MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Climate change threatens the big game animals that call Minnesota home — from moose to deer to bears — and the state needs to plan for how protect those species and the outdoor recreation economy that depends on them, conservation groups warned Thursday.
The National Wildlife Federation has released a report titled “Nowhere to Run: Big Game Wildlife in a Warming World,” which examines how “climate change is already having significant impacts on big game and their habitats” across the country due to higher temperatures, droughts, more frequent wildfires and other factors.
“Moose are the poster child of climate change and Minnesota is demonstrating that,” the study’s author, Doug Inkley, senior scientist with the federation, told The Associated Press.
The report notes that moose are “superbly adapted” for deep snow and bitter cold. But the big, fuzzy animals are prone to heat stress, and they eat less when they suffer from it. The moose population in northwestern Minnesota, which had numbered around 4,000 in the mid-1980s, has nearly died out as summer temperatures have increased by 3 to 4 degrees. Meanwhile, northeastern Minnesota’s moose population has plummeted by 52 percent since 2010 to an estimated 2,760 last winter.
Research indicates winter ticks and other parasites that survive mild winters, nutritional deficiencies resulting from a changing food supply in the forests, and drier bogs where moose could otherwise cool off may be among the reasons why Minnesota is losing its moose. The exact reasons aren’t clear. But those factors are all associated with climate change, said Leslie McInenly, big game program leader with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Moose aren’t the only big game animals in danger in Minnesota. Inkley and McInenly said even highly adaptable species such as white-tailed deer and black bears are at risk. So is the state’s small elk population. They cited threats from diseases, drought and habitat changes that a warmer climate could bring.
The report cited epizootic hemorrhagic disease as a particular threat to deer. It has devastated populations in some other states. The disease is carried by midges, tiny biting insects also known as no-see-ums. During droughts, deer tend to concentrate in wet areas that support midge reproduction, Inkley said.
The disease hasn’t been found in wild deer in Minnesota yet, McInenly told the AP, but one case was confirmed in a cow last year. It has also turned up in neighboring states.
“Certainly it’s here and it’s all around us. So I anticipate that’s something we will be facing soon,” she said.
Changing forests and other habitat could also lead to more conflicts between humans and deer, bears and elk as the animals move into populated or agricultural areas in search of food, McInenly and Inkley said.
The report said solutions require cutting carbon dioxide emissions, which are the root cause of climate change, by transitioning to cleaner sources of energy. It also calls for smarter approaches to wildlife management and habitat that take climate change into account. Inkley said Minnesota’s wildlife professionals began preparing “way ahead” of many other states.
“What we need to look out here for are surprises,” Inkley said. “There will be surprises with climate change. And you don’t know what you don’t know. This is why it’s important that Minnesota is trying to look ahead with their management plans.”
The federal government estimates Minnesotans spend about $260 million a year on big game hunting, noted Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation. The DNR has already sold nearly 450,000 licenses for the firearms deer season, which opened Saturday. And those figures don’t account for the growing spending by people who head into the outdoors just to observe wildlife, he said.
“We have to rely and expect that our outdoor community will step forward and be part of the solution,” Botzek said.
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