by Marshall Helmberger, Tower Timberjay
There’s more bad news for northeastern Minnesota’s moose population. That’s according to the results of the DNR’s latest moose survey, which found yet another statistically significant decline in the population in northeastern Minnesota.
The aerial survey was conducted in January and the results were released Thursday.
They show that the region’s moose population has dropped to just 4,900 animals, a decline from last year’s estimate of 5,500 and 7,800 the year before. As always, the population numbers are estimates.
“It’s really disheartening,” said Tom Rusch, Tower Area Wildlife Manager with the Department of Natural Resources.
While the population trend is troubling enough, even more worrisome is the extremely low cow-to-calf ratio. In the latest survey, the ratio declined to just 24 calves per 100 cows. That’s even lower than the 28 calves per 100 cows seen during last year’s survey, and is a continuation of a steady decline for more than a decade.
The ratio of bulls to cows has also reached critically low levels, with just 66 bulls per 100 cows. That’s considered close to a critical threshold, said Rusch. “If we see that for three consecutive years, we would consider no moose season.”
As it is, the moose harvest is likely to be reduced further. It’s already limited to bulls, but the DNR is planning to reduce the number of permits even further this year, according to Rusch. Last year, 212 moose permits were issued by the DNR, with additional permits issued by tribal authorities. This year, the DNR is likely to reduce the number of permits offered to just over 100.
The continuing decline is hardly a surprise. The northwestern Minnesota moose population crashed beginning in the late 1980s and is almost non-existent today. The decline has been slower in the forested northeast, and wildlife researchers are scrambling to learn what’s behind the trend.
DNR officials have pointed to the effects of climate change as a possible cause, but that view isn’t universally shared, particularly since moose populations appear to be doing well in parts of North Dakota, where summer heat is significantly worse than in northeastern Minnesota. Moose are also doing relatively well in many parts of New England, where summer temperatures are at least as warm as in northeastern Minnesota and where winter temperatures are significantly milder.
The latest survey results will likely increase the pressure on researchers to issue at least preliminary findings as soon as possible. Rusch said he expects to see a report in a matter of weeks.
But researchers will likely be expanding their research at the same time. One of the things researchers hope to learn is why moose calf mortality is now so high. While most cow moose in the region bear calves each spring, first year survival is extremely low. Rusch said researchers are likely to use new techniques to try to figure out why. “It could be predation. That’s my gut feeling,” said Rusch.