ONE BIG MOOSE
Alces alces, the North American moose, is the largest member of the deer family and is the largest antlered animal in the world. Moose actually inhabit northern forests throughout the world. In Europe, they are known as elk and live in northern Scandinavia and eastward through Siberia. In North America, they are found in Canada and Alaska and southward into the Rocky Mountains to Utah and Colorado. They also live in parts of Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont and North Dakota. Moose are also establishing a resident population in Connecticut.
The Boone & Crockett Club (B&C), a non-profit conservation organization which scores and keeps records of big game animals, classifies moose into three subspecies. The biggest, Alces alces gigas, lives north of the 60th parallel in Alaska, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, and stands up to 7-1/2 feet high at the shoulder. Big bulls of this category, commonly referred to as the "Alaska-Yukon Moose," can tip the scales at 2,000 pounds and sport 80-inch antlers that weigh as much as 85 pounds. The greatest spread of any recorded with the Boone & Crockett Club was 81-1/2 inches wide. That is almost seven feet! The subspecies next in line for size is known as the Canadian moose, which can be found north of the 49th and south of the 60th latitudes. B&C's biggest Canadian moose was killed in British Columbia in 1980. Its antlers alone weighed 31 pounds and were 63 inches wide. The smallest subspecies is known commonly as the Shiras, or Wyoming moose, occupying the southernmost regions of the animal's range in the American West. The largest Shiras ever recorded had antlers that measured 53 inches wide. It was killed in Wyoming in 1953.
Though B&C does not recognize it as a separate subspecies, the Eastern or Taiga moose, Alces alces americana, inhabits all of eastern North America from the Great Lakes to the New England states. In terms of antler spread, the largest bull ever taken in Vermont sported 64-1/2 inch headgear, making the Eastern moose pretty comparable to the Canadian in size.
Considering these numbers, it is no wonder that the moose is considered one of the greatest of North American hunting trophies, and why so many hunters pursue it. If size matters, there's no question as to which animal a hunter chooses to stalk. But besides that impressive rack to adorn the fireplace mantle, moose meat is considered by many to be the finest eating to be had. And, obviously, one animal can yield a huge supply of steaks. For some, that is the allure to bagging a moose.
Before Europeans came to North America, the moose was an important source of food for the Indians. Settlers hunted moose until the animals became scarce in some areas. They also cut down most of the forests where moose lived. Eventually, restrictions were placed on moose hunting in many areas, and some forests were allowed to regrow. And, like the white-tailed deer and wild turkey, through management, conservation and habitat enhancement, the moose has not only recovered, but in some areas is actually exceeding population levels deemed as optimum. This level is determined by a number of factors including the carrying capacity of the environment and conflicts with humans, such as motor vehicle collisions.
In the state of Vermont, the number of moose permits has been increased from 850 to 1,045 in the past year, as part of a scientific management plan. This is being done to reach population reduction goals in the northeastern portion of the state, says Cedric Alexander, wildlife biologist with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department [VFWD] and chair of the state's moose management team. A February 2005 news release from the VFWD states, "In portions of the state, moose are causing extensive environmental damage by their heavy consumption of plants, including young trees that would become Vermont's future forest. The most severe damage is occurring in Northeast Kingdom forestlands where there are more than three moose per square mile." Wildlife biologists prescribed the increase in available tags in an effort to better manage the state's growing moose herd-estimated at about 4,700 with moose now found almost statewide.
The 2004 season was only the twelfth modern moose hunt in Vermont. The first took place in 1993 with just 30 permits issued. Since then, the population has flourished and the hunting season has become ever more popular. The VFWD reports that 11,610 residents and 2,147 nonresidents entered Vermont's moose permit lottery last year. A lucky 833 were successful in the drawing, including one from as far away as Nebraska. According to the VFWD, hunters took 539 moose during the state's 2004 hunting season with a statewide average success rate of 65 percent.
ONE BIG CHALLENGE
When a moose hunter is successful, he will ultimately find himself in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand, he has bagged what he's sought (there couldn't be a more misleading term than "bagged" in this case), but now he is faced with the daunting task of getting a truck-sized load of steaks transported to his vehicle, and ultimately, to his freezer. Options include mechanical log skidders, which are dependent upon active logging sites nearby; sleds, which are dependent upon favorable sledding conditions such as snow; backpacks, which are dependent upon a strong back and stubborn ambition; and ATVs, which are not allowed in many areas including State and Federal lands as well as private lands involving conservation easements. Depending on how far away the vehicle is, what type of terrain is involved and how one intends to get it there, the mighty hunter needs all the help he can get.
Although a bit smaller than his northern cousins, the Eastern moose is still one big critter. The average carcass weight of a mature bull moose from Vermont easily tops 700 pounds. The largest shot during Vermont's 2004 season weighed 964 pounds dressed out and had 56-inch antlers. So you see, the work really begins when the hunt ends.
Considerations such as these can affect where and how far a hunter even goes in search of game. That is one of the primary reasons why, prior to the 2004 Vermont moose hunt, teamsters were invited to offer their services to hunters during the state's six-day moose season. Hooking a horse or two to a whole moose and dragging it out lickety-split certainly beats the alternatives.
ENTER THE TEAMSTER
Horse logger Marc Farrow of Holland, Vermont, and his 17-year-old Belgian gelding Bob have been involved in the state's moose hunt since 2002-not as a hunter and mount, but as an entrepreneur and work partner. He was the only teamster involved in that year's season, but with the growing moose herd, his work has also escalated. Marc says he pulled out 13 moose during the 2004 season. According to Louis Bushey, State Lands Forester, Marc was one of six teamsters that assisted moose hunters last year. Fifty survey respondents in the state's post hunt survey said that they used horses in the extraction of their moose. Of those, only two indicated using horses to pack the meat, rather than drag it. Bushey adds that the idea behind summoning more teamsters was to help eliminate illegal ATV use and to better disperse the 500 or so hunting parties that will be in the woods during the season.
The "dispersion factor" seems to be working. "Hunters are starting to realize that they can hunt less crowded, more remote areas," says Marc. "Although they oftentimes wonder if I can actually get their moose out when I arrive. I've pulled [moose] as far as three miles."
How did it all get started? "Five years ago," recalls Marc, "I pulled out a couple of moose for some friends. In 2002, I thought I would try to make some money at it and thought it would be a fun challenge." Did the sight and smell of wild game pose a problem with your horse? "Bob is a veteran skid horse," answers Marc, adding that the gelding has skidded wood for him for 15 years. He also uses Bob for wagon, sleigh and carriage rides, plus parades and maple sugaring, so the horse is bomb-proof, but "moose-proof?" "The only concern I had was the carcass on my first ever moose. I had Vicks with me, but it just did not bother him [Bob]. He has pulled 38 moose to date, through rain, snow, fog and pitch-blackness and I have yet to see him shy or get nervous about it."
Marc is quick to admit that, by no means, does he get rich from the work. He charges hunters a flat $65 per hour for his services. Others charge as much as $100-150 per hour, according to Bushey. For reference, all of Marc's moose drags this past year took anywhere from one to more than three hours. But, as with all work with horses, there is more than a monetary reward to be gained. "What I didn't expect," Marc relates, "was the quality of people I would meet in this adventure. No one can explain the personal satisfaction you get from watching your horse perform in this rugged terrain. I've pulled moose for children, 8 to 11 years old, who are hunting with their dads. This is their trophy hunt of a lifetime. My horse and I get to be part of the memories for these people, and that is more rewarding than the money I make doing it.
"I pulled one [moose] out for a hunter from Newfoundland who has taken a lot of moose, yet he had not heard of this method of extraction. He said that a horse pulling his moose out was as exciting and memorable as the hunt itself. Another hunter and his buddies tried to drag a 650-pound animal out, but gave up after only 100 yards when they came to some uphill terrain. They called me that night. We went out at daylight the next day. They explained that it had taken them two hours to get as far as they did. In a half-hour, Bob pulled their moose to their truck. The men gave me an extra $40 and said, 'Thank God for Bob.'"
For some, the encounter is a first-hand introduction to heavy horses. Marc has noticed that many of the hunters had no idea as to the capabilities or power of a 1,700-pound draft horse. "Some of the hunters say that having a horse pull out their moose 'completes the experience.'"
Farrow concludes, "I think that horses could be used everywhere for moose hunts. The advantage here in Vermont is that the season is short. It would be harder to make money where the hunt is longer." Clearly sold on horsepower, Marc purchased Bob for use in collecting maple sap. Enjoying that, he then began using him for logging. For a brief period, Marc admits that he tried using a mechanical skidder, but quickly decided that he was much happier working with a horse. Dragging moose is simply another opportunity to do what he enjoys. He concludes, "I think that a horse is the most efficient, low-impact way to retrieve the moose. It takes only a narrow trail and a capable horse to go where wheeled vehicles can't, and that will keep horses in the Vermont hunt for years to come."
And that, friends, is no bull.
Vermont's 13th statewide moose hunting season will be October 15-20, with an antlerless moose season in Wildlife Management Units D2 and E to be held October 22-27. Permits are issued by lottery to residents and nonresidents. Lottery applications are $10 for residents and $25 for nonresidents. Winners of the permit lottery purchase resident permits for $100 and nonresident permits for $350. Hunters also have the opportunity to bid on one of five permits being auctioned off to the highest bidders. The application deadline for the 2005 lottery was July 1. For further information, please contact: Charlee Drury at 802-241-3700.