COLEBROOK — As this Canadian border town prepares for the annual Moose Festival, from Aug. 23-25, North Country Chamber of Commerce Manager Justin Eldred is afraid the only moose that's going to show up will be the volunteer wearing a moose costume and serving as mascot for the event.
Moose sightings, even in the northernmost regions of the state, are becoming less frequent, Eldred said. Visitors are starting to complain, and businesses are starting to worry.
The fourth weekend in August has traditionally been a time to celebrate the regal beast whose image adorns everything from motor vehicle license plates to souvenir mugs sold in Moose Alley — the northern section of the state that straddles Route 3 in the Connecticut Lakes region.
Each year, the North Country Moose Festival draws hundreds of people to the weekend of events, including the classic car show, moose-calling contest and the moose-burger barbecue.
But the moose themselves have been noticeably absent this year.
"We have moose maps printed up here that show all the areas, the local hot spots for seeing moose, and I have been passing these out with the best of intentions," Eldred said. "Unfortunately, the moose don't seem to be cooperating."
State Fish & Game officials recently announced a $700,000 initiative, largely funded by the federal government, to tag cows and calves with radio-transmitters so that biologists can use GPS technology to track their movements and over a four-year period analyze deaths to determine cause.
The problem of diminishing moose populations is most severe south of the North Country, in the White Mountains and central regions, according to Kristine Rines, moose project leader at the Department of Fish and Game.
She said the estimates of moose population in the farthest northern regions are actually on target with state goals based on public surveys done every 10 years.
Difference of opinion
The last surveying was done in 2005-2006, said Rines, and at that time, people asked Fish and Game to reduce the moose population because of frequent collisions with moose on the highways.
The statewide population was as high as 6,500 in 2001, Rines said, and is now estimated at 4,500.
"People are seeing a lot fewer moose up there because moose just don't come out to the road like they used to," she said. "The DOT came to us years ago and asked what we could do to reduce moose and vehicle collisions up there. We gave them some suggestions and they took them."
Allowing forests to regrow closer to the roadways and reducing salt licks were among the recommendations.
"Right now, things are kind of stable in the Connecticut Lakes Region," she said. "Some people, and it's a vocal some people, don't like where the numbers currently are, and we'll be revisiting those goals in 2016 after another round of public input in 2015."
Not seeing moose
One of those vocal people is Bruce Beaurivage, an electrician by trade and a registered New Hampshire hunting guide who has been taking hunters into the woods for 15 years.
He said some of his fellow guides and some town officials in the area have asked the state to suspend the moose hunt this year, to no avail.
"We've been talking to them for 10 years now, and we basically told them they are going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg," he said. "Fish and Game claims there are 1,200 moose in the Pittsburg area, and we're saying there are half that. We're not saying we don't have any moose. But in my estimation we've lost 50 to 60 percent of our population in the last two to three years."
Rines said the state only issued 275 permits in the moose hunting lottery for this fall, with 45 in the Colebrook and Pittsburg area. The high for that area was 125 permits back in 2001.
"She (Rines) has already told Fish and Game commissioners that there will be a drastic reduction in the hunt next year," Beaurivage said. "We asked her to do it this year. They should have done it last year. Businesses in this town are writing letters to selectmen because their customers are not seeing moose. Once people don't see moose, they are not coming back."
Beaurivage challenged the accuracy of the Fish & Game moose counts, which are based on recorded observations by deer hunters and hardly scientific, he said. He also took issue with the notion that the public wants fewer moose up north to reduce highway collisions.
Beaurivage said hunters are going to become more discouraged, as the number of successful hunts continues to decline, from 100 percent of lottery winners a decade ago to 60 percent in the north region last year.
"In Moose Alley, there aren't any moose," he said. "The joke up here is 'We renamed it Turkey Alley.'"