Moose beginning to utilize Pagami Creek Fire burn area

Cloquet, Minn. — While the Minnesota DNR’s latest winter moose survey showed the population in northeast Minnesota holding steady though still indicating a decline will continue, there were a couple of encouraging signs.

For the first time, the survey observed notable numbers of moose in the vast, 90,000-acre area burned by the 2011 Pagami Creek Fire.

“This is the first year we started seeing moose out in the middle of the Pagami Creek burn area,” said Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “Previous to this year, flying out over the Pagami Creek Fire was like flying out over the moon. There was just nothing there.”

It generally takes a few years after a fire for the vegetation to recover enough to where it begins to attract moose, Schrage said. 

It’s normal for there to be a lack of moose in a burn area directly after a major fire, he said.

“The amount of time depends on how quickly the vegetation recovers and what kind comes back,” Schrage said. “If it is coming back as jack pine and other conifer, it’s less attractive to moose than if it comes back as birch, aspen, and mountain maple.”

That’s because moose are using these young deciduous trees as food, even if older conifers also are important as cover from predators while providing thermal cover in the winter.

Schrage, who assists in the helicopter aerial survey of moose, had initiated an effort that began in 2012 to incorporate a look at burned and logged areas in the survey, and the results across many of those burn areas showed higher concentrations of moose, which made sense, he said, since burn areas provide known preferred habitat for the species.

Even though there have been a few major fires, wildfires mostly have not been allowed to burn, but logging does in effect mimic a fire event. How much is something Schrage is hoping can be determined. 

Among the survey plots is a prescribed fire burn near Kekekabic Lake and three plots in Cook, Lake, and St. Louis counties where timber harvest would be expected to be the primary driver of creating moose habitat, he said.

Just like the other plots in the survey, each survey plot is 13.3 square miles, and there are nine such plots, bringing the total number of plots in the larger survey to 53.

Only one moose had been observed in the Pagami area in 2012, but Glenn DelGiudice, DNR moose project leader, noted that 16 moose were observed in the same general area in 2009, before the fire. This year, however, 10 moose were spotted in the Pagami Creek burn area.

“Who knows what we will see next year, but it’s a reason for optimism,” said DelGiudice, careful to note that the number counted only included those observed in the 13-square-mile survey plot, not the entire burn area.

Added Schrage: “It’s a trend we hope will continue. It is definitely encouraging the way we have started seeing moose in that area.”

DelGiudice cautioned that while the Pagami Creek burn area is vast, its width may prevent calves and cows, which still heavily rely on cover for protection, from using the middle of the area.

“We know they don’t like to venture too far from the edge,” he said. “We think it’s security. They don’t want to be too far from escape cover.”

DelGiudice said that while it was believed that big clear-cuts are good for moose, more recent data are showing that smaller clear-cuts, where moose are never very far from escape and thermal cover, may be even more beneficial.

“If you have these big clear-cuts (or burn areas), you don’t maximize the edge around these big clear-cuts,” DelGiudice said. “You want smaller clear-cuts to maximize edge.”

Some of the smaller fires that have been on the landscape longer had even more impressive numbers of moose on them, Schrage said.

At the site of the 2006 Cavity Lake Fire, where some 32,000 acres were burned, there were 31 moose observed, down from 33 in the previous survey.

And at the 2007 Ham Lake Fire site, which was 75,000 acres but with a majority in Ontario, there were 36 moose observed, up from 20 in the previous survey.

Those were encouraging numbers.

“On most of our moose plots, if we are seeing 10 to 20 moose on a survey plot, that would be pretty darn good, about as good as we ever did in moose range,” Schrage said. “When we are seeing 30 to 50 moose, that’s pretty awesome. And there are other good fires that we don’t fly regularly.”

Schrage said he expected bull moose, which can do more to protect themselves, probably to use the wider open areas still, but he concurred with DelGiudice.

“I think moose like big, open areas, but they still need cover,” he said. “And that’s one of the things we’ll be looking at.”

The Pagami Creek Fire was notable. It started in August 2011, and was mainly monitored by the U.S. Forest Service for several weeks before it blazed off, jumping something like 10 miles in a single afternoon.

“They were doing that and then all of the sudden, they got 80,000 bonus acres out of it,” Schrage said. “It was a big fire that caused a lot of heartache, but it also looks like it is going to do moose a favor.”

It left little behind.

“Over the long run, that could affect how many moose are using the Pagami Creek Fire,” Schrage said. “There is also less surviving cover in the center of that burn.”

The Cavity and Ham Lake fires were big and severe, but they didn’t do the catastrophic single-day run, he said.

“If you fly over them, there are more islands and places where it didn’t burn as severely, (leaving) pockets. Pagami Creek seemed to have burned much more thoroughly,” Schrage said.

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