A big bull moose

Moose Hunting in the Lower 48: Problems and Opportunities

The best places to hunt moose are, beyond a shadow of doubt, Alaska and Yukon, where you find the biggest subspecies of all, Alaska-Yukon Moose, or the Kamchatka and North-East of Siberia, where the giant Kamchatka Moose reach the same impressive size. The second choice are other Canadian provinces, which may not offer trophies quite as monstrous, but make up for that in easier logistics and normally more affordable prices. If you’re more into herd size than antler size, Scandinavia and Finland are hard to beat, and the former USSR Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Russia in its European part offer some of the best bargains. The Lower 48 have hardly been on top of anyone’s moose hunting destination list – until COVID-19 and related travel bans made many Americans look more closely at hunting opportunities at home.

So, what can the heart of the USA offer to an aspiring moose hunter?

The Beast that Loves the Cold

The moose is the creature of the temperate climate and the boreal forest. They do not do well in areas where there is no stable snow cover in winter. One theory that explains this is deer ticks: when they fall off a moose into the snow, they die, but when they fall on bare ground they survive and can get on their host again. Trying to scratch them off, moose lose lots of hair and become vulnerable to hypothermia. Studies also show that overheating results in lower reproduction success in moose cows. In most parts of the range, the moose are seldom found south of the 50th parallel, and when they are, it’s usually in the mountainous regions. Now as you all know, the border between the USA and Canada west of the Great Lakes runs along the 48th parallel, which explains why Canada is a moose country and the USA not so much. Still, there are states with moose populations and hunting opportunities

Moose is the creature of the cold

American Moose Subspecies

Three of the four subspecies of moose recognized in North America are found in the Lower 48. Shiras Moose, the smallest of North American Moose subspecies, occupies the Rocky Mountains, and can be found in the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.

The thing about Shiras moose is that it isn’t just the smallest of North American moose subspecies. It also demonstrates the lowest reproduction rates. While Alaska-Yukon moose cows give birth to two calves in about 70% of cases, the “twinning rate” for Shiras moose is no higher than 15%. Shiras moose also begin to reproduce, on the average, a year later than other moose. Since all North American moose are genetically similar, this ought to be explained by environmental factors. Most likely, the Rockies aren’t a moose-optimal environment, and are missing some plants that provide nutrients essential for reproduction. Whatever the reason, lower reproduction of Shiras moose explains why wildlife managers in the West allocate fewer tags per 1,000 of moose than their colleagues from the East.

The moose in Maine and other New England states, as well as most of the population of Michigan (that was introduced from Ontario) belong to the Eastern subspecies, while the Western subspecies may be found in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Moose Population Trends in America

In 2000-2001, there were an estimated 1,000,000 moose in North America, of which about 85,000 were found in the Lower 48. The biggest numbers of moose were in Maine, with some 29,000 animals and where the species was considered overpopulated, Idaho, that housed some 15,000 moose, and Wyoming, with a herd of 13,865 Alces alces shirasi. All over the continent, moose herds were either stable or growing. Some of the most impressive growth in ten years from 1991 to 2001 was recorded in Washington, that went from 200 to over 1,000 animals, Idaho (from 5,500 to 15,000), and Vermont (from 1,300 to 3,500).

Moose seasons were open in 11 of the Lower 48 states: Washington, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Colorado, Minnesota, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. Overall, 6,213 moose were harvested by legal hunters south of the Canadian border in the 2000-2001 hunting season. The lowest numbers of moose tags were issued in Washington (69) and Colorado (74); in both states, as well as in Idaho, North Dakota, and Minnesota, moose tags were not available to non-residents. The best states to hunt moose in 2000-2001 were Maine, where 6,000 hunters put their tags on 2,250 moose, and Wyoming, with 1,379 hunters accounting for 1,215 trophies – 88% success rate (source)!

The situation is a bit less rosy now – it is often asserted that climate change and predation from the reintroduced grey wolf greatly reduced the moose populations in the Lower 48.

What States Have Moose But Don’t Hunt Them?

Moose sightings are recorded in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Iowa. While none of these states officially lists the moose amont the state fauna, two residents of Lancaster, PA, had to be admitted to hospital after an attack by this ‘nonexisting’ animal in Lancaster County Central Park in 2015.

A small, but stable permanent population of about 100 animals is recorded in Connecticut. Oregon has a resident population of about 50 to 60 moose and occasional animals wandering in from Washington and Idaho, and some 40-50 moose can be found in Nevada. You can occasionally see a moose in South Dakota, Nebraska, and even New Mexico.

A moose in a forest

There are about 600-700 moose in New York State, mostly in the Adirondak Region. According to a landowner survey carried out by New York State DNR, the state landowners recognize the benefit of moose for personal pleasure and tourism, but are concerned about traffic collision and browse damage, especially to the industrial forestry (source). Landowners are open to the idea of a moose season, either by ‘nuisance permits’ or via a lottery system, but it doesn’t sound very plausible in the nearest future. However, if you are unfortunate enough to kill a moose in a vehicle collision, you may obtain a permit to keep the carcass.

A stable permanent population also exists in Massachusetts, that could number up to 1,000 animals. It is claimed that in spite of the general drop of moose numbers in New England, in Massachusetts they are growing. However, the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife does not quote an official moose population estimate.

In the Midwest, there are about 500 moose in Michigan, mostly in a reintroduced herd transplanted from Canada. A law passed in 2010 placed moose on the game species list and allowed for hunting up to 10 bulls a season; however, the population growth didn’t live up to optimistic predictions and currently a moose season is not on the table. A stable population of about 40 moose exists in Wisconsin, and in Minnesota average population estimates are at about 3,150. No hunting season opened now, after a sharp drop in populations ten years ago; however, Native Americans living in the states utilize their treaty rights to hunt moose.

States of the Lower 48 Where You Can Hunt Moose

New Hampshire

The New Hampshire Fish and Game states that the moose population in the state peaked in the late 1990s, at about 7,500 animals, and declined to about 3,500 since. This was partly a conscious management act, meant to reduce the number of vehicle collisions, and partly attributed to winter tick and brainworm parasite infections. According to 2014-2018 study, tick mortality is on the rise, and it is associated with both shorter winters and higher moose densities. It is suggested that the tick does not become a problem even with shorter winters if moose populations are at or below the density of .25 moose per square mile.

Moose hunting season in New Hampshire lasts for 9 days. Permits are distributed by limited draw, on a points-based preference system. Both residents and non-residents can apply. Only 49 permits are issued. In 2019, residents drew 41 and non-residents 8 permits.

Vermont

There are an estimated 2,200 moose in Vermont, according to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife. The VF&W doesn’t aim to increase the population, their goal is to keep it at moderate levels, so that the densities are low enough to stop the transmission of ticks and brainworm, on the one hand, and still have enough of the animals to satisfy the public need for watching and hunting. They considered the 5,000 moose population of the early 2000s overabundant, with moose depleting their habitat. Regulated hunting is viewed as an essential tool, necessary to achieve the goal.

There are two moose hunting seasons in Vermont: archery (October 1-7) and main (6 days starting with 3rd Saturday of October). Permits are distributed by a lottery system, with up to 10% of tags available to non-residents. Only 55 moose tags were issued for 2020.

Moose standing in a river in the East of North America

Maine

Maine is home to the highest population of moose in the Lower 48, estimated at up to 70,000 animals. 2,000 to 3,000 hunting permits are issued every year in two draws, for residents (who are allotted 90% of permits) and for non-resident (8%). High number of permits results in relatively high draw odds, even with over 50,000 applicants: about 6% (1 in 16) for residents, and about 1.2% (1 in 82) for non-residents.

However, limited draw is not the only way to get a moose permit in Maine. 10 permits are sold from a sealed bid auction, and 2% are distributed, via a special lottery, to licensed hunting lodges, who then can sell them to their clients. So, there is such a thing as an OTC moose tag in the Lower 48! There’s also a special limited disabled military veteran hunt. After winning a moose hunting permit, you’ll have to wait for three years before you can apply for another one.

Moose seasons may run for a few weeks in September, October and November, depending on the wildlife management unit. If you’re lucky enough to draw a permit, it will specify the season dates.

North Dakota

North Dakota Game and Fish doesn’t offer recent moose population estimates, but claims they are stable or growing. 475 moose tags were issued in 2020. With over 24,000 applications, the chances to draw were about 2% (1 in 50). Tags are available to residents only. The archery season is in September, and the general season in October.

Montana

Montana is home to approximately 5,000 moose, of the Shiras subspecies. The state carries out an extensive moose research program, that indicates that the population is overall stable. Researchers are concerned with somewhat low calf recruitment rates, balanced somewhat by high adult cow rate. 348 tags were available in 2019, with 330 going to residents and only 18 to non-resident. Success rates were 1.3% (1 in 77) for residents, and 0.7% (1 in 150) for non-residents. Residents pay $125 for their tags, and non-residents $1,250. Moose hunting season is September 15 to November 29. After success in license drawing, you may not apply for another moose license for 7 years. Non-residents are allotted only up to 10% of tags.

Washington

According to a 2018 census, the state had 5,169 moose. This number is higher than the previous estimate of about 3,000, but biologists believe the moose numbers are on the decline. Wolves and climate change (better survival of parasites) are both contributing factors, but in any case the state wildlife biologists believe the peak numbers in the early 2,000s were more than the habitat could support.

Two permits are available through a special raffle (with nearly 7,000 tickets bought at $6 each). In 2019, there were 64,957 moose permit applications competing for only 102 antlered moose tags – a meager 0.15% chance of drawing, or 1 in 637. The average number of preference points of successful winners were between 13 and 18. Resident moose licenses are $332, non-resident $1,652.

Moose trophy

Idaho

According to the state Department of Fish and Game, Idaho has a population of about 10,000 to 12,000 moose. The population is stable, and while the moose numbers are dwindling in some areas, they are expanding to others. In 2020 634 tags were issued. 571 were drawn by residents, at an impressive 11.5% success rate (1 in 7), and 63 by non-residents (5.3%, or 1 in 19). The high success rates are explained by the fact that a moose tag in Idaho is not only a once-in-a-lifetime proposition, but is also not cheap, at $2,150 for non-residents. There are other limitations, too, including the fact that a large part of the state is a short-range weapon only zone.

Read more about moose hunting in Idaho in “Slugging the Hulk” by James Reed.

Wyoming

Peaking at about 12,000-13,000 animals in the early 2000s, Wyoming moose population is now down to some 4,000. While many hunters blame wolves, Wyoming Wildlife Federation quotes research that suggests that the reason for low twinning rate in Shiras moose is poor nutrition. (source https://wyomingwildlife.org/science-friday-how-are-wyomings-moose-doing/). Before the moose population in the state can grow again, the numbers of the animals must be kept down, so that the foraging resources may recover.
Wyoming allows up to 20% of tags to be drawn by non-residents, but with the low number of tags this doesn’t help much. In 2020, there were 1578 non-resident applications and only 7 non-resident tags (success rate a meagre 0.5% or 1 in 225), and 9724 resident applications for 64 tags (0.7% or 1 in 152). Residents pay $112 and non-residents $1,402. Your chances to draw are slim if you don’t have 20-21 preference points. If you draw, you can’t apply for a moose tag again until 5 years passes.

Colorado

In 2019 the moose population in Colorado was estimated at 2,910 animals. The basis of the population is moose reintroduced in the late 1970s. Limited moose hunting is available. The season is October 1-14, and the tags cost $305.61 for residents and $ 2,240.20 for non-residents. 540 licenses were issued in the season 2019, and 485 hunters harvested 353 moose (a 72% success rate). Success rates for adult first draw applications was 1.5% (1 in 67) for residents and 0.7% (1 in 145) for non-residents. The Colorado landowner preference program doesn’t cover moose. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the moose population in the state is doing better than in other states of the Lower 48.

Utah

The moose population in Utah, like in Colorado, is a relatively new thing, fostered by logging (that replace mature timber with meadows and young trees that are the preferred habitat for moose) and extermination of wolves and grizzly bears. The population is estimated at about 3,000 head and a hunting season is open.

Read also: “Moose Hunting in Alaska: A conversation with an outfitter

Go Hunt Moose!

All in all, it appears that the peak of moose populations of 20 years ago was not a “new normal”, but an anomaly. What we witnessed later was only Nature doing her thing: overpopulated animals deplete their food resources and are more vulnerable to different pathogens, including parasites. It looks like the current numbers of moose in the Lower 48 are likely to remain at the same level for the next few years if not decades. And human harvest continues to be an irreplicable method of moose population control. Some people may ask, why, if Nature has self-regulatory mechanisms? The answer is that moose will have to die anyway. And if they have to die, a hunter’s bullet or arrow is better than ticks, brainworm, lack of food, or wolves’ fangs. Not so much because it’s usually a quicker and less painful death, but mostly because human harvest is controllable! Humans can say “OK, we’re killing too many, let’s stop”. Ticks and wolves can’t.

Moose hunting in the Lower 48 is carefully controlled so that moose populations are kept at the levels that are best for both moose and people. And if you decide to have a go at moose hunting, your chances are well above zero. In fact, if you apply for a non-resident tag in every Lower 48 state that offers such an opportunity, your combined chances of success stand at just under 10%. Bear in mind that moose hunting for non-residents is not the most affordable hunt ever: after application fees, bonus points, license or permit price and travel and lodging costs, you may be looking at $2,500-$3,000 depending on state. So it makes sense to hire a reputable outfitter to make the most out of this exceptional opportunity.

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