Face Time: Lee Kantar, Maine state moose biologist

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Lee Kantar is a New Hampshire native and Maine’s official state moose biologist.

The work has him doing helicopter surveys, stealthily sneaking up on moose in the water in the summer and doing all manner of pretty amazing moose things.

Name: Lee Kantar

Age: 51

Lives: Old Town

Growing up, did you know you wanted to work with wildlife? I was given free rein as a kid growing up in the 70s to play outside. This included getting lost in the woods, falling into ponds and the like. Exposure to the woods and wildlife at a young age is likely a good predictor for future outdoor pursuits. As a kid I liked to draw and was really interested in big animals. My aunt gave me a book of drawings on western wildlife and I was hooked.

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An average week on the job as the state moose biologist: Moose work varies by season. In the fall, we oversee the collection of biological data from the moose hunt, so I spend time at registration stations collecting info on harvested moose and talking to hunters. As fall moves on, we prep for winter aerial surveys of moose by helicopter and, currently, our moose research project, where we are collaring and following animals starts in January. All winter/spring, we monitor moose survival, and if a moose dies, we recover the moose within about 24 hours and do complete field necropsies of each animal. In spring/summer, we monitor in the field cow moose by walking in on them (without being detected) to see if they have a calf at heel. Right now during the summer, I try to catch up on things in the office and then go out into the field to try and collar a few cow moose in the water for our project.

Most unusual moose call or report you’ve fielded from the public? We often get what seems like unusual calls about moose in town or a moose that doesn’t look right. About two winters ago, we received a call that a bull moose was walking in circles up north at a power line right-of-way. A few days later we received a call that the moose was actually tethered by its antlers to an old telephone line connected to a pole and could not escape. We immediately responded, got to the moose at night and were able to immobilize the bull (using a dart gun) remove the telephone line from the antlers and then send the bull on its merry way. Working on the bull in the dark added a bit of intrigue to the whole successful event.

Why is collaring and tracking moose important? Has the state been doing it for long? Putting a GPS/VHF collar on a moose is the only way to quantify survival rates. In other words, if you want to figure out how many cow moose live or die each year, you cannot guess that number. With a good sample size of collared animals you can mathematically quantify these survival rates and study causes of mortality — this information is critical to managing moose across Maine. We are moving into our sixth winter of moose capture on a study that has included close collaboration with New Hampshire and Vermont. To date, Maine has collared more than 380 moose to understand the dynamics of cows and calves in the state.

Can you describe the art of tagging them while they’re in the water? In Maine we use a technique of collaring moose in the water that, to our knowledge, no other state or province does. After some ground (water) work we locate a particularly active body of water. When moose are feeding out in the lake or swimming, using a boat, we are able to very quickly corral the moose and attach a collar (we retrofitted the design to snap on) and ear tags. This technique requires no chemical immobilization (drugs) to sedate the moose, and it can be done in as quick as two minutes of actual moose handling time. This is safe for the moose and provides the least amount of stress to fit a collar.

Had any too-close encounters? I have been up close and personal with a number of moose. Because we are sensitive to space (distance between ourselves and the moose) and look for physical signs from the moose that they are not happy, close encounters are few and far between. Moose have different personalities. For adult cows with calves, some are more passive, some are more aggressive. The aggressive moose give plenty of signs that they do not know what you are and are not particularly happy that you are in their space. The cow actually can produce a rather intimidating “roar” that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. There is no other sound or look that needs to alert you that you should be considering a hasty exit from the area. But again, for the most part, in general, the public needs to keep their distance out of respect for the animal. Moose give off an attitude of not caring, yet one more step in their direction, and the world can change quickly.

Last time you sat back and said, “Man, I love my job”? I am fortunate in my career and timing that I was able to be in this position. Moose are an icon of the North Woods, a symbol of Maine and its rugged beauty. The sheer size of a moose demands respect and admiration. I am fortunate in my work to see tons of moose and spend time understanding everything about them. All of this is like a never-ending puzzle where you collect and put together many pieces, but never get to complete the whole puzzle — they are wild animals. (We) try to understand most of what they do and why and quantify parts of their lives so we can make decisions that benefit the public’s interest. And, yes, there are moments in the presence of moose where every other care or worry in the world fades away and all there is is a majestic moose in front of you moving through its world with an ease and knowledge no human will ever possess. That is truly awesome.

Since most of us only glimpse them at a distance, give us a little insight: What’s a moose really like?  When you get close to a moose you are always impressed with their sheer size. Especially for an animal that gets its daily requirements from leaves and twigs. While we perceive moose as being pretty chill, perhaps their size and keen hearing and smell allows a nonchalant and confidence until the bubble breaks. Young of the year moose are striking for the proportion of their legs to body, at times giving off more of a Daddy Long Legs look and like any young animal, there is a “cuteness” quotient. Prime moose have incredible musculature that, up close, really stands out. The prehensile muzzle of a moose is covered with special hairs called “vibrissae” and is very long — sometimes moose are referred to as “Old Bucketnose.” Moose have an incredible sense of smell and with their muzzle discern differences in plant and plant parts so that can select the most palatable twigs as they move through the woods feeding. So meeting up with a moose in the woods provides the dynamics of a 1,000-pound animal who is an expert at detection that can slip away into the spruce fir like a ghost with or without a sound. Those experiences provide a sense of awe and amazement.

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Maine State Moose Biologist Lee Kantar (Submitted photo)

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