After a dramatic drop in the moose population from last year to this year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced Wednesday that it will not offer a hunting season this fall or consider future seasons until the population recovers.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr emphasized that the state's limited hunt is not responsible for the population decline.
According to aerial surveys, the moose population dropped 35 percent -- from an estimated 4,230 to 2,760 -- between 2012 and 2013, DNR officials said. In recent years, the population had been dropping about 15 percent per year. The population was as high as 8,800 in 2006.
The decision to end hunting won't affect many hunters. The state issued just 87 permits to take moose last fall, and 45 bulls were taken. DNR biologists say that hunting has no detrimental effect on the moose population.
But the decision signals the DNR's alarm over one of Minnesota's iconic wildlife species.
"The state's moose population has been in decline for years but never at the precipitous rate documented this winter," Landwehr said in a statement Wednesday. "This is further and definitive evidence the population is not healthy. It reaffirms the conservation community's need to better understand why this iconic species of the north is disappearing from our state."
Mortality a mystery
Biologists don't know exactly what's killing Minnesota's moose. While climate change is considered a factor, moose also die from disease, parasites and predation. But in recent studies, the cause of moose mortality is listed as unknown in about 75 percent of research cases.
The decline of Minnesota's moose is well-documented. In December, the moose was added to the state's endangered species list as a "species of concern."
If the accelerated decline continues, little more than a remnant population of moose might remain even before 2020, said the DNR's Steve Merchant, wildlife program manager in St. Paul.
The decline in Northeastern Minnesota comes just a few years after northwestern Minnesota's moose population crashed from 4,000 to a few dozen in just 25 years. This year's decline in Northeastern Minnesota's population correlates to declines seen in the northwest, Merchant said.
"We did see a precipitous decline in that northwest population," he said. "They are quite comparable now."
Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, agreed.
"If we were to continue with (taking) 30 to 50 bulls a year, that's not going to break the population biologically, but socially this is the right thing to do," Johnson said. "It's probably the right choice."
Some Minnesota residents had been calling for an end to moose hunting because they don't believe it's right to hunt the species when its population is in continuous decline. Sue Prom, who owns a canoe outfitting business on the Gunflint Trail north of Grand Marais, started an online petition Jan. 28 calling for an end to the moose season. As of Wednesday, 703 people had signed the petition. She welcomed the DNR's announcement Wednesday.
"I am extremely happy about that," Prom said. "That is awesome. I'm happy the DNR listened to what some of the people think is best for the moose population ... who feel that hunting is affecting the population."
Noble and Bonnie Carlson of Hovland shot a moose in last fall's hunt. Noble Carlson agrees with the decision to close the season.
"I think they should shut it down," he said. "The more you harvest, that's less that you have when they start to come back."
He believes the decline can be attributed to warmer weather, a lack of young aspen on the landscape and wolves that chase moose, even if they don't kill them.
Rolf Peterson, a research professor at Michigan Technological University who is renowned for his study of the wolf-moose relationship on Lake Superior's Isle Royale and chairman of the DNR's former moose advisory committee, concurred with the DNR's decision.
"The DNR's decision to suspend hunting makes sense given the disturbing and abrupt decline in moose numbers," Peterson said in a statement. "To me, the big news is the incredibly disappointing survey results. The hunting decision is simply a logical reaction to an uncertain situation that researchers are trying to resolve."
Moose are an important species for the Northland's tourism economy. Bill Hansen, owner of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters north of Tofte, believes the DNR made the right decision.
"I'm pleased," Hansen said. "I think even though I understand the biologists are correct about the bulls-only season having very little effect on the overall population, having fewer moose for part of the year is damaging -- the wild moose that are available for people to see. They're very, very important to people. Universally, they love the moose."
Modern moose hunt
Minnesota's modern moose hunting season began in 1971. Seasons were held in both the northwestern part of the state and in the northeast. The season in northwestern Minnesota was closed in 1997. Hunting continued in the northeast.
Out of concern for the declining population, the Northeastern Minnesota hunt became a bulls-only hunt in 2007. The DNR has reduced the number of permits available for the hunt in recent years. Last year, 45 bulls were taken by state-licensed hunters.
Tribal hunters with the Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Bois Forte band and the Grand Portage band took a total of 36 moose last year, DNR officials said.
"The Fond du Lac Band will be in consultation with the other tribes regarding the issue," said Karen Diver, chairwoman of the band. "Additionally, the Band has not yet reviewed the data or met with its wildlife biologists. After thorough review, the Band will make a determination."
The DNR completed a moose management and research plan in 2001. The plan established biological and management thresholds for closing the season. While those thresholds have not been met, DNR managers did not anticipate such a sharp decline in the moose population when the thresholds were established.
"It's now prudent to control every source of mortality we can as we seek to understand causes of population decline,'' Landwehr said in his statement.
To help solve why moose are rapidly dying, the DNR is leading a $1.2 million high-tech moose research effort.
Starting last month, wildlife researchers began fitting 100 moose in Northeastern Minnesota with GPS tracking and data collection collars. This multi-year research project will investigate the causes of adult moose mortality, calf mortality, calf survival and habitat use. So far, 91 collars have been placed on moose in the Grand Marais, Ely and Two Harbors areas.
Part of that study will address the effects of predation by wolves and bears, especially on calves, said Lou Cornicelli, wildlife research manager for the DNR.
Some Minnesotans are concerned that the moose population may decline too far before research data can be used to help turn the population around.
"I'm a little concerned that even with this new research effort, it may be too little, too late," Hansen said. "I respect the research they're doing, but it seems obvious to me and almost everyone that the whole ecosystem is moving north with climate change. I think the moose are just part of that trend."