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Logging, intentional fires planned in Superior National Forest to improve moose habitat

The U.S. Forest Service is proposing a major logging, burning and thinning project north and east the Gunflint Trail, in part to create moose habitat. (Photo courtesy of Brian Borkholder)1 / 3
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Twenty years ago the Superior National Forest was criticized for allowing loggers to cut too many trees, especially too many large swaths of forest.

Environmental groups and others contended that so-called clear-cuts were more than just an aesthetic eyesore, but that they contributed to monocultures of small aspen trees and disrupted wildlife that depended on thick, mature forests of big, old trees.

The Forest Service responded by cutting back on cutting.

Flash-forward a couple decades, however, and plans to cut more and larger swaths of trees are getting high praise. Wildlife biologists and others say more logging and more fire are the only hope for Minnesota's dwindling moose herd.

The U.S. Forest Service is proposing a major logging, burning and thinning project north and east the Gunflint Trail. Right at the top the agency says the plan is intended to reduce the amount of fuel for potential forest fires and create critical moose habitat — namely young trees and shrubs.

The ShokoShoe plan, proposed last year and open for public comment through Monday, would see about 8,000 acres logged, burned and mechanically thinned across a broad, 115,000-acre area between the Gunflint Trail and the Grand Portage Reservation — between Shoko Lake on the west and Shoe Lake on the east.

Across the ShokoShoe management area less than 1 percent of the forest is now young growth considered prime forage for moose. To change that, more than 3,700 acres are proposed for clear-cutting, where most of the trees are removed — and that has moose advocates pleased.

"Not every place is suitable for clear cutting. You don't do it on steep slopes, you don't do it right up to lakes or rivers. ... But if you want moose to return to the landscape up there, we need big patches, big openings for young forest to grow," said Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. "Moose came because that area burned on a regular basis. If we aren't going to let those big fires burn we need to mimic (fire) as close as we can."

Schrage said he supports the Forest Service move from smaller cuts of around 40 acres in size to tracts 400 acres or bigger. That's because smaller openings favor deer, a nemesis for moose because deer carry a parasitic brain worm harmless to whitetails but fatal to moose.

"'I'm pushing them for 1,000-acre patches," Schrage said.

Last bastion

Experts say the habitat in the 3.9-million-acre Superior National Forest is critical because that's where nearly all the remaining moose in Minnesota now live.

A final ShokoShoe plan is expected later this year. The draft proposal released in 2016 received dozens of comments from individuals and groups that spurred several changes. A planned fire near Poplar Lake was dropped after local home and cabin owners worried the intentional fire could grow out of control and threaten their properties.

There will be no logging within 400 feet of any lake or river (as required by law) and any intentional fires near undeveloped lakeshore would be low-intensity, said Becky Bartol, Forest Service environmental coordinator for the Gunflint-Tofte Ranger District.

Other changes made in the plan will keep logging and fires away from ski trails and scenic vistas after input by lodge owners and the Gunflint Trail National Scenic Byway committee.

Not everyone is happy. The Sierra Club and a retired Forest Service forester say the 26 miles of temporary logging roads proposed are too much, and that they will be adopted by ATV users and encourage the spread of invasive species while disrupting threatened animals such as wolves and lynx.

But moose advocates say the plan recognizes a newfound realization that moose need more and bigger forest openings. The Forest Service effort dovetails with a program sponsored by the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association using state conservation funds to pay for tree thinning in the forest specifically to help moose.

Fewer openings, fewer moose

Northeastern Minnesota's moose herd has crashed from an estimated 8,840 in 2006 to just 3,710 this year, a 58 percent decline, and shows no sign of bouncing back soon. Biologists are blaming several causes, many linked to a warming climate, including parasites such as brainworm and ticks, heat stress that spurs malnutrition and increased pressure from wolves on the few calves born each spring.

Yet in a few areas where big fires have occurred — such as the Ham Lake and Pagami Creek fires in the Superior National Forest — moose numbers have actually increased, the only significant increases in Minnesota.

Even if moose somehow overcome their biological and climate troubles, wildlife experts say the region needs more prime moose habitat. While moose spend time in nearby thick, large-tree forests for summer shade and winter protection, they do much of their feeding where new aspen, birch, alder and other trees and brush are sprouting. They seem to favor very large openings, with some trees in clusters left standing.

That kind of habitat was decreasing fast by the early 2000s with less logging on national forest lands.

The amount of logging in the Superior National Forest peaked at 10,384 acres in 1989. It stayed above 8,000 acres until 1997 when it dropped to 5,108. The harvest bottomed out in 2007 at just 1,624 acres as the Great Recession began. Builders weren't building and companies weren't using as much paper. Foreign suppliers ate into the domestic paper and wood industries' markets; Minnesota mills and board plants closed or scaled back production.

"What was happening then is part of the reason you don't have as many moose around now," Schrage said.

Gradually, logging has increased nearly each year for the past decade, to 6,043 acres in 2015, the most since 1998. The harvest dipped a bit in 2016 to 5,422 acres.

Clear-cutting bottomed out at just 735 acres in 2007 but has bounced back to more than 3,000 acres annually. That helps loggers and mills as well as moose.

"It's the right thing to do," said Scott Dane, president of the Associated Contract Loggers and Truckers industry group.

Ron Moen, a wildlife researcher for the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute, has been working on habitat projects for several years to see if anything can help reverse the moose decline. He said clear-cuts with some standing trees and some horizontal, downed trees left behind appear to be most favored by moose.

The concern is that it may be too little, too late.

"One of the issues is going to be that there are fewer moose to respond now," Moen said. "But those that are there should."

ShokoShoe forest management project

The project is set to take place in the Superior National Forest's Gunflint-Tofte Ranger District. About 8,000 acres are planned for logging, intentional fires and mechanical thinning across a 115,000-acre area north of Grand Marais.

Information is available at www.fs.usda.gov/superior under "ShokoShoe environmental assessment."

Comments on the environmental analysis are due to Gunflint District Ranger by May 1 and should be e-mailed to comments-eastern-superior-gunflintShokoShoe Comments, Gunflint Ranger District, 2020 W. Highway 61, Grand Marais, MN 55604.

For more information, call (218) 387-1750.

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