Maine's second moose hunt in 47 years began Monday at dawn in a blaze of early fall color and Yankee debate.
One thousand hunters, chosen by lottery from more than 60,000 who gambled $5 and $10 just to apply, set off into Maine's north woods with high-powered rifles, searching for the giant animals that grace the state's official seal.
Behind them were what seemed at times like an equal number of reporters and cameramen, stalking their stories for afternoon deadlines and the network news.
"Everytime I turn around, there's a microphone being shoved in my face," said a hunter at a check-in station on the shore of Moosehead Lake, where 90 of the first day's total of 217 moose were brought to be weighed, measured and tagged. "It's like a damn circus is what it is."
The media blitz resulted from an in-state controversy that has been going on since 1980, when, after 45 years of protection from at least legal hunting, the moose was made fair game for an experimental six-day hunt. Critics charged that it wasn't nice to shoot the state symbol, and also not sporting; they said the moose, which is shy and docile by nature, had become as trusting and accessible as cows in a farm field.
"Hunting moose is like stalking the Good Humor truck," said John N. Cole, a local writer and head of SMOOSA (Save Maine's Only Official State Animal). Cole, a hunter himself, has organized a signature drive to get the moose-hunting question on the state ballot for a referendum this November. Cole points to the 90 percent kill ratio during the experimental hunt two years ago as proof that the moose hunt is more slaughter than sport.
Supporters of the hunt, particularly officials of the state's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife that collected more than $400,000 in fees for research, wildlife management and salaries from the hunt, say the criticism is unfair and naive. This time of year, during moose mating season, the animals are more wary than usual, they say. Besides, with a minimum of $1,000 worth of good lean meat on every adult moose, economics becomes as primary a reason for the hunt as the etiquette of it all.
"To an awful lot of people, this moose hunt is going to make a big difference in how they eat this winter," said Lt. John Vail, a state game warden for 14 years. "Before now, you'd have to spend a lot of money going to Newfoundland or Canada to moose hunt. This is an opportunity for a common working man."
Maine is an unexpected place to encounter a hunting controversy. This state, which has 18 million acres of forest, is one of the most rugged and game-rich in the country. Deer hunting here is as much a tradition as high school football games. And with a state economy that has suffered more than most, getting wild game for the freezer is hardly open to debate.
But moose are not your average game animal. As state symbol, the moose has been incorporated into decades of advertising campaigns. And the moose you are likely to see on supermarket advertising fliers and church bazaar announcements is almost always depicted as big, more than a little dumb, and as pleasantly goofy as a labrador puppy.
The behavior of the animals in the wild does nothing to dispel that image. They are long-legged, short-necked and strikingly ugly, with beady eyes set behind bulbous snouts. They are 10 feet long, can stand six feet high and weigh 1,500 pounds. When they move through the forest, it is with almost no evidence of grace. And they are so myopic, love-sick bull mooses have been known to mount the hood of an automobile thinking it a fair mate.
"I admit they're not (white tail) deer. They don't leap over tall buildings in a single bound," said Tom Shoener, the spokesman for the fisheries department. "But they don't just stand there, either. A hunter can make the hunt as ethical and sporting as he wants."
In 1935, when Maine halted all moose hunting, there were only about 2,000 in the state. There are now an estimated 20,000 moose. Ironically, their numbers have increased because of a controversial clear-cutting technique that encourages the hardwood browse that they love to eat. The lumber roads that have been cut through formerly impassable forest were used by hunters to find their game. Downing a moose is one thing; loading it on the back of a pickup truck sometimes requires more skill. The biggest moose of the day here, a 1,130-pound bull, required nine hours of work from four people in two four-wheel drives equipped with winches and block and tackle.
At the check-in stations where the moose were measured and weighed by being hoisted into the air by their back ankles, the curious and the committed gathered to take pictures and opposing sides.
"My husband's parents are against moose hunting," said Sandra Thompson, as her husband, Danny, helped wildlife officials wrap a chain around his 890-pound moose. Danny Thompson, a 28-year-old railroad worker, was laid off earlier this summer. He and his wife said they looked upon their moose not as trophy but table fare.
"His father says this is just like walking up to a cow and shooting it," said Sandra Thompson. "I said with times the way they are I'm liable to do just that."