by Lee Kantar, IFW Wildlife Biologist
Flying 200 feet above a recent forest cut, our Forest Ranger Pilot Chris Blackie slows the helicopter down, “I got 2 moose bedding on the right” calls out Kendall Marden, IFW biologist, “I got 3 moose heading left,” calls out Scott McLellan, also an IFW biologist, “I got a bunch right out in front of me,” I chirp in. Chris banks a turn to the right to bring the helicopter back around. “Okay, let’s take each moose one at a time”. We are 4 members of the moose survey flight team determining the sex and age of each moose as they scatter across the cut. Here in Maine we are pioneering a combination of aerial survey techniques to both estimate numbers of moose and determine the composition of the moose population to provide direct and detailed information on Maine’s moose.
In winter with snow as a white backdrop, moose are easily seen; and at 200 feet above ground, moose in cover or bedded will move, increasing our ability to see moose within the flight area. “Okay Chris, bring the helicopter around one more time and I think we’ve got it,” as the pilot makes a second turn around the area, in which we have sexed and aged 16 out of 17 moose. By the end of the flight we will have classified 168 moose in just under 3 hours giving us a reliable picture of how many bulls, cows and calves comprise the moose population in this Wildlife Management District.
Within the same week our crew flies a different kind of helicopter survey, counting moose along 25 mile long straight transect lines from 200 feet above ground. These flights cover 100 square miles within a Wildlife Management District; a flight consists of 7 of these transect lines. Only 2 of the biologists, on the same side of the helicopter, are counting moose as they come into view along the aircraft. A third observer records the number of moose seen by each observer and the ones seen by both observers. These so-called “double counts” allow biologists to calculate the total number of moose seen within the 100 square mile block. The habitat within the block represents what the habitat looks like across the whole management district and therefore gives us the ability to estimate moose numbers for the entire management unit. This technique was pioneered in Canada and has been used there extensively.
By the end of February of 2012 we had surveyed 9 of the 12 Wildlife Management Districts that comprise the bulk of Maine’s core moose range. Never before has the department had the ability to literally cover this much ground and achieve this level of data on moose. This is not only because counting any animal reliably is notoriously difficult, but finding the appropriate technique across such a large landscape is prohibitive. Maine, like other states and provinces, has tried many different techniques, but until now nothing has come together as effectively. In essence, many elements (the right survey technique, right aircraft and money) came together at the right time to achieve success. Working closely with the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources and using their experience and flight data, we determined that the double count technique previously used for deer could be applied to moose where moose densities were high enough and the terrain was navigable by a helicopter. In New Brunswick, after analyzing survey data from deer flights and the number of moose seen, New Brunswick Deer Biologist Rod Cumberland compared the data to moose sightings by deer hunters, road kill indices and success rates. The analysis suggested that the survey may reliably estimate moose populations if sighting rates were high and if the surveys were flown early to mid winter. The next step was to find a suitable aircraft and the money to support flights.
In 2009 IFW received a grant from Maine’s Outdoor Heritage Fund (MOHF) to implement a helicopter double count survey for deer. Grant awards from OHF provide the Department with critical non-federal matching funds that allow us to leverage funding from the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program, also known as the Pitman-Robertson Act (P-R). With these funds in hand we were then able to partner with the Department of Conservation’s Maine Forest Service (MFS) and their Ranger Pilots. MFS Ranger Pilots are consummate professionals who fly both fixed wing and rotary aircraft. The MFS allowed us to use their Bell Jet Ranger helicopter that is the industry standard for wildlife survey work because of its maneuverability and fuel capacity. With the use of our grant funds we were able to outfit the aircraft with specialized bubble windows which increases observation and sightability from the skid of the aircraft so that the observer can see almost directly below the helicopter. This is critical for viewing deer or moose in Maine’s woods.
MAINE’S NORTH WOODS—A GREAT PLACE FOR MOOSE
With the spruce budworm epidemic of the late 1970s and 80s, and the advent of modern forestry, the commercial forestlands of the Maine North Woods has provided ideal habitat and space for moose. Throughout the 90s, and continuing today, the global market for wood products and forest management practices has nurtured a moose population that has come to symbolize the North Maine Woods. Moose remain an attractive draw for hunters and wildlife watchers in Maine, and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife continues to develop the tools, like these aerial surveys, to improve management of this iconic creature.
MOOSE PERMITS AND MANAGEMENT DECISIONS
A public Big Game Working Group formed in 1999 developed the goals and objectives for moose numbers across the state, taking into consideration hunting and viewing opportunities, as well as habitat and nuisance issues. Each year the Wildlife Division pours over scores of data on moose harvest, sighting rates, age distribution, road collision and nuisance complaints. With the recent aerial survey capability and collection of reproductive data, the Wildlife Division has gathered more data than ever before to make scientifically based management recommendations to the Commissioner and Advisory Council. As representatives of the public, the Council has an important role in the decision on the allocation of permits and permit recommendations by Wildlife Division staff.
Today, as we get closer to the end of the 2000–2015 species planning period for moose and have garnered innovative means to monitor moose populations, we are setting the stage for dynamic and improved ways to manage moose for all. With continued support, IFW biologists plan to continue the aerial survey work and collection of reproductive data. The department is also developing ways to increase our information on moose mortality, and influences on mortality including parasitism, by partnering with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Animal Health Laboratory, northeastern state and provincial moose biologists and the sportsmen and women of Maine. We also will be taking a closer look at habitat conditions in the north as well as moose management options that will provide the best product for hunters, wildlife viewers, and all moose enthusiasts.