(Superior National Forest – Isabella, Minn.) — Waist-deep snow and tall spruce trees form the perfect north woods welcome mat. No matter the season, visitors to this wilderness will stop at Our Place bar and restaurant in Finland and ask Larry Schanno the same question: Where is the best place to see moose?
“That’s probably the most common question I get asked,” Schanno said.
Unfortunately, Schanno can no longer tell tourists what they’d hope to hear. The days you could easily spot any number of moose lumbering along state Highway 1 are long gone.
Schanno recalls a time when he would see up to 16 moose on any given day.
“It wasn’t if you were going to see a moose between here and Isabella,” he said. “It was how many.”
When asked what he sees now, Schanno fires back with: “I’ve seen one live moose in the last three years.”
Minnesota has lost half its moose in just the last six years. They’re dying faster than they can re-populate Minnesota’s arrowhead, the traditional moose range.
Biologists say, quite bluntly, that at the current rate of the moose mortality it’s likely that Minnesota will be absent of moose in the next 10 to 15 years.
Dr. Erica Butler is the Department of Natural Resources’ wildlife veterinarian. She says it could be a combination of things affecting the moose population, but there’s really no data to be sure.
To get the data, Butler and a team of wildlife researchers are doing something they’ve never attempted before: seting off on a high-tech moose hunt. It’s a $1.2 million research project to follow the largest number of adult moose to date.
Armed with a helicopter and sharpshooter with tranquilizer darts, researchers will spot 110 adult moose from the air. When they do, the helicopter pilot swoops the chopper down into firing range where the darts quickly immobilize the animal for testing.
On the ground, a team of biologists and technicians go to work, processing the dazed moose with a battery of medical tests and devices.
Dave Pauly, a DNR field biologist, says researchers collect seven or eight vials of blood from the moose.
“If ticks are on the animal, we collect some ticks,” he added.
The samples will be processed in a laboratory where technicians will be looking for any signs of parasites, disease, malnutrition or stress.
Hair samples are yanked from the hide and a temperature probe capable of sending remote readings is slid into the moose’s belly. The moose fitted with the device will then be closely monitored for changes in body temperature or unexplained fevers.
Other data is also being collected at the site, including measurements to indicate the overall health of each moose.
“We do a rump fat scope to determine how thick the fat is on the rump,” Pauly said.
At the heart of the study are highly sophisticated remote tracking collars. The devices are being custom fitted to each of the 110 moose captured.
The battery equipped collars will emit traceable pings, every four hours, to determine each animal’s precise location. That will give researchers valuable data to explain moose behavior during periods of unusually warm weather. It’s important information to help explain if a warming climate is causing the animals added stress.
And when the transmitter pings show no movement for a period of six hours or longer, researchers can grab the carcass before the wolves do. It’s vital that they get to the dead moose to remove organs for laboratory analysis.
“This study right now is focusing on why adults are dying at a much faster rate than we see in any other state or province,” Butler said.
The moose captured for collaring and testing are quickly released. They are a little groggy, but no worse for the wear.
Samples gathered from each animal are flown back to a remote field laboratory where technicians prepare the blood, hair and tissue samples for further testing.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Butler added, referring to the unexplained mortality.
The hunt for answers is on the fast track. There’s no time to waste if Minnesota is to save its majestic moose.
“I’m hoping it’s not too little, too late,” Schanno said.