Penobscot hunting guide Scott Phillips, left, and hunter Jeff More search for moose in a birchbark canoe. Hunting begins in early fall. (Photo by James Kaiser)
Moose and other big game hunting provide some economic return for the Penobscot Indian Nation, but perhaps the biggest boon comes from outside the balance sheet.
Granted, there is the $20,000 to $30,000 that the annual permits for non-Native hunters generates. But there are also the 300-400 pounds of meat that a bull moose can furnish; the interplay between human and nature; and the relationships that develop between hunters and their Penobscot guides.
Hunting moose and other big game form a key component of the longstanding sustenance (as opposed to subsistence) practice on Penobscot lands in Maine.
“Sustenance hunting includes a lot more than just going out and getting the protein to subsist,” said John Banks, head of the Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources. “Sustenance hunting has more to do with carrying out a cultural tradition that recognizes a relationship between humans and nature. So it’s much more than just going out and killing a moose.”
The Penobscot auction five moose-hunting permits per year to non-members. Applicants send in sealed bids during May, and during the first week of June, Banks and his staff grant the highest five bidders a permit, mainly to big game hunters.
Those hunters are allowed to take one moose each during a two-week period in early fall. Bids start at $3,000. The revenue is enough to employ one full-time game warden, out of 25 overall Tribal staff, Banks said.
About 20 to 25 bids come in every year, Banks said, though it varies, with 14 last year. The permits are good for one week during two weeks at the end of September through the beginning of October — the peak rutting, or mating, season.
More permits are available for the eight-week-long spring bear hunt, which spans much of May and June. Those cost $500 each and are not subject to lottery. The Penobscot are one of two Northeastern Tribes that offer this hunt.
Both bear and moose hunting permits require hunters to hire Penobscot guides. For moose they have a choice of 10 or 12 Penobscot experts.
“We have a long, long history and tradition of our Tribal people being guides — hunting guides, fishing guides, tourism guides, paddling guides — guides for Henry David Thorough, and Mark Twain,” Banks noted.
The 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act goal gave the Penobscot and other recognized Tribes the opportunity to develop economically in culturally appropriate ways, Banks explained. Besides providing some income from the permit sale, it’s also a “culturally relevant activity that our Tribal members have been carrying out for thousands of years,” he said.
“We have archeology sites in this watershed that go back 10,000 years,” Banks said, adding wryly, “For most of that time there wasn’t a Shop & Save grocery store down the road, or a U.S. Route 1, or a U.S. 95, or a drugstore, a pharmacy.”
Guides are trained in woodsmanship, first aid, fire safety, firearm safety and boating safety. And, of course, they know how to speak moose.
“They come to you, you don’t have to go chasing them all over the woods,” Banks said. “It’s pretty exciting to call one in and have a big bull moose come in like he’s wanting to fight you. You can call them pretty close to your canoe and truck.”
Taking one down close to your conveyance means less hauling, “less work in getting them to the butcher,” said Banks.
The guides are like independent contractors in that they are licensed rather than being Tribal employees. Sometimes they do formal educational presentations, but more often guides like Scott Phillips, who spends most of his time selling canoes to retailers and outfitters, will let the experience speak for itself.
Phillips melds his two passions when he goes out hunting with Jeff More, 55, and Ralph More, 90, a father-son team who he has been guiding for the past 10 years. They hunt by canoe.
“One thing I really enjoy doing is just calling moose to show people how it’s done. It’s how our ancestors did it, is to call,” Phillips said. “Some people just drive around until they see one, and then they just shoot it. So many hunters now rely on just gadgets, and that takes some of the simplicity out of it.”
“It’s like going back in time,” said More. “You’re going through the fog. When you’re there at night you don’t see any city lights, you don’t hear any vehicles. You hear coyote, you hear moose. You hear beavers splashing their tails.”