The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday announced that Minnesota’s rapidly declining moose herd may warrant protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The federal agency is responding to a petition filed last year by the Center for Biological Diversity that moose in Minnesota, which have declined by 60 percent over the past decade, need federal protection to ensure their survival.

“Based on our review … the petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted for the U.S. population of the northwestern moose,” the agency stated in its response.

The agency’s finding applies only to the subspecies of moose called Alces alces andersoni, found only in Minnesota, North Dakota, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin and Isle Royale in Lake Superior.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will now start a yearlong “status review” of moose in the Midwest to determine whether they will be listed. The public has 60 days to comment on the agency’s preliminary finding, but the listing process could take several years to unfold.

Collette Adkins, a Minneapolis-based attorney and biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said federal protection of moose would highlight the harm caused by a warming climate and so-far failed efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers say it looks like warmer temperatures in the Northland already are spurring moose heat stress in winter and summer, more parasites such as brainworm and ticks and more disease, making moose that don’t die directly more vulnerable to wolves.

Adkins said endangered status will “bring additional federal dollars for research on the plight of the moose and provide additional habitat protections that are needed to help moose weather our warming world.”

Some researchers have said moose could disappear from Minnesota within a decade or two if the decline doesn’t stop.

“The Endangered Species Act is the best tool we have to prevent extinction of our moose,” Adkins said. The act “is saving the wolf and it can save the moose, too.”

The Native American group Honor the Earth also is on the petition requesting federal protection.

Rich Baker, endangered species coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the agency will comply with the federal request for data on the issue. Baker said the agency, which has historically opposed federal intervention in state-managed wildlife species, hasn’t formed any formal opinion on the moose listing.

“This is just the first step of a long process. But we’re fine with this. It’s going to be a data-driven decision and we have a whole bunch of data, probably more than anyone else for this species, that we will give them as they make this decision,” Baker said.

The DNR in February released the result of its annual moose survey that estimated this winter's population at about 4,000. That's up a tick from 3,450 moose estimated in 2015, but wildlife experts say the change is statistically insignificant. Northeastern Minnesota moose numbers remain less than half what they were a decade ago when the population was at nearly 9,000.

“Moose are not recovering in northeastern Minnesota,” Glenn DelGiudice, the Minnesota DNR’s top moose researcher, said in releasing the survey results earlier this year. “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.”

The same sort of decline hit northwestern Minnesota moose in the 1990s which crashed from 4,500 to less than 100 today.

The DNR is leading a broad, multi-agency study of why moose are dying faster than they can rebuild the population. In recent years researchers have confirmed that wolves are taking some of the adult moose that perish. Wolves also are killing a majority of the calves that researchers were able to recover.

But other factors appear to be killing most of the adult moose recovered. Of 47 adult moose captured and collared during the past three years that perished, two-thirds died from health-related causes including brainworm, winter ticks, bacterial infections, liver flukes and severe malnutrition. Wolves killed the other one-third, but even among those, one quarter had health issues that made them easy prey.

One striking discovery has been the impact of warm winter weather on moose nutrition and health. When air temperatures reach 23 degrees in winter, DelGiudice said, moose can begin to experience heat stress, spurring them to eat less and eventually succumb to health problems, weakness and wolves.

Minnesota cancelled its moose hunt in 2013, and North Dakota has reduced its number of hunting tags. Michigan and Wisconsin have never allowed moose hunting. Last year Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton halted all radio collaring of the animals for research, citing the number of moose killed after scientists handled them. Moose are listed as a “species of special concern” in Michigan and Minnesota, but that status doesn’t offer any protections to the animals or their habitat.