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Minnesota moose survey canceled for 2021

COVID-19 concerns have canceled the aerial survey for the first time in more than 50 years.

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A large bull moose runs through the snow near Swamp River in Cook County during January's aerial moose survey of Northeastern Minnesota. Moose numbers have remained relatively stable in recent years but are still far below numbers of a decade ago and show no signs of improving. Photo by Mike Schrage.
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The annual aerial survey of northern Minnesota’s moose population has been canceled, another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The winter survey has for more than 50 years been conducted in January, when dark moose are more easily seen against a backdrop of white snow on the ground. But the agencies involved say it wasn’t safe to send crews up in tight quarters in helicopters under the threat of the pandemic.

"It’s the first time it hasn’t been done since the mid-'60s," said Tom Rusch, Tower-area wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Similar aerial research also was canceled on Isle Royale this winter, the first time that survey won't be conducted since 1958. Aerial waterfowl surveys also were canceled across North America in 2020 because of COVID-19.

The Minnesota moose survey is usually a joint effort between DNR and tribal natural resource biologists as crews look to survey predetermine grids across the state’s remaining moose range — namely Cook, Lake and northern St. Louis counties — to extrapolate a region-wide population estimate.

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The 2020 survey put the state's moose herd at about 3,150. That marked several years of a continuing low but relatively stable population after the state's moose numbers crashed rapidly, from a modern high of 8,840 moose estimated in 2006 to just 2,700 in 2013.

With Minnesota moose already at the southern edge of their range, scientists aren't encouraged about the animal's future here in a warming world. The decline in the state's northeastern herd came after the northwestern Minnesota herd all but disappeared in the late 1990s.

Moose in Minnesota have been hit hard by a number of factors, including a long-term increase in deer across the moose range. Deer carry a parasitic brain worm that, while harmless to whitetails, is fatal to moose. Moose also have been plagued by an increase in parasites, such as ticks, that thrive in a warmer climate.

Moose also have seen dwindling habitat, often due to fire suppression, aging forests and past forest management. Scientists have noted that some of the few areas with increasing moose numbers in recent years are where big fires have occurred, clearing the way for a younger forest that has the type of food moose thrive on.

The shrunken moose herd, especially newborn calves, also is more vulnerable to predators, especially wolves.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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