Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

The good news, and bad, on the future of the moose

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 3/8/17

Last week, our neighbor spotted a wild turkey on Hwy. 1, west of Tower. And that’s one more reason to fear for the future of many of our iconic wildlife species here in the North Country.

I …

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The good news, and bad, on the future of the moose

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Last week, our neighbor spotted a wild turkey on Hwy. 1, west of Tower. And that’s one more reason to fear for the future of many of our iconic wildlife species here in the North Country.

I have nothing against wild turkeys, mind you. They’re beautiful, wily, and tasty besides.

But they shouldn’t be at home here on the southern edge of the boreal forest, and the fact that they are heralds the transformation our region is already experiencing due to climate change.

Which brings me to the real subject of this week’s column— the future of moose in northeastern Minnesota. Last week’s release of results from the DNR’s annual aerial moose survey, which offered evidence that the decline in moose numbers that began in the late 2000s may have stabilized, albeit with a population about half as large as it was a decade ago, offered both good news and bad news. The decline appears to have slowed or stopped altogether as a result of an apparent improvement in adult moose survival. Calf survival remains quite low, but the population’s overall trend is more dependent on adult survival.

The more hopeful sign is from information that wasn’t in the public report issued by the DNR, but in the raw data that supports it. The DNR’s moose survey is designed to be random. Every year, the DNR flies around 50 random plots out of a grid totaling 436 plots. But there are nine plots that the DNR flies every year. For the most part, these are plots that have experienced large uncontrolled fires within the last couple decades, such as the Pagami Creek, Ham Lake, and Cavity Lake fires. The DNR is checking each year to see how moose respond to such events— and, so far, the results are very encouraging.

Moose are thriving in these areas, at least after the forests have had a few years to recover. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the Pagami Creek fire, the DNR counted zero moose out in the burn for the first few years. The surveys are flown in January (when the moose are easy to spot against the snow), and at that time of year there is no food available for a moose in a recent burn. But given a few years, when the recovering forest grows tall enough to poke above the snow, these burns begin to offer a rich nutritional feast.

About three years ago, the DNR found its first moose in the Pagami burn during a survey. The following year, they spotted ten. This year, the number jumped to 16, and there’s no reason to think it won’t be higher next winter. In some of the plots within the Cavity and Ham Lake burns, the DNR is finding as many as 40 moose per plot.

There are other factors that make these burns particularly valuable habitat. In most cases, these burns are in remote areas and lack winter cover, which means deer, and their moose-killing parasites like brainworm and liver flukes, are virtually absent. And winter ticks, a perennial problem for moose, are wiped out by forest fires and it can take years for those populations to build to troublesome levels again.

This is all good news, since it means that even with a climate that’s significantly warmer here than 25 years ago, it hasn’t warmed enough (yet) to force moose— a species specifically adapted for cold— from northeastern Minnesota. Given the right habitat, such as that created by larger prescribed fires, moose can still be successful in Minnesota.

This would be better news if it weren’t for politics. DNR wildlife managers might talk among themselves about the benefits of using fire more frequently as a management tool, but it’s a touchy subject with the public— and the politicians who follow the shifting winds like a weather vane. The Forest Service has, to their credit, used fire more frequently as a management tool, but not without the occasional, and usually dramatic, miscues.

The question is whether Minnesotans would like to maintain this iconic species, at least for the foreseeable future. The evidence suggests we have the ability to do so, if we’re willing to use more fire on the landscape, or do a better job of mimicking its effects.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that we may be fighting a battle we’ll eventually lose. Just as a warming climate has allowed wild turkeys to make their way north, the prospects for keeping whitetail deer numbers under control diminish as our winters grow milder and shorter. The deer I’ve been seeing lately still look plump even as the worst of our third straight exceptionally mild winter is almost certainly behind us. The link beween deer density and moose survival is becoming increasingly clear. Indeed, one DNR wildlife manager I spoke to noted that the most dramatic decline in the region’s moose population occurred from 2006-2012, which coincided with the period of highest documented deer density in our region.

The apparent stabilization of the moose herd, albeit at levels half of what they were a decade ago, is likely a reflection of the loss of deer numbers during the relatively severe winters of 2012-13 and 2013-14.

But deer numbers are growing steadily again, and a third straight mild winter will only bolster the population. If so, expect the moose decline to pick up in earnest once again.

Northeastern Minnesota used to provide room for both species— but that’s because deer densities were low enough. But mild winters and an explosion in recreational feeding has boosted deer numbers, at the expense of moose. The evidence suggests that with the right habitat and sound management, we can maintain moose numbers for a while. But if the climate trend continues, it will eventually push moose from Minnesota, along with a whole host of species we used to identify with the North Country. And that will be a sad day for us all.

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Deplorable

Deer shouldn’t be here either. They are causing more moose deaths than wolves do.

Tuesday, March 12