Region's moose population in a state of collapse

The region's once-healthy moose population is crashing and wildlife officials have yet to determine a cause.
Marshall Helmberger

REGIONAL—A symbol of the North Country is literally disappearing before our eyes.

That’s the grim news from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ latest aerial moose survey, which found that northeastern Minnesota’s moose population is collapsing at such an extraordinary rate that the species could all but disappear from the region within just five years.

“It’s just a plummeting population,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr at a news conference held in St. Paul on Wednesday.

While the moose population has been declining steadily for most of a decade, the 2013 moose survey was the most alarming of all— suggesting a 35 percent population decline in just one year. Since 2010, the region’s moose population has fallen by more than half, to just 2,760 animals as of this year. As recently as 2006, the DNR estimated that 8,800 moose roamed the Arrowhead.

DNR wildlife officials acknowledged that the population collapse in the region appears to be similar to what took place in northwestern Minnesota in the 1980s and 90s, where a population of more than 3,000 moose collapsed within a decade to just a handful of animals.

This year’s precipitous decline in northeastern Minnesota’s moose numbers surprised wildlife officials and policy makers alike, and prompted Landwehr to announce the suspension of the state’s moose hunt indefinitely. While wildlife officials argue that the limited bulls-only hunt is inconsequential to the moose population, they acknowledged that any means of reducing moose mortality at this point is important.

The decision to suspend the moose hunt will likely face little disagreement from the public or from hunters predicts Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee. “Hunters are supportive of this,” Dill said. “They are always the first ones there to help wildlife and wildlife habitat,” he said.

While some legislators have urged legislation placing a moratorium on moose hunting, Dill said such a move isn’t needed given the DNR’s decision. “The DNR has always had the authority to begin or end a season for a wide variety of reasons,” he said.

Dill said he agrees with the DNR’s decision to suspend the hunt. “I strongly support hunting, but right now, with this precipitous decline, we have to control any point of mortality that we can.”

Besides the DNR-sanctioned hunt, the Bois Forte, Grand Portage, and Fond du Lac bands also hunt moose under their 1854 Treaty rights. The 1854 Authority has worked closely with the DNR on moose management, but DNR officials said they were unsure at this point whether the three Ojibway bands would agree to suspend their hunts as well. In either case, said Steve Merchant, with DNR Wildlife, the native harvest is small— typically less than two dozen animals.

Study underway

The shocking population data comes just as the DNR and several partnering organizations have begun the most technologically-advanced moose study ever attempted anywhere. DNR officials predicted that their research team would complete its radio-collaring of 100 adult moose as of Saturday, which will allow team members to respond immediately when moose die. Researchers hope that the prompt response will give them a better idea of what factors are contributing to the extraordinary population decline.

The latest survey results suggest that researchers are in a race against time to find an answer, or answers, before it’s too late to save the species in Minnesota.

Given the iconic nature of the moose, the latest survey results attracted considerable media attention and reporters peppered DNR officials with questions at the Wednesday news conference, many asking about possible causes. While DNR officials have pointed to warmer temperatures resulting from climate change as one factor, they acknowledged that other areas, such as New England, that remain much warmer than Minnesota, appear to be maintaining relatively healthy moose populations.

Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife program manager, said data from just-completed moose studies in the region suggest that wolf predation is not a significant factor among adult moose, although it’s less clear if it may be a major contributor to the sharp fall-off in calf survival.

Lou Cornicelli, DNR wildlife research manager, said the new study will expand this spring, when researchers plan to radio-collar 50 moose calves in hopes of determining why so many of them are dying.

Given the grim moose survey results this year, Cornicelli noted that calf survival appeared to be somewhat better than in some recent surveys. “The calf-to-cow ratio was 34 per 100,” he said. “That’s not great, but it’s not that bad.”

But a slight improvement in calf survival did little to mitigate survey results that were all but catastrophic for the many Minnesotans with fond memories of past encounters with moose. Commissioner Landwehr said he still remembers the time he had to climb a tree in the Boundary Waters to escape an angry bull. Barring a dramatic turnaround, such memories could be all that Minnesotans have of this once-common giant of the northwoods.


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