USFWS accepts petition to list moose

Washington — A petition from a pair of nonprofit groups to place moose on the federal endangered species list in four Midwestern states, including Minnesota, has cleared the first of several hurdles.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said last week the petition “provided substantial scientific or commercial information that listing under the ESA (Endangered Species Act) may be warranted,” launching a 12-month “status review,” which is the next step in a process that could take several years before a decision.

The public has until Aug. 2 to submit comments regarding the decision to proceed.

The petition was brought forth last July by the Center for Biological Diversity, which also has advocated for keeping wolves on the endangered species list in the Great Lakes states.

This petition would place the moose subspecies, known as the northwest moose (Alces alces andersoni), on the endangered species list in Minnesota, North Dakota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Of those states, only North Dakota has a moose hunt. Minnesota called off its hunt in the Arrowhead region in 2013 after the population further plummeted.

Collette Adkins, CBD’s Minneapolis-based attorney, said the petition highlights the risk of losing moose because of climate change.

“The endangered species list is the best tool we have to save endangered species,” Adkins said. “We think more is needed to be done for moose, and a federal listing would lead to additional protections that the state hasn’t provided.”

In North Dakota, the species’ traditional range in the northeast portion of the state has been in decline, and the state has closed hunting in applicable zones. But moose have actually been expanding, according to Jason Smith, a big-game biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Smith said while the department tracks trend data on moose, it does not formulate a population estimate. The state has held a moose hunt since 1977.

“Our numbers, even though we have a few closed units in the traditional areas, are allowing us to increase our licenses,” Smith said, pointing to last year’s harvest of 124 moose.

Smith said university research suggests North Dakota has plenty of moose. But, “If (ESA listing) is warranted, it’s warranted,” Smith said. “You don’t want to see an iconic animal like that disappear.”

Adkins, however, said hunting moose in North Dakota is “irresponsible” when the species is in decline elsewhere in the region.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will now begin pulling together all available research conducted regarding the moose populations in the affected states as a basis for its decision.

Wisconsin hasn’t conducted any moose research, and Wisconsin Kevin Wallenfang, DNR big-game ecologist, said there are fewer than 50 moose roaming the state, most of which have wandered down from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“We don’t have any evidence of a breeding population,” Wallenfang said.

Most of those moose have resided in the northeastern counties, such as Oneida, Forest, and Vilas, and it’s been a few years since any were noted to have moved into northwestern Wisconsin from Minnesota.

Russ Mason, the Michigan DNR’s wildlife chief, said his state’s moose population has declined for a variety of reasons, including habitat loss, predation, and climate change.

The species all but disappeared from that state, with a few remaining in the Upper Peninsula, by the 1890s. After a restoration attempt in the 1930s failed, a second attempt in the 1980s has taken better root. Moose numbers increased after 59 moose were translocated from Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park and released in Marquette County. The Michigan DNR says moose likely were helped by fewer white-tailed deer, and poaching mostly stopped. There’s an estimated population of 500 moose, mostly in the western U.P.

“Moose thrive in cold conditions due to their thick, insulating fur, long legs and wide feet. Warmer temperatures put moose at risk of overheating, which causes malnutrition and immune system concerns,” Mason said.

That issue is the subject one of many research projects the Minnesota DNR is conducting. The DNR still has a GPS study ongoing, with fewer than 70 adult animals. Last year, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton banned researchers from collaring more moose for the study, after some moose died because of capture-related stress.

“What we are interested in now is helping (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make) as robust a decision as they can,” said Rich Baker, the Minnesota DNR’s endangered species coordinator.

The DNR won’t put forth a formal opinion on the matter until after the status review is completed, likely next year, though it’s generally opposed to handing off management authority to the feds.

“We are going to hang back on where we stand until we see the service’s analysis of all of the data it gets,” Baker said.

In Minnesota, the moose population in the northeastern part of the state has been more than halved to about an estimated 4,000 animals in the past decade. A population in northwestern Minnesota has all but disappeared. In Voyageurs National Park, a small population is stable, while Isle Royale National Park, off Lake Superior’s North Shore, has a population that’s grown with wolves numbers down.

“We know there are several factors, including several deer-related diseases, including brainworm, wolf predation, and the effects on nutrition from climate change,” Baker said. “All of these things are interacting and giving us the results that we have.”

The Minnesota DNR is in the early stages of acting on some of the research that it has under way, even though much is not yet complete. That includes projects to create better habitat in Cook, Lake, and St. Louis counties, the heart of their range.

University of Minnesota-Duluth moose researcher Ron Moen said that putting moose on the list wouldn’t slow down such projects, since they benefit moose.

Moen said it may be a bit early to put moose on the list, and it  brings up a bigger question about how the species is affected by the climate.

“We have half a dozen animals that are on the southern edge of their border here,” Moen said, noting the ESA was written when little was known about climate change. “If conditions are no longer suitable, why would you want to keep it here? You don’t want to give up on them either, when you have 4,000 moose in Minnesota, but it’s something the public and the agencies are going to have to think about.”

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