Forty Years Ago, Some Mainers Called Bull on the Moose Hunt

Today, both the hunt and lottery are widely embraced traditions.

Moose Drawing
Courtesy of Carroll Hall, Bangor Daily News
By Rob Sneddon
From our September 2020 issue

It was a scene that Norman Rockwell might have set. On a summer night in 1980, a kerchief-clad member of Brewer’s Cub Scout Pack 11 walked across a sparsely furnished stage at the Bangor Auditorium and reached into a huge wheel-shaped ticket drum next to an American flag. The scout drew out an entry form — one of 32,269 inside the tumbler — and handed it to an emcee from the Penobscot Conservation Club.

The emcee looked at the form, turned to a television camera, then read a name aloud. And thus Gary Cain, a 24-year-old salesman from Caribou, became the first person allowed to hunt a moose in Maine since 1935. Cain, who was watching from his living room, part of a live television audience that Maine Public Broadcasting Network expected to be its largest ever, told a reporter he was “in a state of disbelief.”

In hindsight, the moment was a masterstroke of showmanship — even if that wasn’t the intent.

The state’s decision to reinstate Maine’s moose hunt, which it had ended decades earlier, had generated considerable controversy. Pushback from antihunting and conservation organizations was to be expected, but plenty of hunters also questioned the transparency of the proposed permit lottery — a controversy within a controversy. Some wondered openly whether the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife would pocket the $5 entry fees from thousands of gullible hunters, then hand out the 700 permits to politicians and friends of the department.

Bud Leavitt, host of MPBN’s Woods and Waters TV program, suggested to DIFW commissioner Glenn Manuel that a crew from the show document the drawing for a later episode, in order to prove it was on the up-and-up. “Great,” Manuel said, “but why not go all the way and televise the entire drawing live?”

So that’s what they did. All three hours of it.

Writing for the Bangor Daily News, Leavitt promised a “straight-as-a-string news production,” telling readers, “If you’re expecting something more exciting than a three-hour beano game, you’re on the wrong channel.”

Forty years later, that earnestness comes across in photos: this is all above board — Scout’s honor! There’s something charming about the scene, which maybe explains why Maine’s moose lottery caught the media’s fancy and continues, year after year, to draw local and national coverage, like Punxsutawney’s Groundhog Day. 

If the moose lottery’s appeal eludes you, though, you are not alone. Current DIFW commissioner Judy Camuso admits she was mystified at first.

“I thought, really?” she says. “People get excited just to hear a bunch of names being read?” 

But that was before she experienced a moose lottery in person. Since the bare-bones public-broadcasting presentation in 1980, the lottery has become an increasingly lavish affair. For years, it was held at a drab former armory in Augusta, but in 1999, the DIFW turned it into a traveling circus. Host towns took to launching whole festivals around it, with cookouts and fishing derbies, hunting expos and corporate sponsors, golf tournaments and juried moose-call contests. In Skowhegan, in 2018, 1,054 people set a Guinness World Record for moose-calling simultaneously.

“It’s been all over the state, from Kittery up to Presque Isle,” Camuso says. “There’s nothing else that I can think of that’s comparable. A lot of people go every year because they just love the atmosphere. For many people, the lottery has become an event in and of itself, entirely separate from the moose hunt.”

But amid all the ancillary activities, the lottery’s central attraction remains the ritual drawing of names. For many hunters, Camuso says, the opportunity to bag a Maine moose is the hunt of a lifetime.

“There’s so much anticipation around the drawing, so much energy in the room or the arena or wherever we may be,” the commissioner says. “Some people can wait 20 or more years to get a permit, so there’s a lot of excitement when their name finally gets drawn. The whole room stops. People start crying. People applaud.”

Not everyone applauded back in 1979, when the state legislature voted to reinstate Maine’s moose hunt. The day the bill passed, senate minority leader and former Portland mayor Gerard P. Conley staged a “moose funeral” in the State House, complete with a coffin and mourners in black armbands. Stephen Gould, a representative from Orono, played taps. Conley issued a certificate listing the cause of death as “insensitivity of the Maine Legislature.” 

Moose hunting in Maine had been legal, with various restrictions, until 1935. By then, the population had dropped to perhaps 2,000 moose, the result of market hunting for hides and meat in the 1800s, diminished habitat, and a disease caused by parasitic brainworm. But in the 45 years since, the population had increased tenfold. (Today, biologists estimate Maine’s moose population at 60,000 to 70,000, down from a peak of over 100,000 at the turn of the 2000s.) The New York Times reported that moose had “become so numerous and bold that they are tourist attractions in some places and community pets in others.” The idea of hunting such an oafish, Bullwinkle-y creature struck opponents as unfair to the point of cruelty.

One prominent critic was conservationist John Cole, a founding editor of the influential alternative weekly Maine Times. A former hunter himself, Cole was not opposed to hunting as a pastime — just to hunting moose. “It would be more sporting to shoot Budweiser trucks,” he told the New York Times in 1982. “They’re about the same size, but they travel faster.”

The senate minority leader staged a “moose funeral” complete with a coffin and mourners.

By some measures, the 1980 moose hunt bore out that critique. Of the 700 hunters whose names were drawn at the Bangor Auditorium, 636 bagged a moose — a 91 percent success rate. On the hunt’s first day, the check-in station in Greenville was overwhelmed. As the carcasses piled up, a harried Maine wildlife official reportedly turned to one hunter and asked, “Excuse me, sir, is this your moose?”

But for many Mainers, gauging the moose hunt by its degree of difficulty missed the point. The object was sustenance, not sport, and a freezer full of moose meat could stave off a lean winter.

“When it’s on your plate, it doesn’t matter whether it was a wild moose or half-domesticated one,” Ron Masur, a licensed guide from Greenville, told the New York Times. “It’s just meat, and the fact that one hunter wanted his meat easy and the another wanted to test himself against the animal doesn’t matter.”

Maine had placed some sort of limitations on moose hunting ever since 1830, just 10 years after the state’s founding, when it limited the season from September through December. Ever since, legislators have had to weigh competing interests — the diehards and the dilettantes, the hunter and the hunted — when drafting wildlife laws. The decision to revive the moose hunt in 1980 was motivated in part by a sentiment that not all poachers ought to be criminalized — that many of the estimated 400 moose being killed illegally each year were keeping families fed. 

The tweaks continued after the 1980 season, which was labeled an “experiment.” There was no moose hunt in ’81, and in ’82, the department began staggering the season across several designated districts, in the hopes of avoiding a repeat of the unseemly slaughter clustered around Greenville in 1980.

But the opposition also regrouped. Cole spearheaded an organization called SMOOSA, Save Maine’s Only Official State Animal, which gathered enough signatures to place a repeal initiative on the ballot in November 1983. In a non-presidential election year with unusually large turnout, 61 percent of voters rejected the measure. The vote effectively ended organized opposition to moose hunting. 

“We said all along we’d abide by whatever the vote is,” Cole told a reporter. “I think the people of Maine have made a statement. This is still a hunting state where the rights of the individual are respected.”

Still, Cole was convinced that his outlook would someday become the dominant one. “Social attitudes are changing,” he said. “I don’t think people will be hunting moose 50 years from now.”

Forty years later, moose hunting in Maine is arguably more socially acceptable than ever. In a recent DIFW-commissioned statewide survey, fewer than one in ten respondents expressed opposition. The permit lottery generates some $1.8 million annually for the department, and it remains an egalitarian exercise, with computers rather than Cub Scouts pulling names. In 1995, the state authorized a parallel auction, in which up to 10 permits are bestowed on the highest bidder — last year, someone paid more than $23,000 for one. But even this side door for the wealthy generates little indignation, as proceeds fund youth conservation programs. 

This year’s lottery came full circle, in a sense. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the DIFW to cancel the live event planned in Jackman. Instead, the department conducted the lottery online, with an audience watching from home, like it was 1980 all over again. There were 3,135 winners. If form holds, roughly three out of four permit holders will succeed in stocking their freezer for the long winter ahead.