Some thoughts about the decline of Minnesota moose

The news we received about Minnesota’s moose population on Wednesday was very disappointing. Here’s a column I wrote for today’s Duluth News Tribune:

Imagine.

No more moose in Minnesota.

That possibility seems much more plausible after news on Wednesday that the state’s moose population had dropped an unprecedented 35 percent in one year. That prompted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to close the limited, bulls-only hunt it had held each fall.

The end of moose hunting for the foreseeable future, though, is less significant than the precipitous decline in the big ungulate’s population. That was stunning.

The population had been dropping steadily since 2006, when nearly 9,000 moose rambled through Northeastern Minnesota. Now the population is estimated at just 2,760 animals, based on aerial surveys.

Truly sad.

It is difficult to imagine paddling the canoe country and not coming upon the chestnut hulk of a half-ton bull plunging his head under water to nip off the roots of a water lily. Or perhaps never again watching a cow moose eye you sternly as a wobbly calf stands at her side.

Gunflint Trail families were used to seeing moose on every drive to town in Grand Marais. One family saw 17 in one trip, they told me. Now, they rarely see a moose on that 60-mile ride through the woods.

Researchers have spent many years trying to understand why Minnesota’s moose die at rates higher than they should. New research projects led by the DNR were just launched last month.

But now, with these latest results from the aerial survey conducted in January, it looks as if that research may be unraveling a trend that is too far along to reverse.

Many Northland residents insist wolves are causing the moose’s decline. DNR wildlife researchers say that’s a small part of the picture. Others point to a warming climate. Minnesota’s moose are on the southern end of North America’s moose range and would be the first to feel the effects of climate change. A warming climate was among factors cited in the demise of moose in northwestern Minnesota, where the population plummeted from 4,000 to just a few dozen. Disease and parasites and habitat also are considered factors in the mortality of Northeastern Minnesota’s moose.

But the truth is, nobody knows for sure what’s happening.

In lamenting the decline of our moose, many point to the economic value the species represents. People love moose. They’re improbably large, a little homely, yet strangely elegant. Like loons, moose represent the essence of the north woods. Watching one swim across a narrows or emerge along the edge of a forest road is enough to make a Minnesota vacation truly special.

Drop in any gift shop and check out the moosey merchandise — moose coffee mugs, moose hand towels, moose photographs and greeting cards and place mats. The moose is the logo of the original Duluth Pack. Mounted moose loom from the rafters of restaurants and lodges and ski resorts.

But apart from the economic impact of these huge creatures, it is just good knowing they’re out there. They belong here, slogging through the marshes, raking their antlers through bare popple branches, wading up meandering creeks.

The mere possibility of happening onto a moose elevates every north woods experience.

Maybe we can save them. But the news of their accelerated decline seems to portend a bleak future for this beloved critter on the Minnesota landscape.

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