Moose numbers plunge, again

St. Paul — The state’s moose hunt has been cancelled for 2013 and beyond after an aerial survey last month showed a notable decline in the number of animals in the northeast.

Moose numbers dropped by 35 percent from last year, and by 52 percent since 2010. This year’s estimate was 2,760 moose.

As recently as 2006, there were an estimated 8,840 moose in the northeast. State officials now say the population trend of the herd in the northeast resembles that of the northwest, where in the 1980s, moose numbered in the 3,000 to 4,000 range. The most recent estimate for that part of the state: 84.

“The state’s moose population has been in decline for years but never at the precipitous rate documented this winter,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said. “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.”

While officials maintain hunter harvest isn’t driving the decline, “it’s the one piece of mortality that we can control,” said Lou Cornicelli, DNR wildlife research manager.

State moose hunters killed 46 bulls last year. Tribal members killed a total of 36 (31 bulls and five cows).

DNR officials said they will not consider re-opening the moose season until the population recovers.

In its moose-management plan, the agency identifies several thresholds that would result in closure of the season. None of them have been met, but it’s “not reasonable” to rely on those thresholds in light of the population decline, said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife populations and regulations manager.

The DNR had no choice but to close the season, said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

“I think the DNR is making the right move, based on the circumstances,” he said. “But it’s still a really discouraging step that has to be taken.”

Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said he was surprised by the results of the survey.

“I don’t get too excited about one year’s estimate … What I like to look at is a trend over several years,” he said. “That is much better reflective of the moose population. And it is very obvious that the population is declining.”

But the reasons remain a mystery. As part of a study of moose in the northeast, animals were collared beginning in 2002. Of 118 adult moose that were collared and subsequently died, 33 percent were from unknown causes. Another 31 percent were due to an unknown health-related cause, such as brainworm and winter ticks.

Hunters killed 14 percent of the animals, and wolves killed 9 percent.

Schrage figures wolf predation was underestimated, and that the unknown causes of death likely are some combination of health-related issues and predation.

And he notes that study included only adult moose, not calves. There have been reports of sick calves over the years, and “We also have healthy populations of wolves and black bears out there,” Schrage said. “Both of them will take some number of calves.”

Mortality studies

As of last week, the DNR had collared all of the 110 adult moose it sought for a study on specific causes of moose mortality. As part of the project, a team of biologists stands ready to respond as soon as the GPS collars signal animals have died.

One of the collared moose died two days after it was captured. It’s unclear whether wolves killed that moose, or scavenged the body after it was dead.

“They had eaten most of the carcass by the time we got there,” said Erika Butler, DNR wildlife veterinarian.

In addition to adult moose, the DNR will capture and collar 50 calves this spring in an attempt to get a better handle on the reasons for their mortality.

Hunting moratorium

A couple days before the DNR announced it wouldn’t hold a moose season this fall, legislation was introduced in the Senate to put a temporary moratorium on hunting.

That bill, SF 242, is in the Environment and Energy Committee. A hearing for it hadn’t been scheduled. Under the bill, authored by Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, the DNR would have to study moose and then report back to the

Legislature beginning in 2015 on whether moose can be hunted without a detrimental effect on the population.

“I hope that now the DNR has closed the season that bill will be dropped,” Johnson said. “It would be salt in the wound to have legislation enacted to cause the DNR to have to go back to the Legislature” to re-open the season.

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