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As Minnesota moose population declines, DNR says annual hunt remains biologically sound

Darin Fagerman used to see moose near his home north of Grand Marais fairly frequently. Not anymore. "The last moose we saw here was six years ago," said Fagerman, a conservation officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "Anothe...

Cow moose and calf
A cow moose and calf browse for food in a pond near the end of the Gunflint Trail in July 2010. Despite extensive research, no one yet knows with certainty why Minnesota's moose population is declining. That has raised some questions about whether the state's moose hunt should continue. (Photo by Andrew Krueger)
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Darin Fagerman used to see moose near his home north of Grand Marais fairly frequently. Not anymore.

"The last moose we saw here was six years ago," said Fagerman, a conservation officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"Another thing I've noticed," Fagerman said. "When I'd drive around in the spring after the snow melts, you'd see moose scat on the roads. Forest roads would be full of it. Now, you hardly see any."

Fagerman's comments are echoed by many people who live in Minnesota's moose country. But despite diligent and ongoing research, nobody yet understands just why moose are becoming much less common on the Minnesota landscape.

A growing number of Minnesotans are wondering why, in the face of such a decline, moose are still being hunted. The DNR plans another limited, bulls-only hunt this fall, and DNR biologists say the restricted hunt has no adverse effects on the population estimated at 4,230 animals. Last fall, just 45 bulls were taken by state-licensed hunters (fewer than 100 counting the tribal harvest).

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Still, concern is mounting. In December, the DNR listed the moose as a "species of concern" under the state's Endangered Species Act.

Moose researcher John Pastor, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said he knows that moose hunting is popular in Minnesota, but thinks it's time to stop hunting them.

"I think the safest thing would be to not hunt them," Pastor said. "I don't see any reason to hunt them. ... I think it would be a good thing not to hunt them for a year or two."

Fagerman says he hears similar comments from people he encounters.

"I hear people complaining to me in the field when I'm checking grouse hunters or at a gas station," he said. "They bring it up: Why are we still having a moose season?"

Minnesota Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake and an avid hunter, says he plans hearings during this legislative session about the decline of Minnesota's moose. The hearings will take place in the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee, which he chairs.

"It will be a broader discussion than that (hunting)," Dill said. "I don't believe the hunter is the villain. There have to be other factors causing it."

Despite the DNR's announcement earlier this month that two new moose research projects are in the works, Dill said he is feeling the same sense of urgency about the state's moose population that many other residents are.

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"You can't just sit back and look at this thing," Dill said. "We have to get to the bottom of the problem."

Downward slide

The plight of Minnesota's moose has been well-documented. The population of the iconic species has declined from an estimated 8,800 in 2006 to 4,230 in 2012, according to the DNR.

Biologists with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the 1854 Treaty Authority are making their annual aerial survey of Minnesota's moose. Results of this winter's aerial survey won't be available for about a month.

Dill said he, too, has witnessed a decline in moose numbers.

"In 11 years of driving to the state Capitol, the number of moose I'm seeing on the Echo Trail (between Crane Lake and Ely) pales compared to what I used to see," he said.

But DNR wildlife managers say holding a limited hunt for bulls only does not affect the moose population. Each spring, DNR wildlife officials weigh many factors before they set the fall's moose hunt, said Lou Cornicelli, DNR wildlife research manager in St. Paul. The agency moved to a bulls-only hunt in 2007 and has reduced the number of available licenses when bull-to-cow ratios have fallen. The hunt is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for anyone fortunate enough to draw a license in the lottery that selects hunters.

DNR officials say they believe it's important to offer the hunt as long as it is biologically sound.

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"Part of it is that it's such an important cultural thing," said Glenn DelGiudice, the DNR's moose project leader. "The DNR feels like it wants to meet that need as long as the Legislature doesn't tell us we can't. But we wouldn't do it if it affected the rate of change in the population. There's not a good biological reason not to allow a modest hunt."

The DNR has adopted thresholds in bull-to-cow ratios and hunter success rates that, if reached, could end the hunt. But so far, plenty of cows (about 80 percent annually) are being bred, and the bull-to-cow ratio is considered sufficient at about one-to-one, wildlife managers say. Hunting success rates have remained fairly steady between 45 and 58 percent in recent years.

Research under way

At the DNR's recent Roundtable meeting in St. Paul, officials announced details of the two new moose studies the agency is launching. One-hundred adult moose will soon be wearing radio-collars with GPS units and satellite-transmission capabilities. The GPS/satellite collars are the most advanced in wildlife research technology. When a moose dies, researchers will know about it sooner than they did in past studies of collared moose, allowing them to reach the carcasses in time to gather valuable information.

In past studies, many of the organs of deceased moose were too deteriorated to provide pertinent information about an animal's cause of death. In one long-running study, researchers listed the cause of mortality as "unknown" or "unknown, health related" in 74 percent of cases.

DNR biologists hope that within two years, data from the new research will provide better clues about what's killing Minnesota's moose.

For now, biologists know that Minnesota's moose population has a higher mortality rate than populations elsewhere, and that the calf-to-cow ratio has been generally declining. Research papers identify higher summertime temperatures in recent decades as an underlying issue, but that's not what's actually killing the animals. Scientists have said they believe it's a combination of higher temperatures, parasites such as brain worm and ticks, disease and increased deer numbers.

Pastor also thinks a changing forest could be affecting moose numbers.

"It could be because of the way we're managing the forest," he said. "Twenty years ago, we clear-cut a lot. That generated a lot of browse, and the moose population increased. Twenty years later, we have 20-year-old aspen stands, and that's useless to moose."

Some observers have suggested that wolves are taking too many moose. Past studies by the DNR and other agencies have indicated that wolves have taken only about 10 percent of radio-collared moose. New studies may be able to more accurately gauge the effect of predators on moose. One of those projects will study predation on calves.

Cornicelli said he understands that it's frustrating not to have answers to the moose decline.

"We don't have a good handle on what the mortality factors are, and it's going to take some time to elucidate those," Cornicelli said. "I think it'll be quicker with the calf study. After a couple years, we'll have a better idea of what the calf problem is."

DelGiudice holds out hope that the DNR's research can solve the moose problem.

"I am optimistic," he said. "Give us a few years with this technology."

Dill said he doesn't want to see moose go the way of the woodland caribou, which once lived in northern Minnesota.

"It might be like the wolf," Dill said. "The moose might have to go on the endangered species list and be fixed. That wouldn't be new ground."

Reach Sam Cook at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com . Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/samcookoutdoors.

Related Topics: ENVIRONMENTHUNTING
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