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End of an era? State ends moose hunting in Minnesota

Posted on February 6, 2013

Rob DriesleinMoose numbers continue to plunge in Minnesota, so today the DNR announced it will cancel the state hunt indefinitely. No word whether several Ojibwe bands, who killed almost as many moose in Minnesota last year as state-licensed hunters, will follow suit.

It’s a sad day for hunting, wildlife, and game management in North America.

In the March 16, 2012, print edition of Outdoor News, I called for the DNR to end the moose hunt. I didn’t believe then and I don’t believe now that hunting has caused the ongoing loss of this species, but ending the season was the right thing. Here’s why.

According to the latest estimate, the moose population dropped 1,470 animals in a year. Combined harvest of state and tribes last fall was 81 moose, which represents less than 6 percent of that year-to-year decline. Any competent biologist will tell you the mortality from sport hunting is negligible.

But this population is in a free-fall, and until we have a clear understanding of the cause, Minnesota must prevent all forms of moose mortality. Every moose counts.

Read Joe Albert's story on how the DNR ended the moose hunts.

Factor in the near extinction of  moose in northwestern Minnesota, when the state had a total moose herd of maybe 13,000 animals, and the latest decline is even more stark. Pushing 80 percent!

The DNR release had a good quote from 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 chaired the DNR’s former moose advisory committee. Go figure the Peterson quote supported the DNR’s position, but he makes good sense.

Photo courtesy of MN DNR“The DNR’s decision to suspend hunting makes sense given the disturbing and abrupt decline in moose numbers,” Peterson said. “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.”

I’ve read some DNR bashing on Facebook, Twitter, and message boards today about the DNR decision. “Why didn’t they do it sooner?” is a common lament.

My advice would be to stop complaining about the state doing the right thing, and start focusing your efforts on the bands continuing their hunt. They killed 36 moose last year compared to the 45 bulls by state hunters. That tribal harvest included some cows, too.

The DNR did the right thing today, and I don’t blame the agency for waiting this long. I am, however, tired of never-ending research and everyone collectively rubbing their chins and asking, “What’s causing the Minnesota moose mystery?”

I think a warming climate has brought on this loss of a signature state species. More deer, more heat stress, and more parasites living in a warmer Minnesota has hurt our moose. The retort to that belief has been that moose are thriving elsewhere. I wouldn’t take that to the bank.

I still see stories suggesting that moose numbers are healthy in North Dakota and Maine, but I’m not convinced. My March 2011 print column reviewed the status of North Dakota moose, and a biologist there characterized that population as stable but spread out more. White-tailed deer carrying brainworm, which is fatal to moose, haven’t helped the species in North Dakota’s traditional moose range either.

Thanks to its proximity to a nifty geological feature called the Atlantic Ocean, Maine has a more consistent climate. Here at the center of the continent (at the edge of their range) moose suffer the widest temperature swings in North America. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that the factors killing moose in Minnesota today will be killing them in other areas in coming years. I hope I’m wrong.

A copy of the DNR’s recent aerial survey report is available here.