By Ron Joseph
In late September 1980, Maine’s annual moose hunt resumed for the first time in 54 years, but not without controversy. In 1979, the six-day hunt was preceded by several highly contentious legislative hearings in Augusta. In packed hearing rooms, the Legislature entertained passionate testimonies from anti-hunters, hunters, business owners, state senators and representatives. Arguments for and against the moose hunt was great live theater, unscripted and unrehearsed. The Legislature wisely chose to re-open the moose hunt with an agreement to pause the 1981 hunt to allow biologists and legislators to reassess whether to continue it in 1982.
In 1980, Doc Blanchard, an imposing, legendary regional wildlife biologist, administered the state’s largest moose check station in Greenville. Supervising a team of 10 biologists charged with collecting biological data from dead moose, Blanchard’s other task was officiating disputes between hunters and anti-hunters, some of which were filmed by CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and other national news networks. An argument between Blanchard and John Cole, head of SMOOSA (Save Maine’s Only Official State Animal), nearly came to blows before levelheaded game wardens intervened.
Moose Hunt Controversy
In 1988, I replaced Doc Blanchard as regional wildlife biologist in Greenville. By then, controversy surrounding the hunt had largely subsided. Except for a few protesters carry signs “Good luck moose,” and “Long Live Moose,” opponents of the moose hunt boycotted the check station, choosing instead to air their grievances in newspaper op-ed columns and in front of Maine television news cameras. But general interest in the hunt had not waned. State wildlife biologist Joe Wiley warned me that controlling a crowd of several hundred moose gawkers and a half dozen competing taxidermists would be my biggest challenge as lead biologist of the Greenville check station. He was correct. By 8 a.m.. on day one of the hunt, according to a Piscataquis County sheriff in charge of traffic control, the station’s parking lot was filled with three hundred moose gawkers. A vendor representing the Greenville Chamber of Commerce sold hotdogs, burgers, popcorn, coffee, and donuts. Collecting biological data from dead moose in a carnival-like atmosphere was surreal. The crowd, mostly dressed in hunter orange, parted for trucks with a dead moose before quickly chasing it into the Stobie airplane hangar at the south end of Moosehead Lake. Inside the cavernous hangar, I operated an electric hoist weight scale. Governor McKernan’s office had even sent a representative, a woman in a red dress and high heels, to observe the proceedings.
This was the setting when on my first morning on the job, a pickup truck carrying an impressive bull moose rolled into the hangar. As curious on-lookers gathered, the electric hoist groaned and shivered to lift the big bull. Finally free from the truck’s bed, the moose hung and twisted in the air, held up by heavy chains wrapped around the base of its stout antlers. As anticipation hung silently in the air, I climbed a 10-foot stepladder to read the scale. It seemed an eternity before the arrow settled. I yelled out the weight: 1,158 pounds. The crowd turned to each other, and like an echo, repeated the weight from end to end in the hangar.
The large moose’s weight, though, wasn’t the most exciting moment. As I lowered him back into the truck, the spleen rolled out of his chest cavity and splattered on the cement floor. McKernan’s representative jumped back in horror. Everyone laughed, but not at her. Watson, a local basset hound, shot between her legs, grabbed the organ, and dragged it out of the building as fast as his short legs allowed. He became an instant crowd favorite and the unofficial mascot of the 1988 moose season. Throughout the week, the sheriff held up traffic as Watson dragged moose parts to his cache beneath a porch of a lakeside cottage.
I quickly learned to expect the unexpected. Day two produced another surprise: cooked moose. A Subaru Brat — a tiny vehicle that’s half car and half truck — carrying a large bull moose had failed to climb Scammon Ridge’s Lily Bay Road on the east side of Moosehead Lake. The moose’s weight exceeded the manufacturer’s recommended payload weight limit, causing the Subaru to overheat. The vehicle stalled, caught fire, and was engulfed in a ball of flames within minutes. By the time fire trucks arrived from Greenville, vehicle and moose were reduced to a black smoldering mass. Game warden Pat Dorian drove me to the Greenville Texaco Station where the Subaru had been delivered on a flatbed truck. He asked, “Are you going to tag crispy moose?” “Yes, indeed,” I said, placing a metal tag around the charred Achilles tendon before extracting a lower incisor with a screwdriver and buck knife. (Removing a tooth for aging is standard moose check station practice. If I had collected a dollar each time someone said, “I’m sure glad you’re not my dentist,” I could have retired many years earlier.)
By the fifth day of the 1988 moose season, 93 percent of the 1,000 permit holders were home enjoying the fruits of a successful Maine moose hunt. Only a handful of dead moose trickled into the check station on day six. One sorry hunter arrived at the Greenville check station on the last day of the hunt with a cow moose crammed into the back of his Ford Explorer. He’d shot the cow late the previous day several hundred yards from a logging road. He hired a skidder operator to stuff the cow into the folded backseat of the Explorer. Exhausted from gutting and loading the moose, the hunter slept in his vehicle that night with a dead animal in the backseat.
By the time he arrived in Greenville the following morning, rigor mortis had taken hold of the moose. When he backed into the hangar, the face of the cow moose was smashed against the blood-smeared rear window. Moose legs were bent in all sorts of unnatural angles. By then my team of biologists had tagged 250 dead moose and we had become jaded. We quickly dubbed this one “canned moose,” because no body parts moved when the doors were opened. The floor of the vehicle, however, was alive with movement. As the moose cooled during the night, hundreds of ticks had dropped off the carcass. The bedraggled hunter, young and inexperienced, was oblivious to the ticks crawling all over him. “Will you weigh the moose for me?” he asked. I told him that it wasn’t possible and advised him to deliver the moose to a butcher shop as soon as possible before the meat spoiled.
Watson’s droopy and expectant eyes stared at me in disbelief. I swear he was disappointed that I sent the hunter home without weighing that cow moose. “Watson,” I said, “don’t give me that look. You’ve had an exciting moose season and so have I.” Undeterred, the basset hound trotted to a 55-gallon barrel overflowing with moose legs discarded by the Mane brother’s portable butcher shop, secured a lower leg, and dragged it across the parking lot. Although my first moose hunt was officially over, Watson’s hunt hadn’t quite yet ended.
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