I was very excited to see a healthy looking cow moose on the road the other day. It seemed to have a thick winter coat and was not wearing a collar. Why was I excited? Because I drive the back roads of the West End as much as anybody and I almost never see a moose anymore.
When our kids were in school, which was less than 10 years ago, we saw many moose – so many that the kids became blasé – barely willing to be roused from their reverie to take a look at even the most magnificent moose. It was so routine as to be bordering on boring.
Everyone knows that the moose are disappearing from Minnesota, but no one really seems to know why. In the last year, I’ve read conflicting expert opinions, including too many wolves, too many ticks, too much hot weather in the summer, not enough cold weather in the winter, climate change in general, over-hunting, habitat loss, viruses, not enough logging, too much logging and most recently, too many deer.
With all due respect to wildlife biologists, it really seems that nobody knows. And, none of the expert opinions strike me as being completely objective and non-political, no matter how well intentioned.
I certainly don’t claim to know what the problem is, but I’m beginning to suspect that it may be unknowable. It may be the case that the sheer complexity of a functioning ecosystem is beyond the ablility of the human brain to fully understand. In other words, life in the forests of northeastern Minnesota may be connected in so many subtle and intricate ways that it may not be possible to tease out the one, six or a dozen causes for moose population decline. It is at least possible that the there are hundreds, if not thousands of ecological relationships that can alter forest dynamics resulting in the simple fact that the moose can no longer survive here.
The moose are not the only species that is in flux during the last decade. All over the world, animal populations are declining or growing in unexpected ways. Even a casual observer here in the West End can tell you that there have been many changes over the last half century – literally dozens of species that used to be common and are now rare, and dozens more that were never seen here and are now common. It could be reasonable to conclude that whatever is causing this general trend may be causing the moose decline.
Switching from large wildlife to tiny wildlife, I was delighted to see a large outbreak of snow fleas this week. Snow fleas are tiny black insects that mysteriously appear on snowbanks in the middle of the winter. They are called snow fleas because, although they are no larger than a speck of dust, they are prodigious jumpers. They appear in flocks, or perhaps swarms might be more accurate, and as you draw near to inspect them they jump so fast and far that they give the illusion of just abruptly disappearing.
I should point out that they are not actually fleas and do not bite. Their taxonomic name is Collembola, and while they are in the group that includes insects, they technically are not classified as insects. Their eyes are not proper compound eyes, their abdomen has fewer segments and some special extra appendages that insects don’t have. They are commonly known as springtails, due to a couple of appendages that look like tails that play a large role in their incredible jumping ability.
The sources I read are a little vague about why the snow fleas emerge on the surface of deep snow during warm late winter days. I feel like they are more common when the snowpack is deeper. It is a fact that they are cute and interesting, occupying one of the more unique ecological niches in the woods.
There is plenty of snow over the hill this year for the snowfleas and everyone else who enjoys snow. I measured 32” on the deck this morning. That is down a little since the rain we had last week.
Slush remains a serious impediment to travel on the lakes, at least in the Sawbill area. The slush has been bad all winter, but finally started to freeze up during the last cold snap. Sadly, just a day or two later the rain brought it back with a vengeance. It has been common this year to see camping parties head out on Sawbill Lake with full camping gear only to see them return a few hours later, get in their cars and leave.
Hopefully, the late winter cycle of freeze and thaw will soon create a crust on the lakes and rivers that will make travel a joy and the epic slush of 2016 an unpleasant memory.