As dialogue broils over correlation and cause, I question the real culprit in regards to moose decline in northeast Minnesota. The recent Mech/Fieberg study appears to point to wolves as the major cause, yet, I believe the wolf has once again become the convenient scapegoat. Before I continue, I feel the wolf population is in great shape in Minnesota and have mixed feelings about the re-listing of wolves. I also hunt, live in the woods, and have studied wolves with great interest.
Nobody is refuting the findings in the Mech/Fieberg study that wolves have/had increased in the study area, as moose have declined, but the big question that most seem either incapable of answering, or choose to dance around, is why did the wolf population increase within said area? Wolves and moose have co-existed in that locale since before the arrival of whites. What is the new variable?
Marshall Helmberger quotes the Mech study’s wolf numbers as holding consistent as roughly between 50-65 with moose numbers remaining strong and calf-to-cow ratios consistently above 50 percent from the 1990s and early 2000s. He then adds that beginning in 2004 the wolf population steadily increased in Mech’s study area from 58 in 2003 to 97 by 2009. “It’s hovered around the 90s ever since.” I take issue with this statement as it has not hovered around the 90s ever since, but more on that later.
What caused the increase in wolf numbers, contributing both directly and indirectly to moose decline? One might look no further than whitetail deer.
The blowdown of 1999, prescribed burns, and a series of mild winters in the 2000s witnessed a profound increase in the deer population. I cite the Aug. 11, 2006 issue of The Boundary Waters Blog: Deer or Moose? “At the end of the trail (Gunflint) where it was once rare to see a deer we are seeing many deer even late into the fall. The deer population is thriving thanks to a plentiful food supply created by the blowdown, logging and recent prescribed burns. The lighter snowfalls and mild winters with warmer temperatures are also helping the deer population.”
Also, last fall at an International Wolf Center presentation, Tom Rusch said as much in regard to the deer population in the blowdown area, and it wasn’t until, I believe he said 2008, that there seemed to be a reversal in the deer population in that area.
We can also look at a Canadian survey as found in a 2011 issue of the Kenora(Ontario) Miner News: “Decimated moose population attributed to brain worm, predators and habitat factors. Ministry of Natural Resources Kenora district staff completed an aerial moose survey of Wildlife Management Areas (WMU) 7A Aulneau Peninsula and 7B Lake of the Woods during January.
“The survey was conducted by helicopter with flights over 43 grid blocks measuring of 25 sq. miles each. Observers counted a total of 42 moose, resulting in a projected population of approximately 300 moose for the two wildlife management units combined.
“It was not unexpected. The moose population is not doing well,” commented MNR Kenora district biologist Bruce Ranta who took part in the survey. Ranta noted the population estimate is about 10 per cent of moose numbers compared to the peak population for the same area during the 1990s.
“Brain worm is certainly one of the large factors but not the only factor. Deer and habitat are the two biggest factors,” he said. Deer are the source of the brain worm parasite which is benign in that species but can be fatal to infected moose. The high deer population also supports a large wolf population, which prey on moose, particular the young during calving season.”
Now we can return to the Mech/Feiberg study, and related Star Tribune article. First, Mech did not say “It’s hovered around the 90s ever since.” What he did say was, “The wolf population there increased until 2012, but he said it appears to have since declined.”
Also, directly from the Mech/Fieberg publication: “Wolf-population density in the wolf-survey area was able to remain high even as moose numbers were declining because throughout much of the wolf-survey area as well as the larger moose-survey area, deer and beavers continued to be available, probably subsidizing wolves while they also preyed on declining numbers of moose. Some wolf packs even occupied narrow territories stretching as far as 42 km from the northeastern part of the wolf-survey area where few deer live in summer and none in winter to the southwestern part where deer live in summer and congregate in winter.”
From the MN DNR: “At the time of European settlement, white-tailed deer in Minnesota existed throughout the wooded river valleys and woodlands of central and southern Minnesota. In northern Minnesota where the forest habitat was much different than it is today, deer were absent or rare. Moose and woodland caribou were the most abundant members of the deer family.”
The question that appears to resonate is, what is more important, moose or deer? If you want deer, there will be more wolves, and more pressure on moose. The winters of 2012/13 and 2013/14 impacted the northern Minnesota deer population severely, and even then, the DNR would not allow emergency deer feeding in the moose zones during the 2013/14 winter. All vectors point to the deer in regard to moose decline: brain worm, liver flukes and increased biomass, which lead to more wolves. The two aforementioned winters have knocked back the number of deer, and if the correlation between wolf numbers and deer population “fits” there will be fewer wolves, and perhaps less pressure on moose. Let’s keep the safety on for a while.
In conclusion, I remember many years ago, a friend saying that wolves belong in wilderness areas where they can’t get into “trouble”. If wolves can’t be left alone in such remote areas as the BWCA and the Mech study area, where can they be left in peace?
Bob Hayes worked as the Yukon’s wolf biologist for 18 years, until 2000. During that time he helped design and deliver Yukon’s wolf control programs. He wrote a very informative book, “Wolves of the Yukon”. In 2011, Hayes has some advice for Yukoners (that can be applied here as well) who want to revisit the wolf cull: don’t bother.
“It’s completely not worth it,” he said. His conclusions? It’s costly. It often doesn’t work, and when it does, its effects are always temporary. And, ultimately, it cheapens the Yukon by transforming wilderness into a glorified meat farm.
Is this what we want for northeastern Minnesota?
Morse Twp., Minn.
Mr. Ruzich raises a point that needs to be addressed. The study by Dr. Mech, which I referenced in my April 10 column, included wolf numbers through 2012. During the four years from 2009-2012, which were the four most recent years cited in his study, the wolf population, by year, was 97, 91, 82, and 92 in order. This represented a four-year average of 90.5 wolves, which represents a significant increase over wolf numbers in the early-2000s, when wolf numbers averaged 56.25 (2001-2004). Dr. Mech undoubtedly has more recent data, but it was not included in his study, which was the subject of my column. As such, I stand by my characterization of the data presented by Dr. Mech.
Secondly, neither I nor Dr. Mech ever suggested that the DNR or any other state agency undertake a wolf control program, such as the state of Alaska undertook a number of years ago. I agree with Mr. Ruzich that this would be a poor use of public resources. What Dr. Mech suggested is that the DNR could apportion more of its annual wolf quota (if the wolf is, once again, delisted) in the northeast zone, which would correlate roughly with the primary moose range.
This would not involve the expenditure of additional public dollars, beyond the usual administration of the wolf hunt, and would represent the kind of routine wildlife management that goes on in Minnesota and most every other state and Canadian province all the time. M.H.