One of the greatest adventures along the North Country Trail is encountering wildlife in its natural habitat. Yet, one of the “Great North” species is in danger and seeing them along the Trail is becoming increasingly rare.
by Matthew Davis, Regional Trail Coordinator, North Dakota and Minnesota
What wildlife species do you think of when you think “quintessential North Country wildlife?” For many of us in the Red Plaid Nation, the moose (Alces alces) ranks high on our lists, maybe right up there with the timberwolf and black bear. Unfortunately, moose populations are in trouble across the North Country. I recently attended a presentation on the Health of Minnesota’s Moose Population that delved into this topic in some detail. Before I get into why they’re in trouble, we’ll start with some basics on the natural history of the moose.
Moose are the largest member of the deer family and live in northern latitudes around the world including Alaska, Canada, the Rockies, North Dakota and the upper Great Lake States, northern New York, New England, northern Europe, and Russia.
They are the second largest animal in both North America and Europe behind the bison. Two subspecies exist along the North Country Trail – the western (mid-size at up to 1,100 pound average adult male) and eastern (smallest at 805 pounds). The largest subspecies in North America is found in Alaska and the Yukon. Adult males there stand 6.5-7 feet tall; have antlers that can exceed 80” spread, and average 1,400 pounds.
North Country Trail hikers may find moose along the North Country Trail in North Dakota (Lonetree Wildlife Management Area is a good spot), Minnesota (along the Kekekabic & Border Route Trails and the northern half of the Superior Hiking Trail are your best bets), northeastern tip of Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (primarily in Marquette, Baraga and Iron counties), and upstate New York (primarily in the Adirondacks). They’re also found in Vermont for those hiking the proposed extension into the Green Mountain State.
Moose habitat is mixed temperate and boreal forests where they eat a mixture of woody vegetation, forbs/grasses, and aquatic vegetation. Unlike other deer species, moose are solitary animals that don’t typically congregate in herds. Males and females generally only exist in close proximity to each other during the rutting season in September and October Cows give birth in the early summer to one or two calves that stay with their mom until just before her next calves are born. Moose normally live from 5-15 years and their natural predators include wolves, bear, and humans. One of the longest active predator-prey studies has been conducted on Isle Royale looking at the interaction of wolves and moose (learn more at http://www.isleroyalewolf.org/). Unfortunately, the future of this research is in question as the wolf pack is down to 3 individuals. As you would expect, the moose population in the National Park is increasing.
You may have seen in the news that moose numbers are precipitously declining in Minnesota and similar population declines are being observed elsewhere across the temperate region of the United States.
Sidebar: Anecotally, I observed a drastic drop in moose sign (piles of droppings) in between visits to the Kekekabic Trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness between 2009 and 2015.
The presentation on moose that I attended was co-sponsored by the Arrowhead Chapter and held at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, MN. It was given by Michelle Carstensen, the Minnesota DNR Wildlife Division’s Wildlife Health Program Supervisor. Michelle earned a Ph.D. in wildlife conservation from the University of Minnesota, has been employed by the DNR since 2004, and has been working on a non-hunting moose mortality study here in northern Minnesota for the last several years.
How the innovative research project works:
The DNR installed sophisticated and expensive GPS collars on 173 adult moose in northeastern Minnesota. The collars will alert the researchers when a moose has died (the trigger is when the collar is inactive for more than 6 hours) by sending both an email and text message. Upon notification, a rapid response team of researchers attempts to reach the moose within 24 hours and then determines what killed it (if possible). They are looking to see if the moose was in an accident (hit by train, car, etc), looking for signs of predation, looking for evidence of parasites, and taking note of other general health issues. The researchers will extricate the moose if possible and take it to the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Minnesota (St. Paul) or perform a field necropsy when necessary (see http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/moose/index.html and http://www.nrri.umn.edu/moose/methods/necropsy.html).
In the first 3 years of the study, a total of 47 collared moose died and the leading causes of death were:
- Wolf kills (34%)
- Bacterial infections (21%) – which can be caused by infected wolf bites among other things
- Parasites (32%)
- Accident (2%)
- Undetermined health issues (11%)
Currently, 74 moose remain with functioning collars and data is still being gathered. In addition to determining what is causing the mortality, the research aims to determine what (if anything) can be done to help stabilize the moose population (and hopefully reverse the decline). The GPS data from the collars provides researchers with abundant data to analyze the specific habitat needs of the moose. This may lead to landscape level recommendations that will guide forestry and other land management activities to make them more moose friendly.
Here are some of my takeaways from Michelle’s presentation:
1) Minnesota’s moose population is in a drastic decline.
There used to be two distinct populations in Minnesota – one in the northwest corner and another in the northeast corner. With less than 100 animals left, the northwest herd has plummeted from over 4,000 in the 1986 and researchers don’t even monitor it anymore. The northeast herd has lost over half in the last 10 years – dropping from 8,160 in 2005 down to 3,450 in 2015.
2) Annual adult moose mortality is approaching 20% in northeastern Minnesota whereas 8-12% is considered “normal” in moose populations.
Because of this heightened adult mortality and population decline, moose hunting was stopped in northwestern Minnesota in 1997 and in northeastern Minnesota in 2013.
3) Except for the high elevation area in the Rockies, Minnesota is the southernmost extension of the Moose’s range in the U.S.
This means that Climate Change and its resultant warmer winters and summers will both pose significant challenges for moose – an animal that has problems dealing with heat stress.
4) Much of the parasitism affecting moose relates directly to the expansion of whitetail deer north into the moose range following the great cutover a hundred years ago.
Brainworm and liver flukes are spread by deer (an alternate host species). Learn more at http://www.nrri.umn.edu/moose/information/diseases.html. Climate change will allow more deer to survive in northeastern Minnesota. Learn more at http://www.nrri.umn.edu/moose/information/deer.html.
5) Researchers are also studying moose calves to determine what is happening with their populations.
They have measured a low calf:cow ratio, meaning that the adult population – again suffering from higher than normal mortality – is not being adequately replaced by calves reaching adulthood. Unfortunately, Minnesota’s Governor recently banned the collaring of additional calves because of the research related high mortality rate among calves.
People who like moose should be grateful that Michelle, her team, and all the partners (see http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/fish_wildlife/wildlife/moose/management/mooseresearch.pdf for a summary of all the ongoing Moose research in Minnesota) are out there trying to get to the bottom of this issue. While the results of their research may not ultimately save the moose in Minnesota, it will be helpful in other places to ensure that this iconic North Country wildlife species will survive well into the 21st Century and beyond.
You can support the moose research via the Call of the Moose Minnesota organization (http://www.callofthemoose.com/) and Minnesota residents can purchase the Moose critical habitat plate (http://dnr.state.mn.us/features/plates/index.html) which helps fund the research.
Minnesota’s Star Tribune recently posted an informative and interactive article here.
- Moose: Giants of the Northern Forest by Bill Silliker – http://www.amazon.com/Moose-Giants-Northern-Bill-Silliker/dp/1552092550/
- In the Company of Moose: 2nd Edition by Victor Van Ballenberghe – http://www.amazon.com/In-Company-Moose-2nd-Edition/dp/0811712915/
- The Wolves of Isle Royale: A Broken Balance by Rolf Peterson – http://irkpa.org/shop/isle-royale/wolves-isle-royale-broken-balance
Learn more about moose in your state:
- ND – http://gf.nd.gov/hunting/big-game/moose
- MN – dnr.state.mn.us/moose & http://www.nrri.umn.edu/moose/
- WI – none
- MI – http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10370_12145_58476—,00.html
- OH – none
- PA – none
- NY – http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/6964.html
Matthew would like to thank Michelle for making the presentation in Grand Rapids, MN and for reviewing this post, making corrections, and offering valuable suggestions.