NEAR BAXTER STATE PARK, Maine -The hunters discovered the first prey of the evening in a wide pond lined with spruce trees. After creeping down a rocky path, members of the group stood motionless. Then, they took aim.
Click. Click. Click. Startled, the gangly moose reared its head to take in five women pointing cameras and binoculars. Then it continued munching on the pond's vegetation. The delighted group, part of a $50-a-head moose safari, climbed back into the air-conditioned Maine-ly Photos moose tour van and began searching for more of the creatures.
Maine, the sprawling wilderness that has long lured hunters to shoot animals, is being inundated with people who want only to watch them.
Now, the two worlds are colliding as hunters lobby the state for more moose hunting permits, to the chagrin of safari operators and some wildlife lovers. The debate, state officials say, highlights the growing difficulty of managing the vast Maine landscape for all the new people who want to use it.
"It's a challenge," said Phil Savignano, senior tourism official for the Maine Office of Tourism. "Maine is changing . . . There is clearly a decline in hunting and a growth in wildlife viewing. But we want both to exist."
A half-century ago, sportsmen eager to hunt, fish, trap, and canoe flocked to northern Maine's vast privately-owned forest, which the public is allowed to treat like a playground.
Today, they are joined by snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, dog sledders, all-terrain-vehicle drivers, and wildlife watchers - all competing for equal access. At the same time, longtime residents say, some newer inhabitants of the communities bordering the North Woods view the forest as a national park, where virtually nothing should be disturbed.
Conflicts have arisen: "no hunting" signs on previously accessible property, arguments between cross-country skiers and snowmobilers, and complaints about ATVs tearing up wooded trails.
The moose, far easier to hunt than bear and deer - and tastier, too - has always been a treasured icon of Maine. Today, about 65,000 people from around the country enter an annual lottery to receive one of the coveted 3,000 moose hunting permits.
Thousands also come to Maine to watch the moose. The Millinocket and Greenville region has seen moose-tour operators multiply in the last 15 years, with around 10 now in business, operators and tourism officials say.
Safari operators, usually charging between $35 and $300, take visitors out in canoes, boats, jeeps, or float planes for a few hours or overnight to view moose around dawn and dusk as the swamp donkeys, as they are sometimes called, lick salt from roadways or eat freshwater vegetation.
"Every third person who walks in here wants to see a moose these days," said Moosehead Lake Region Chamber of Commerce executive director Bob Hamer. Others want to see all types of wildlife. "There are more people who want an experience with nature," he said.
About 800,000 residents and visitors viewed wildlife in Maine in 2006, according to the most recent survey data from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1996, about 764,000 people did. During that same decade, hunting and fishing declined slightly, following a national trend.
Wildlife tourists tend to spend more time and money in Maine than hunters and fishermen, according to the survey. Some sportsmen worry that spending power could translate into political clout that could cut off their traditional access.
Many Mainers say moose hunting and moose tours should coexist, but exactly how is now being debated as hunters say there are more moose in the woods than state officials previously believed. For years, biologists using aerial surveys and other counting methods estimated there were 25,000 to 30,000 moose in Maine. But state officials recently tried a new method of counting based on how many moose hunters see. Those results suggested there could be as many as 60,000 moose.
Hunters say the state should issue more hunting permits - not only to bring in more tourism dollars, but to keep the moose population healthy. Too many animals could lead to starvation and disease when the woods cannot support them all.
"When you have too many moose, it's a travesty not to be able to hunt," said Vaughn Anthony, a retired fish biologist who works with the Sportsmen's Alliance of Maine, an advocacy group. He believes the state could release three times the number of moose permits it now does without harming the herd.
But state officials say the wide disparity in their two counts highlights the difficulty of counting moose in the vast understory of the North Woods, and they are taking a cautious attitude. The issue has become so heated that the state convened a working group this year to figure out how many moose the state ideally should have.
"Our job is to balance the interests of all people - the hunters, wildlife enthusiasts, people concerned about road collisions, and people who don't care," said Lee Kantar, a wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Population numbers, he added, "can be the stuff of battles."
Hamer, of the chamber of commerce, says the state needs to ensure that there are moose in the narrow bands across the state where commercial watching takes place. Others, like moose safari guide Ed Mathieu of Sangerville, want hunters to stop killing large bulls, the type of moose that tourists yearn for most of all.
Dale Stevens, the owner and safari guide for Maine-ly Photos, is worried that too many moose are already being killed. As he drove down a bumpy logging road near the West Branch of the Penobscot River with four tourists and a reporter recently, he kept a sharp eye out for the lumbering animals.
"We felt if moose hunting stayed around 2,000 permits it was a good number, but it's inched up," said Stevens, shortly after a passenger spotted a mother bear and two cubs scrambling up a hill.
Stevens, who began moose safaris about 10 years ago, takes several hundred people out a year. He provides a crash course on moose biology and a wide array of information on local wildlife.
The group saw 19 moose, a far cry from the tour's all-time record of 39, but still, a decent trip.
"I think I got a good shot," said a clearly thrilled Theresa King, visiting with her mother from Michigan.
As the van kicked up dust meandering back toward Millinocket, Stevens kept searching out the window for the species he still finds engaging.
"They have the face of a camel, the ears of a donkey," Stevens said. "They look like they are made of spare parts. . . . People love them."
Beth Daley can be reached at email@example.com.