Gunflint Lake, Minnesota - Photo by Graham Gillette

Gunflint Lake, Minnesota - Photo by Graham Gillette

Saving Moose in a Mixed-up World

By Graham Gillette

The moose looks like a mixed-up animal. The largest member of the deer family stands six feet tall from massive hoof to humped shoulder. Cone-shaped ears swivel above what may be the droopiest eyes in the animal kingdom. If moose were manmade, a person might conclude something had gone wrong on the assembly line – a worker on the conveyor belt must have grabbed legs out of the wrong parts bin. Such spindly appendages could not have been designed to support up to 1,300 pounds, let alone carry a massive bull moose at speeds up to thirty-five miles per hour. Never-mind the spiked plate-like antlers, crowns gone ridiculous. If the creature wasn’t so imposingly beautiful, one might think this was a science experiment comically awry.

A July drive along the winding path of Minnesota Highway 61 north of Duluth reveals Minnesotans’ love of moose. Rare is the café, store, gas station, or recreational facility found near the sparkling shores of Lake Superior beneath the shimmering leaves of birch trees and shade cast by towering white pines that does not have a picture or statue of a moose prominently displayed on the property. It’s not surprising. Like moose, northern Minnesotans are a hearty bunch known for their independence and stoutheartedness. But, the moose are disappearing from Minnesota.

Moose populations around the world are shifting and dwindling, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in northern Minnesota. Moose have nearly vanished from the northwest corner of the state, and the northeastern Minnesota moose population has declined by close to sixty percent in the last twenty years. Some fear the day may be drawing near when moose no longer crash through the forests or wade the cool water found in the streams, rivers, lake, and ponds that dominate this wooded terrain.

Evidence suggests climate change is the root of the global moose decline, but a lack of funding and political skirmishes over how to conduct moose studies have made it difficult for researchers to gather conclusive data in Minnesota. The argument over how to manage and protect Minnesota’s beloved moose population is testing the Minnesota-nice that Garrison Keillor parodied when creating his fictional Lake Wobegon.

To understand the politics of moose in Minnesota, one first needs to understand moose and the environment they need to survive. These animals roam the northern reaches of the globe, across the U.S/Canadian border, the southern expanse of Greenland, and the frigid parts of Russia. Robust and always independent, moose have long survived the harshest winters in the most isolated of locations. The Arrowhead Region of Northern Minnesota is just such a place. Its 10,000 square miles of rock, towering trees, lakes, rivers, and bogs stretch from the icy shores of Lake Superior running along a mostly unmarked Canadian border. This wild country is a kind of no-man’s-land where moose, bear, pine martens, lynx, and other native creatures coexist. It is God’s country.

The moose of northeastern Minnesota live in a place with a geologically violent history. The terrain that was created over millennia, and the severe winters and mild summers found here create a place uniquely suited to moose. They thrive where few can. 

The second largest comet to strike earth hit six-hundred miles from the Arrowhead region 1.8 billion years ago, creating the thirty-nine miles long, nineteen miles wide and nine-and-three-tenths miles deep Sudbury Basin in Ontario, Canada. Metals like nickel, copper, platinum and palladium melted and concentrated during the cataclysmic event. Geologists have found evidence that a massive earthquake occurred minutes after the collision, which launched a tsunami that three hours later rushed across the shallow ocean covering what is now this part of Minnesota. It took ten minutes for the resulting dust cloud to reach Minnesota and several years for the air to clear. The strike may have altered the earth and the chemistry of the ocean so substantially that it caused the end of most iron formation on the planet. A lot of that iron settled just under the surface of this region. Glacial movement that started two million, or so, years ago tore open the iron and rock. Weather patterns formed and the world with which we are familiar today began to take shape. Nature took its course.

The resulting landscape may appear to a first-time visitor as improbable as the moose that roam here. But, like the moose, the land is stunning. Soaring rock palisades overlook cold-water lakes hundreds of feet deep, and trees with roots clinging to submerged iron-infused boulders reach to the same sky from which calamity long ago came. 

Only those sturdy enough to withstand the unforgiving side of Mother Nature’s unforgiving polar blasts inhabit the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota, a place that can be as inhospitable as it is captivating. The rugged terrain gives moose an advantage over predators – moose can move quickly and nimbly over rugged ground. And, moose depend on long cold winters with temperatures staying for many days less than negative twenty degrees Fahrenheit. Serious cold. Cold is essential to this region’s natural balance; a balance climate change is upsetting.

Now, nature’s course appears to be changing, and moose are among many bearing the brunt of this change. In 2006, the northeastern Minnesota moose population was estimated to be 8,840, about the average number of moose found in the area since the 1950s. Since 2006, the moose population in northeastern Minnesota has dwindled to 4,020 – a decline of fifty-five percent in just ten years.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) researcher Glenn Del Giudice has concluded climate change is harming moose. He matched average winter temperatures to data gained from the samples collected from moose to prove a link between a rise in average winter temperatures and low nutritional levels in moose. Del Giudice believes there is a correlation between temperature and how much moose eat – rising temperatures are causing self-inflicted starvation among moose.

“When temperatures are above twenty-three degrees, the moose eat less,” Del Giudice said when releasing 2016 data at a recent news conference. “Moose can become malnourished during a warm winter.”

His report also concluded that an earlier spring could lengthen the season for parasite exposure and impact moose reproduction rates. Fewer females are becoming pregnant and the rate of twins, usually high for moose, is significantly lower than it was a decade ago.

Native American tribes such as the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa have teamed with the state DNR to conduct much of the moose research in the state. The Grand Portage Band has relied on the moose for subsistence for generations. The leaders of Grand Portage Band made this investment because they view moose as vital to their people’s existence.

A cooperative project that began in 2013 included DNR personnel, federal officials, University of Minnesota researchers, biologists from the Grand Portage Band and researchers representing conservation groups. Central to this research project was a program to capture and release moose, allowing researchers to take blood samples and examine moose in the field before placing a radio transmitting devices on the moose before returning them to the wild. Researchers used helicopters to locate moose and tranquilize them from the air. Landing near the sedated animal the team then administered tests, affixed a tracking collar, and inserted an internal device that monitors body data such as heart rate and breathing. The information researchers gathered was useful. It helped start to pinpoint why moose were declining. Some moose were weaker and, thereby, less able to prevent attack from predators. However, the trauma of being chased by helicopters harmed some moose already weakened by disease and, worse, in the confusion created by the catch and release process, some mothers and their offspring became separated. 

The $1.2 million effort to take samples from and collar moose triggered an emotional debate. Was the research providing information valuable enough to outweigh the loss of moose the research methods caused? About twenty percent of the calves separated from their collared mothers died because of the separation. A moose calf faced stiff enough odds without this human intervention. Only seventy percent of calves survive their first winter in normal circumstances.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton halted the state's participation in the program last July in response to public outcry following news accounts that showed the stress of the capture put many moose in danger. Despite vocal opposition from researchers, Governor Dayton signed an executive order redirecting research efforts to gather data on moose health using other means.

Seth Moore, a biologist with the Grand Portage Band, joined other independent researchers in objecting to the Governor’s action arguing the data being gathered was worth the loss of a few moose and what they hoped to learn would be vital to determining what could be done to save the Minnesota moose population.

“Our goal is to conduct research that will help us better understand why moose populations are dwindling. We need this data to implement management actions that might be useful for improving the (moose) population,” said Moore. “The collaring and release program is a tool for protecting the moose population.”

For the past three years, researchers have been gathering valuable data by monitoring live adult moose via satellite and retrieving dead moose for examination. Of the captured and collared moose, forty-seven perished: thirty-one died from health-related causes, and wolves killed sixteen, but sickness in four of those animals made them easy prey. The data are helpful, but the population sample studied is too small, and the study’s time span too short to develop a plan to reverse the decline. More time and data is required, but Governor Dayton’s order prematurely stopped the research clock. Before the Governor halted the program, researchers collared one-hundred-twenty-three female and fifty male moose. Seventy-four moose survive with collars affixed before the program ceased.

Late last year, the environmental groups Honor the Earth and the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the U.S. population of northwestern moose, found in Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota and Wisconsin. The groups are seeking protection of moose under the Endangered Species Act. The groups argue such a classification would bring much-needed money for moose research.

Researchers are trying to determine why there are fewer moose in the area today and evidence suggests some of the moose’s new neighbors may be partly to blame, and those neighbors aren’t people, they are deer.

Deer populations are exploding in Minnesota, and so are those of the parasites they carry, like brainworm and liver fluke. Neither of these parasites harms deer, but they can kill the deer’s big cousin, the moose. Milder winters have allowed oak and maple to take root in locations farther north than they once did. The leaves of these trees and saplings are the primary food source for whitetail deer. The larvae and eggs of the newly introduced brainworm and liver fluke parasites deposited on the forest floor in deer feces are absorbed by snails and slugs that are then consumed by grazing moose.

Parelaphostrongylus tenuis, commonly known as brainworm, is a nematode routinely carried by deer. Brainworm causes severe neurological damage in moose, leading to disorientation, loss of muscle function, blindness, and increased aggression. Researchers believe as many as sixty percent of moose dying prematurely in Minnesota have brainworm. While not fatal, the liver fluke weakens animals, making them vulnerable to predators such as wolves, which are also inhabiting moose territory in larger numbers as the climate warms.

Then there are the ticks. Big nasty ticks. For the towering moose, the region’s abundant and bloodthirsty ticks did not use to grow big enough in numbers to become a health hazard. A sustained blast of Minnesota winter could be counted on to right-size the tick population. Shorter, more temperate winters, however, mean more ticks are surviving – a lot more ticks. Biologists at the DNR are estimating the winter tick population has grown twenty percent in the last decade. A moose surviving to spring once might have been carrying 5,000 winter ticks as the lakes and streams thawed in early to mid-May. Without a long-sustained winter of subzero temperatures, a moose can be burdened with as many as 75,000 ticks. That is a whole lot of itch. An itch complicated by tick-borne diseases that weaken the moose’s immune system.

When a heavily tick-infested moose rubs off large patches of hair and skin, the exposed bloody pieces of flesh may get infected. The resulting loss of blood can cause weakness. The moose has large hooves adapted to making a moose nimble over the rocky terrain. If a healthy moose does get cornered, it is usually strong enough to chase off bears and other carnivores. A moose weakened by blood loss or disease caused by ticks is less able to defend itself against the predators of the forest.

To confuse the debate further, the moose on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, located less than twenty miles from mainland Minnesota, are approaching historic highs according to a study released in 2016. Dave Mech, a well-known wolf researcher, has said that Isle Royale’s increasing moose population is directly linked to the island’s declining wolf population. Disease in recent years caused the population of wolves on the island to fall from twenty-five individual wolves to two, while the number of wolves continues to rise on the mainland. Without this predator, moose numbers have climbed.

Wolves may be part of the problem, but it is warmer, shorter winters that are causing moose to become weak or starve. Parasites carried by deer are attacking moose and making moose vulnerable to predator attack. The number of wolves and deer in northern Minnesota are increasing because of rising temperatures. Moose reproduction numbers are falling. The odds are mounting against the moose. 

The moose may seem a mixed-up animal, but no animal is more suited for its natural environment than the moose. Moose eat the high grasses and bushes of the forest and feed on plants at and below the surface of lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Moose may not look it, but they are built for the water and are surprisingly good swimmers. They can swim for miles and can submerge themselves for thirty seconds or more at a time. Moose survive on pine cones and lichen and moss uncovered with snowshoe shaped hooves in winter. The moose is anything but mixed up – research is beginning to show the climate is.

The moose is a survivor, but climate change and the problems it breeds may be more than even the moose can withstand. The recent dust-up over collaring moose for research has brought some attention to the plight of this oddly elegant beast. Seth Moore and other researchers believe better moose species management plans that reduce threats aided by climate change such as increased parasites carried by deer and attacks by wolves are vital to saving the moose of Minnesota.