Wisconsin moose numbers very low, but remain ‘steady’

Woodruff, Wis. — The July 5 shooting of a cow moose in Vilas County by a Lac du Flambeau tribal member raised the awareness – and some questions –among citizens of the state’s small, but apparently stable, moose population.

Certainly the loss of that animal didn’t do anything to bolster state moose numbers, but the spirits of residents in western Vilas County and southern Iron County were lifted a bit in late July upon learning that two moose calves were being seen with an adult cow near the Iron County town of Springstead.

Moose sightings have been reported in Wisconsin’s north-central and northeastern counties nearly every year since the late 1980s and early 1990s. That follows Michigan’s efforts to bring moose back to the Upper Peninsula. In the mid-1980s, the Michigan DNR moved 59 moose from Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park to a release site in Marquette County with the intent of developing a self-sustaining population in the U.P.

There were moose in the U.P. at that time, but numbers were very low and the moose were mostly in the eastern U.P. counties of Keweenaw, Marquette and Schoolcraft – the three counties that received 71 moose from Isle Royale from 1934 to 1937, when Michigan first attempted to bring back moose.

Wisconsin residents have also reported moose sightings in the far northwestern counties of Douglas and Bayfield since the early 1990s. It’s believed that those animals drifted in from northern Minnesota.

Kevin Wallenfang has been  the DNR’s big game ecologist for almost five years now. He mostly works with deer and elk, but moose also fall into his purview. Earlier, Wallenfang did about a nine-year stint with the DNR, the last seven as the assistant big game biologist, so he’s been around the state ever since moose sightings increased.

He said the July reports of twin calves are not the first evidence of likely breeding/birthing by most likely transient U.P. moose here in Wisconsin. At least one calf has been reported most years since 2001, with 2004, 2005 and 2015 being the exceptions. Three calf sightings were reported in 2003 (Ashland, Forest), and four in 2009 (Vilas, Marinette, Oneida).

From 1991 through 2015, the most moose calf sightings have been reported from Oneida, Forest and Florence counties.

Wallenfang said DNR biologists suspect breeding has occurred over those same years in eight counties: Washburn, Sawyer, Ashland, Iron, Vilas, Oneida, Langlade and Marinette.

As for how many moose may be living in Wisconsin now?

“It would only be a guess. I usually say we believe we have fewer than 50 at any time, but it could be only half that or less,” said Wallenfang.

“We have been getting about 20 reports each year from the public or staff members through the on-line Large Mammal Observation reporting form.  Snapshot Wisconsin may be a great opportunity to get a better estimate on moose numbers.”

The DNR produces annual deer population estimates and conducts ground counts of the elk herd. Not so with moose.

“We don’t have a hunting season, so we don’t need to set a quota or worry about X percent being removed from the population to ensure maintaining a moose herd. There simply aren’t enough moose in the state to justify the expense,” he said.

“Having said that, we do run a survey – the on-line reporting form – and the public helps us with that.  It isn’t scientific in the sense that there is no formal field work, collaring, flights, etc., but it does allows us to have somewhat of a handle on distribution and, to a lesser extent, a population size. It’s a small number and an extensive and expensive survey isn’t going to change that.”

Even though moose calves have been born more years than not here in Wisconsin, the extremely low number of births don’t necessarily constitute a breeding population.

“We’ve had observation reports of at least one calf every year since 2008, with the exception of 2014. When boy meets girls, calves are bound to happen.  Once the rut kicks in, we tend to get the majority of annual sightings, primarily mid- to late-September. So like any deer, the bulls start covering a lot of ground.  If there is a cow out there to be found, at least every now and then a bull is bound to find her.

“So, I’m not surprised that a few are born, but I don’t know that we can really call this a breeding population. Yes, they breed and their numbers appear to be ‘stable,’ but it’s a pretty small sample size and I have to believe that some of those animals are coming in from the U.P. or Minnesota, rather than being born here,” he said.

Back in the early 1990s, the University of Wisconsin and DNR assessed the feasibility of restoring moose, elk and even woodland caribou to the state. Because moose and caribou are susceptible to brain worm and elk are more resistant, elk won out and 25 head from Michigan were released in 1995. By that time, moose were trickling into Wisconsin from the U.P. Some sportsmen have suggested that Wisconsin should do more to encourage growth in those moose numbers.

“When considering growth of any animal population, you usually start by examining habitat. Then, if it’s a hunted species, you look at reducing harvest.  Wisconsin has plenty of suitable habitat for moose, so that is not a limiting factor. We also don’t have a hunting season, so there is no place to ‘cut back’ there. I don’t believe there is anything that can be done quickly or easily (on a global scale) to encourage herd growth,” said Wallenfang.

Moose remain a protected species in Wisconsin because their numbers are so low. The DNR develops management plans for hunted species and several protected species, but there is no such plan for moose. Wallenfang said it’s unlikely Wisconsin will ever see a moose season.

“Moose are currently listed as a protected species, so it would first take legislative law changes (to create a season),” he said. “We do not have a Wisconsin moose plan, and we probably don’t we need one since moose are considered incidental to Wisconsin. They do not appear to be increasing in population size, and we do not actively manage them.

“One of the greatest limiting factors for moose is brain worm, which is very common in our deer herd and to which moose are very susceptible. Northern Wisconsin falls along the very southern edge of moose range,” he said.

Understanding those points may be one reason why sportsmen aren’t asking the DNR to do more to increase moose numbers here.

“Because we don’t hunt them and not very many people ever see one, that interest doesn’t seem to be there. There always seems to be plenty of curiosity and questions by individuals when they actually see a moose, but until then they don’t seem to even think about moose very much,” said Wallenfang.

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