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In Maine, all eyes on the moose census

OLD TOWN, Maine — The number one question people ask Lee Kantar, the moose biologist for the state of Maine, is simply: How many moose are there in Maine?

That number means many things to many people. It is used to drive tourism. It is used to determine how many permits are issued in the fiercely contested moose-hunting lottery (last year, more than 54,000 people applied for 3,725 permits). And it is used as a badge of honor, a concrete way for Mainers to illustrate just how wild the last great wilderness in the Northeast really is. Nothing says “middle of nowhere” like a moose.

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But the problem with that number is it has always been little more than an educated guess. It wasn’t like you could count them one by one. Or could you?

For the past three winters, Kantar and biologists from the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife have been attempting to do just that.

On a recent morning in a small hangar just north of Bangor, with the wind chill outside at -23 degrees, Kantar prepared to board a Maine Forest Service helicopter, which is the key to the moose-counting concept.

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The method is both pioneering and simple: A helicopter not only allows them to do an aerial survey of the entire state, but it is also loud. Flying low and slow, the noisy helicopter rotors send the moose scampering out of their cover. And with a giant dark brown moose moving against the white backdrop provided by the winter snow, it’s not only possible to count them one by one but to determine their sex and age as well.

“We’ve never had this depth of knowledge before,” Kantar said as he prepared to demonstrate a “composition” flight, where the goal is not total numbers but to determine what percentages of the population in an area are cows, calves, or bulls.

GRETA RYBUS FOR THE GLOBE

Three moose, spotted from a helicopter, are among the 76,000 counted thus far in Maine’s first aerial census.

As the chopper speeds across the beautiful desolation of the North Woods, the sound of the rotors shattering the frozen quiet, Kantar’s voice comes over the headset: “This block here isn’t a bad-looking piece of real estate for moose.” It’s an area that has been logged in the last decade, and moose like feeding on the fresh vegetation growing from the forest floor.

Chris Blackie, the Forest Service pilot who has become a partner in the project — he chased moose for 100 hours last winter — spins the chopper around so they can go in for a closer look. Kantar’s hunch is good.

“We’ve got two. It looks like a cow and her calf,” Kantar says in the calm tone of the wilderness man who has seen it all. With his horseshoe moustache, he would have no problem playing “Maine’s top moose guy” in a movie.

Blackie banks the chopper hard and tracks the obviously confused moose, and her even more confused calf, as they quickly scamper away.

This ID is relatively easy. But determining the sex of adult moose can often be tricky at some times of year because male moose shed their iconic antlers at the start of winter, requiring very low flying and sharp eyes to distinguish males cows and bulls. Because of this, Blackie encourages his backseat passengers to act as backseat drivers during a chase, and call out such things as “Large tree dead ahead.”

The three-year survey will finish up this winter, but with most of the prime moose territory already canvased, Kantar announced in September that they had a new estimate, a new answer to that question of how many moose there are in Maine: 76,000.

In Maine, this number was big news. That’s because it was a big number.

For a long time, the official estimate was that there were about 29,000 moose in Maine. Higher numbers were thrown about by Kantar’s predecessor, based largely on the best source of information ­— sightings reported by deer hunters. But comparing that method, which had a huge margin of error, to the current method “is apples and oranges,” Kantar said.

Many in the hunting community seized on this number and are demanding a corresponding jump in the number of available moose permits. George Smith, the longtime director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine who is now a full-time outdoor writer, has long believed the state’s estimates, and the resulting number of available permits, was wildly conservative.

Based on the new number, he is preparing legislation that could mean a dramatic jump in the number of available permits. Currently, each Wildlife Management District has a plan for what percentage of moose can be harvested while safely maintaining populations and accounting for management goals, such as reducing collisions with motorists and snowmobilers. (The moose may be strangely adorable — “a cow drawn by a 3-year-old,” according to humorist Bill Bryson — but such collisions are a serious problem in Maine. Posters in state rest areas instruct drivers how to hit a moose if it’s unavoidable: aim for the tail-end, and duck.)

GRETA RYBUS FOR THE GLOBE

Lee Kantar, holding a moose skull, says Maine has far more moose than thought but urges caution on hunting permits.

Smith wants to keep those existing harvest percentages with the new population estimates, which could triple the number of permits issued in some management areas.

He also wants to change the lottery system so that those who enter every year will be guaranteed to win every five or six years. Smith said there are over 6,000 people, including himself, who have entered the lottery every year since it began in 1980 and never won.

Kantar is more hesitant in his approach. He’s proposed an increase of 430 permits for 2013.

“What some people fail to understand is we have very clear responsibilities for managing moose for a variety of publics, not just hunting,” Kantar said. “Wildlife viewing stands on equal ground, so you need to be cautious on your permit levels, and that means accounting for your unknowns,” such as ticks and lung worm that have afflicted many young calves in recent years.

Jessica Hargreaves, who co-owns Northeast Guide Service in Greenville, which takes tourists on moose-watching expeditions in the rich area around Moosehead Lake, said that Kantar’s big number doesn’t indicate an increase in the number of moose in the state, just a better way of tracking them.

“I think the number proves that right now, we have a balance that seems to be working,” she said. “But if they’re going to issue more permits, you’re going to upset that balance. We take people out to see live moose, and we think there are more people who want to shoot moose with a camera than to hunt them.”

Up in the chopper, as Blackie starts heading back to the hanger, Kantar spots another mother, being tailed by twins. This a rare sight, he says.

Whether 76,000 moose is too many, or too few, or just about right, will continue to be debated. But for now, as the chopper lands back in Old Town, Kantar can know that, for the first time, when someone asks him how many moose there are in Maine, he can give them a good answer.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.
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