REGIONAL— Northeastern Minnesota’s moose population appears to have stabilized in the past five years, although officials from the Department of Natural Resources say there’s no sign that the …
REGIONAL— Northeastern Minnesota’s moose population appears to have stabilized in the past five years, although officials from the Department of Natural Resources say there’s no sign that the population may be bouncing back toward previous levels.
The latest DNR estimate puts the region’s moose population at 4,020, an increase over last year’s estimate of 3,450. Researchers say the change is not statistically significant, but they acknowledge that the moose population decline appears to have slowed if not halted altogether in the past five years.
The 2016 aerial moose survey contains a surprising amount of good news. Researchers sighted moose on 90 percent of the 52 plots they surveyed by helicopter, one of the highest percentages in years. By contrast, in last year’s survey, they found moose on only 65 percent of plots last year and only 79 percent of plots in 2014, when the DNR estimated the moose population at 4,350.
They also sighted a total of 506 moose, the highest number in many years, and found substantially better calf survival, with calves making up 17 percent of the moose spotted by researchers. That’s the highest percentage since 2008. What’s more, the 2016 cow-to-calf ratio of 0.42 was the third highest since 2005. And five percent of cows had twins, the fourth-highest percentage in the past 12 years.
DNR biologists also found higher numbers of moose in all but two of the nine permanent habitat plots, which are now flown annually as part of the survey. The plots include areas affected by large forest fires or that are managed more to benefit moose. Among the nine plots, biologists spotted 144 moose in 2016, a 43 percent increase over the 101 spotted in 2015. Recent burns were attracting the largest numbers of moose, and for the first time since 2011, moose were spotted within the Pagami Creek burn, which dates back to 2011. Ten moose were recorded in the Pagami Creek plot this year, while spotters counted 36 moose in the Ham Lake burn plot and 31 in the Cavity Lake burn. Biologists spotted 16 moose in the Trout Lake burn, up from 11 last year.
The Twin-Mitchell lakes plot, located southwest of Ely, was the only permanent plot to show a major decline, with just one moose found, compared to nine in 2015.
Tower Area Wildlife Manager Tom Rusch, said the numbers in the former burns is encouraging. “Purely from the wildlife managers’ perspective, these burns are excellent,” said Rusch. “We’re seeing very positive habitat results.”
Still, the DNR’s lead moose researcher, Glenn DelGuidice, put a grimmer face on the data. “Moose are not recovering in northeastern Minnesota,” he said. “It’s encouraging to see that the decline in the population since 2012 has not been as steep, but longer term projections continue to indicate that our moose population decline will continue.”
According to the DNR, the moose population has declined 55 percent since 2006, but that’s based on a single-year spike in the moose population estimate to 8,840. DNR officials routinely note that a single year’s number can’t be relied upon given the wide margin of error inherent in any wildlife population estimate. The three-year average moose population estimate from 2005-2007 was 7,953, which suggests a somewhat more gradual 49 percent decline in the moose population over the past ten years.
Over the five most recent years of the survey, however, the population trend is stable, even when the 2013 estimate (which is now widely believed to have been a low outlier) of 2,760 animals is discarded.
The stable moose population is consistent with the ongoing DNR moose research, which is showing somewhat lower moose mortality the past three years than earlier data had suggested. That research has found that survival of adult moose increased from 81 percent in 2013 to 88 percent in 2014 and 85 percent in 2015.
DelGiudice said more calves surviving beyond their first year may also be slowing the population decline.
Data collected in fall and early winter 2015 documented the number of calves that remained with their mothers. These data reflect the 2016 population survey estimate that 17 percent of Minnesota moose are calves.