DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — On a July evening a few years ago, a massive bull moose wallowed belly-deep in a small stream in the canoe country north of Ely. Facing the other direction, he had no idea a canoe was silently slipping up behind him. He kept dipping for the stems of water lilies and chewing them in the rich evening light.
We approached so closely that the 17-year-old in the bow of the canoe began backpaddling. He looked over his shoulder and shot me a silent glance that told me we were too close to that moose.
He probably was right.
I doubt that he will ever forget the moment. Thousands of others have had equally memorable encounters with Minnesota moose. But sadly, those encounters are growing less and less frequent.
The latest survey of Minnesota’s moose, released last month, brought more bad news. The population of Minnesota moose, perhaps the most iconic of all north woods creatures, had dropped again.
The population has been declining for several years, but recent developments are cause for more concern.
“When you get a population with low adult survival and low cow-calf counts, that’s when you’re in trouble. That’s where we are now,” Mark Lenarz, the forest wildlife and populations group leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, told the Duluth News Tribune.
The current population in northeastern Minnesota is estimated at 4,900 animals, down from 5,500 last year and down from a high of 8,000 to 9,000 animals. The ratio of calves to cows is at a record low of 24 calves per 100 cows, according to the DNR’s aerial survey. The ratio of bulls to cows, historically one-to-one, is has dropped to 64 bulls per 100 cows.
In northwestern Minnesota, the moose population has dwindled from several thousand in the 1980s to fewer than 100 now.
“On an optimistic day, I think we can do a lot more to change the direction things are going,” said Mike Schrage, a wildlife biologist with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and a member of the state’s Moose Advisory Committee. “I think we know a lot and could be doing a lot more.”
And on other days?
“On my pessimistic days, I’m not sure we can turn it around,” Schrage said.
The state’s long-awaited moose management plan is due out for public review in a couple of weeks, said Lou Cornicelli, the DNR’s big game program coordinator.
“It’s not going to be a prescription for recovering the moose population,” Cornicelli said. “It may be something that’s out of our hands.”
The problems facing moose are multi-faceted. Predators such as wolves and bears take some moose. Published papers say a warming climate also stresses moose. And unexplained diseases take a toll.
“In the past eight years, a third (of radio-collared moose found dead) have tipped over without a mark on them, absolutely untouched by wolves,” Schrage said.
In addition, prime-age moose 4 to 9 years old have been killed by wolves, Schrage said.
“Data from Isle Royale says wolves prey primarily on 10-year-old and older moose and calves,” he said. “If a 4- or 5-year-old moose is a primary target of wolves, it suggests to me the animal had underlying health problems.”
A limited state and tribal hunting season also takes about 150 bull moose each fall, a number that biologists say does not have a significant effect on the overall population.
The state’s Moose Advisory Committee presented its recommendations to the DNR 18 months ago, but a management plan has been slow to evolve.
“It’s taken way longer than it should have,” Cornicelli conceded.
Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, says the role of wolves shouldn’t be overlooked in moose management.
“They are a major predator of the moose,” Johnson said. “If we can get the wolf delisted (from the federal Endangered Species Act), and get a management plan, there will be a harvest of some of those wolves.”
Schrage, who has worked closely with the DNR on moose research for several years, has grown frustrated with what he sees as a lack of direction in moose management from DNR officials in St. Paul.
“Moose aren’t white-tailed deer, and they’re not turkeys or pheasants or ducks, and they don’t exist down by St. Paul,” Schrage said. “We’ve known for several years there are problems, and where is the moose management plan?”
State, federal, tribal and Canadian researchers continue to study moose in hopes of learning more. Researchers hope a current two-year study of GPS-radio-collared moose from Voyageurs National Park to the Grand Portage Indian Reservation will tell them more about the kinds of habitat moose use, especially during calving periods, said Ron Moen of the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute.
“We are going in the right direction with the research projects we have coming up,” Moen said. “If we can get an answer, what’s being invested now will be worth it.”
In Minnesota, we think of moose as being “up north.” But in the larger picture, they are at the southern edge of their range. Despite the results of diligent research, we may learn that there is little we can do to hold onto our remaining moose.
“We’re extremely concerned and committed to doing what we can within the context of the tools we have. But it’s not going to be easy,” Cornicelli said. “There’s no cookbook for growing moose. There’s a cookbook for growing deer but not for growing moose.”
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