In the South there’s a bumper sticker favored by people who go to horse races mainly for the drinking. “Never Saw a Horse,” it says.
I think of it every time I leave New Hampshire, thinking I need one that says “Never Saw a Moose.” Having never seen one, even on back roads in the North Country, I’ve come to think of moose as an elaborate marketing scam perpetuated by the Granite State, where moose watching is said to attract $115 million in tourist dollars every year.
The 200 or so New Hampshire drivers who hit moose every year beg to differ, but it is true that, nationwide, the moose population is in sharp decline. In New Hampshire, there are about 4,000 left, down from 7,600 two decades ago. But, still, that state’s annual moose lottery goes on.
Call it Mega Moose, the state’s system for issuing moose-hunting permits every spring. Last year, 1,000 Massachusetts residents were among the 13,000 people who entered the lottery, hoping to snare permission to bag a moose over nine days in October. Of course, in the cheery parlance of the lottery, it’s not killing a moose, but “harvesting” one — as if hunters skip through flowered fields with a basket collecting boned and skinned moose parts. (Tastes like beef, in case you’re wondering.) In fact, bringing home a 1,000-pound bull is seriously hard work, leading one hunter to tell a friend of mine that he’s never shooting a moose again “unless it’s leaning over the back of my truck.”
In last year’s lottery, a dozen hardy Massachusetts residents won permits. Of them, 10 brought home a moose, Linda Verville of the New Hampshire Division of Fisheries and Wildlife told me. Those who didn’t get a permit have better odds this year, as the lottery employs a points system that ups your chances every year that you don’t score a permit.
But the opportunities to hunt are dwindling like the moose population. Last year, New Hampshire awarded 280 permits; this year, they’re proposing just 124. (The exact number won’t be determined until late April.) In Minnesota, where 12,000 moose roamed 20 years ago, only about 3,100 remain, and wildlife officials have canceled moose-hunting season until further notice.
Nationwide, it’s estimated that moose have declined by one-half in the past five years. But oddly enough, the 1,000 or so that live in Massachusetts seem to be thriving. Stephen DeStefano, who works for the US Geological Survey and is stationed at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is among biologists tracking moose here. Most are in the highlands of the Worcester area, around the Quabbin Reservoir, and the others in the Berkshires. But in rutting season, bulls sometimes cross into Vermont and Maine in search of love. Why they return here is anyone’s guess, but biologists believe it’s because Massachusetts offers a good mix of young forests and wooded wetlands, even though we’ve generally got warmer temperatures than moose prefer, the polar vortex notwithstanding.
Every so often, state Representative Anne Gobi of Spencer tries to gin up support for a moose-hunting season in Massachusetts. But with moose approaching endangered-species status, she might as well suggest hunting season for honeybees or little brown bats, both also species in rapid decline.
Instead of hunting moose, maybe we should put a little money in the state budget for some moose licks and invite the southern New Hampshire moose to come on down.
We might have to be more careful on the highway; there are about 50 moose-car collisions in Massachusetts each year, and there have been two fatalities in recent memory, the last in 2007. Because they’re taller than deer, moose are harder to spot on the road; there are no deer eyes in the headlights, just dark fur.
But if you’re not seeing them on your hood, a chance encounter with a moose is thrilling (or so I’ve heard). It’s the tallest animal in the Northeast; a bull’s antlers can span 7 feet. No wonder New Hampshire and Maine promote moose-watching so aggressively. But it’s Massachusetts that protects them, and Massachusetts where the moose population is growing.
Sorry, New Hampshire; next time I’m looking for moose, I’m heading to the hills around Worcester.
One sentence in an earlier version of this piece used an incorrect term for a male moose. The correct term is “bull.”