Moose hold a special place in the hearts of most Minnesotans. To many, they represent wilderness and the north woods like no other animal. Native Americans in the region have long had a sacred connection to moose, and the name itself means “eater of twigs” in Ojibwe. But moose aren’t doing well in Minnesota. In the northwestern part of the state, the population has collapsed, dropping from over 4,000 animals in the mid-1980s to less than 100 today. The focus now is on the herd in northeastern Minnesota, which is also on the decline. The 2010 aerial moose survey estimates the population at about 5,500 animals, down from last year's estimate of 7,500. Teams of researchers, concerned individuals, institutions, and agencies are trying to understand what's happening to the moose, and why.
Dr. Seth Moore is a fish and wildlife biologist with the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Last year, the Grand Portage band received a $200,000 Tribal Wildlife Grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to radio collar and track moose on reservation lands.
“We have nine moose collared, six of which are cows and three of which are bulls. We have the opportunity to electronically stalk these moose every single day, and see what habitats they’re using, and look at what they’re doing on warm days versus cooler days; look at where they’re feeding. The goal of the study is to identify the habitats that they’re using under warm conditions.”
Moore and other scientists agree that factors related to warming temperatures are impacting moose, but they’re not sure why.
“We don’t know if the heat is impacting their metabolism and causing them to pant more and feed less, and ultimately they don’t get enough nutrition. We don’t know if the heat is causing increased deer numbers and the increased parasite loads like ticks, or brainworm, are impacting the moose. So there's a number of issues that could be factors, and it could be many of these factors that are impacting the moose populations, but pinning down which exact factor it is that's related to the warm climate, we don't know yet," said Moore.
Dr. Rolf Peterson is a world-renowned wildlife expert and a professor at Michigan Technological University. He’s been studying moose and wolves at Isle Royale National Park for more than two decades.
“There are some new risks to moose that are just becoming quite obvious in the last 10 years. The climate, especially winters, are getting shorter and summers are getting warmer, so this leads to more deer further north than what they used to be. So, deer have become much more abundant all the way through Minnesota into Ontario, northwestern Ontario. And deer bring with them some parasites that are pretty tough on moose. Brainworm is a major one, and liver fluke is another one.”
Peterson chaired a Moose Advisory Committee (MAC) convened by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 2008-2009 to make recommendations for the agency’s new moose management and research plan.
“The committee made a bunch of recommendations; the ones that mean something to moose directly would be to reduce deer density in the core moose range of northeastern Minnesota.”
But there’s some controversy about the importance of reducing deer numbers.
“People seem to have this impression that there’s a simple relationship between deer numbers and moose numbers. And the relationship is much more complex. We know that moose die from some of the parasites that deer carry.”
That’s Mark Lenarz, he’s a wildlife research biologist with the DNR, and he was also on the Moose Advisory Committee.
“I think many people are not convinced that if we simply reduce deer numbers, it’s going to be the magic pill that’s going to solve the moose problem.”
But Dr. Peterson sees it differently.
“You know, to a certain extent, it’s up to the residents of northeastern Minnesota. If moose are a high enough priority, then I think the directive is to do something about deer and keep doing it. They want to make it clear, particularly to the DNR and their legislators that, ‘we want moose.’”
With moose gone from northwestern Minnesota, and the population dropping in the northeast, another concern to some is the moose hunt. However, the state is not planning to close the season, and most experts agree that the small percentage of moose killed by licensed and tribal hunters each year has little effect on overall moose numbers. Mark Lenarz, of the DNR:
“I think if we were dealing with 50 moose or 500 moose, there wouldn’t be a question, that we would close the season right now. But we’ve got 5,500 moose out there, based on the latest survey. So it’s really a question of where between 5,500 and 500 is the place where we draw the line. Right now, numerically, we’re taking a very small number of moose. We’re taking about 100 to 150 moose a year, including the harvest by the Indian bands.”
The future of Minnesota’s moose herd is uncertain. The Grand Portage study is part of a larger, coordinated effort to find a solution, but right now, no one can say for sure what’s killing our moose, or what it will take to save them.