BANGOR – Arguments over the number of moose in the Maine woods may be settled by a $60,000 aerial moose census this winter.
Data from the census, which began two weeks ago and is expected to be completed by the beginning of February, should “considerably” improve the state’s moose population estimates, said Karen Morris, a state wildlife biologist.
Maine’s moose population is believed now to be about 29,000, based on indirect data, such as sightings by hunters.
The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has contracted with a Florida company to survey a portion of western Maine between Moosehead Lake and Baxter State Park and count moose.
AirScan Inc.’s tiny Cessna 337 flies at an altitude of about 2,000 feet, looping in overlapping circles to view 6-square-mile blocks of woods through a spherical camera mounted on the plane’s left wing, explained pilot Bill Bosley during a Wednesday press conference.
“It’s like taking slices out of a pie,” he said.
The company is using a brand-new $600,000 camera with an infrared lens that senses heat and a high-resolution lens that allows the operator to zoom in so close a biologist watching the tape can judge the age and sex of most of the animals. An on-screen locator also provides biologists with the latitude and longitude of each sighting.
“I might just see a moose’s nose peeking through the trees, but I zoom in and we’ll find him,” said Brian Gallegos, the camera’s operator.
Gallegos starts by watching the infrared camera for signs of life, then zooms in and switches to standard video to confirm that the animal is a moose, he said during a demonstration of the equipment Wednesday at Bangor International Airport.
Midwinter is ideal timing because the cold, snow-covered ground makes moose stand out, both on infrared and standard video, he said.
Completing the survey before the heavy snows of late winter and early spring is essential because moose tend to seek shelter in dense forest when snow begins to impede travel, Morris said.
The survey area, state Wildlife Management District No. 9, is the same region surveyed by AirScan in April 2001, which showed about 1.3 moose per square mile. The data from Maine’s first foray into infrared surveying, however, were less than ideal.
An early spring thaw drove moose into deep cover, where they were not visible. Additionally, the warm weather made infrared images less precise because body temperatures of moose and surface temperatures of sun-warmed inanimate objects, such as large rocks, appeared similar onscreen, Morris said.
The need for a precise count of Maine’s moose has only increased since 2001, said DIF&W Commissioner Lee Perry on Wednesday.
Sightings have declined, particularly in the area being surveyed. Fearing a drop in the moose population, DIF&W recently reduced the number of permits that will be available in the annual moose hunt despite some complaints by sportsmen.
If this moose census is successful, Perry hopes that DIF&W can survey different regions of the state on a regular basis as funds become available. The 2003 survey is being funded by a $15,000 Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund grant and a $45,000 federal wildlife grant.