrictions on travel may even have brought more attention to Maine’s long-standing image as an accessible wild land with legendary big bulls and a sizable moose population.
Maine’s subspecies of moose – the Eastern or Taiga moose – is the second largest of four subspecies of moose in North America, and only Alaskan, or tundra moose, are larger.
“Alaska has tremendous Yukon moose. But we have some tremendous bulls up here in northern Maine,” said Registered Maine Guide Ron Ricciardi in Aroostook County. “Places like Montana, their moose are not as big. Maine offers big Canadian moose – right here in the United States.”
Meanwhile, veteran Maine hunters say the surge in interest in the hunt likely is because of the simple need for healthy food during the pandemic, which has caused a surge in unemployment and greater demands on food banks.
“It’s the economic uncertainty we’re going through now. A lot of people are scared how the future is going to be,” said Bruce Ashmore, the president of the 250-member fish and game club in Bucksport. “So filling the freezer is a very valid concern for the people of Maine right now. If you can pull in 600 to 700 pure lean, non-GMO natural meat and put it in the freezer, that feeds the family for a long time.”
Doug Readio of the Sanford-Springvale fish and game club said he and his wife are still dining on the moose meat Readio and his son, Nathan, harvested from a bull in the Rangeley region in 2018. The father and son split 600 pounds of meat. Doug Readio, 68, a lifelong Maine hunter, said the pandemic is making this opportunity more valuable.
“Where it can be hard to buy meat in certain places right now, and where the economy is down, and more people are out of work, I think people would want to spend time on a moose hunt,” said Readio.
Because of the pandemic, Saturday’s lottery will be streamed online, rather than being held in Jackman, as originally planned. The drawing will be begin at 1 p.m. Saturday on IFW’s YouTube channel and will allow viewers to comment and ask questions, said Emily MacCabe, IFW’s director of information and education. A series of live presentations also will be featured on the department’s website next week, starting Thursday with a forum from the Maine Wildlife Park.
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