Maine residents bent on stopping what they regard as moose slaughter apparently have failed in a bid for a statewide referendum on the scheduled 1982 moose hunt.
Writer John Cole's organization, SMOOSA (Save Maine's Only Official State Animal), has been collecting signatures for three months to demand the balloting. He said yesterday SMOOSA will not have the required 38,000 names by Thursday's deadline.
Cole said SMOOSA lacked the organization to get the job done. But he remains convinced that if voters had the opportunity to vote yes or no on moose hunting season, they would turn it down "by 5 to 1."
Moose hunting was banned in Maine in 1935, when the population of the huge, docile beasts dipped to about 2,000. The season stayed closed until 1980, when the legislature approved an experimental hunt in the northern two-fifths of the state. The population of moose had increased to about 20,000.
A moose-permit lottery was set up, and 33,345 Maine residents paid $5 apiece to enter their names. Seven hundred names were picked at a televised drawing conducted by Boy Scouts. Each person was entitled to one moose. When the six-day hunt ended last September, 635 moose had been claimed.
Cole and his allies cite that figure -- a startling success rate of about 90 percent -- as an indication that the great moose hunt of 1980 was instead a moose shoot, a slaughter.
"If you bat .500 when you're salmon fishing you're doing great," said Cole, who has hunted for years but who says his interest has waned. "If you bat .500 duck hunting you're really shooting. And here they are batting .900 on moose. I say there can't be much sport to it." Maine deer hunters, by contrast, have a success ratio of about 15 percent.
This spring the legislature decided that, based on the success of the experimental hunt, it would officially open the moose season in Maine's northern tier in 1982, issuing permits by lottery to 900 Maine residents and 100 out-of-staters. It will make Maine the only state east of Montana with a moose hunt.
Opponents, armed with horror stories from the 1980 experiment, immediately set to work to put the matter to a vote.
Here are some of the stories they tell: that moose were so tame in areas around Greenville, where hunters concentrated, that hunters had to push the beasts out of the way with their rifle butts in order to draw a bead on them; that hunters were having their photographs taken next to their prey, then stepping back for the kill; that hunters were shooting from trucks and cars along the road.
Tom Shoener, director of public information for the Maine Fisheries and Wildlife Commission, says he was an "observer of the 1980 moose season from two days before it opened until two days after it closed." He contends the horror stories are largely untrue.
"It's ridiculous, the stories about hunters having their pictures taken, about pushing the moose out of the way," he said. "I was there. The people that are writing these things are relying on hearsay or their imaginations."
He conceded moose were not hard to find. Figures compiled after the hunt show that 71 percent of successful hunters spotted their moose from their vehicles, mostly as they drove down logging roads. Another 10 per cent were walking along roads when they found their moose.
He said that so far no one has asserted that the hunt will damage the booming moose population.
"I was there every day of the hunt, from first light to last light," said Bud Leavitt, outdoor writer for the Bangor Daily News. "If you're asking me if this was a hunt, I'd say it's like goose shooting at Remington Farms (on Maryland's Eastern Shore), where the birds come in and come in, all day."
He added, "All the criticism came from the three-piece suit guys doing a minute and a half on the 6 o'clock news."
Well, not all. There is Fredericka Boyington, who has some cabins up by Millinocket that she rents out to hunters in the fall.
Last September, she watched two men driving a pickup six miles from her cabins. "The moose was standing down a small embankment. I thought they were going to take a picture. Well, they took the picture and then one of them got a rifle out and shot him. He went down with a thud. You never heard such a sound."
Boyington concluded: "I was dumbfounded. I sat in the car and cried."
This summer, Boyington said, she's been collecting signatures for the SMOOSA petition. If it fails, "I'm going to close the cabins during hunting season to protest."