Will Minnesota's moose ever thrive again?
A new national grant focused on habitat may help bolster the moose population, which has stabilized after a big decline.
DULUTH — Northern Minnesota’s moose have been hanging on for the past decade, reproducing and surviving at a rate barely able to keep up with an onslaught by wolves, bears, ticks and brainworm from deer.
First it was northwestern Minnesota's moose that disappeared, in the 1990s, from thousands to virtually none over just one decade.
Then, northeastern moose numbers crashed by 70% from a modern high of 8,840 moose estimated in 2006 to just 2,700 by 2013.
The only good news since then is that their numbers haven’t dropped any more, hanging near the lower number with glimmers of hope that they might bounce back.
Now, an effort is underway to bring multiple groups together to bolster moose habitat and maybe work on other threats so moose can thrive — to build back to the moose numbers of 30 years ago.
“Our goal is not to have our moose population always hanging by a thread,” said Kelly Straka, wildlife section manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Our goal is to see them thrive. … Moose are iconic in Minnesota. They are critical to our ecosystem in the north. And people want to see them.”
To that end, Minnesota’s moose just received a big Christmas gift from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, a federally funded grant of $443,600 to form a new moose collaborative that will lead to large-scale habitat projects in core moose range. It was one of 55 projects selected out of 500 applicants for the America the Beautiful Grants. The Minnesota DNR and tribal natural resource agencies are adding another $43,000.
The goal is to restore massive tracts of moose habitat over the next decade — at least three areas of 10,000-50,000 contiguous acres, 15-75 square miles each — considered huge parcels even in the vast wilds of Northeastern Minnesota.
The patchwork of tribal, federal, state, county and private land in Northeastern Minnesota makes large-scale habitat restoration particularly challenging. The grant isn’t buying any land or paying for any actual work on the ground.
Instead, it’s aimed at hiring a coordinator and bringing multiple parties together: the U.S. Forest Service, tribal resource agencies, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, county forestry departments, conservation groups like the Ruffed Grouse Society and Nature Conservancy as well as many private landowners.
The grant will pay for workshops through 2023 and into 2024 to see if the participants can get past the social, political and practical barriers and agree where it's possible to conduct massive habitat work — either intentional fires or logging or both.
“The goal is to have a plan, to get all their parties at the table and come up with a plan to see where it makes the most sense for moose, and where it's possible for us, to create some really large-scale habitat blocks,” Straka said. “It’s not that forest management hasn’t been occurring. It just hasn’t been big enough to really help moose.”
More logging, more fires, more moose
Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, watched moose numbers decline from his seat in a helicopter as part of a team of biologists who count moose each January in an annual aerial survey coordinated by the Minnesota DNR. What he saw most winters was depressing for anyone who enjoys moose.
Part of the problem is that large areas of Northeastern Minnesota, especially in the core Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and other blocks of the Superior National Forest, have trees that are too old for moose to thrive. Efforts to snuff most wildfires, a prohibition on logging in the BWCAW and a reduction in logging across the Superior National Forest and on private land has led to an older, mature forest that doesn’t offer great food for moose.
But Schrage noticed a few places where moose seemed to be doing better, namely wherever a large forest fire had occurred in recent years, like the 92,000-acre Pagami Creek fire inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 2011 and the 75,000-acre Ham Lake fire along the end of the Gunflint Trail in 2007. Apparently, size matters when it comes to moose habitat, and these were the state's largest wildfires since the 1930s.
It didn’t take an expert in moose biology, Schrage noted, to see what was going on. It’s in those big burned areas, now lush with new growth, where the highest moose densities have been seen in the past decade. That gives Schrage and others hope that moose will respond quickly to any large-scale habitat work conducted as part of the new collaborative.
Not every tree was burned of course, pockets of older trees remained — good cover for moose to hide in — but enough trees were gone to open the forest floor to sunlight and a new crop of vegetation for miles on end.
“I think we can double, maybe even triple moose numbers in those (habitat project) areas, if they are large enough,” Schrage added. “In the areas of the big fires, when we fly now, we may see 10 or 20 moose per 13-square-mile unit, compared to one or two moose, or none at all, in some areas outside the fires.”
Moose are iconic in Minnesota. They are critical to our ecosystem in the north. And people want to see them.
Research crews for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa now have about 30 moose wearing transmitter collars in and around the Grand Portage Reservation. In January, they will begin collaring another 25 moose in Minnesota and another 25 on Isle Royale as comparisons continue between the mainland and island moose herds.
Seth Moore, director of biology and environment for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, is especially interested in how moose respond to the 26,000-acre Greenwood fire from 2021 in Lake County, near Isabella. While that fire forced evacuations and destroyed several cabins and homes, it also created prime moose habitat. Moore’s already seeing more moose in that area and he expects the ongoing aerial surveys to show a noticeable jump.
It’s unlikely that huge, intentional fires will be a major part of the moose habitat project — there’s simply too much opposition from home and cabin and owners now numerous across much of the moose range. But a series of smaller fires, or much larger-scale logging operations, or both, could mimic the same results as a single, larger fire.
“We have in our minds what the forest, what the northwoods, should look like. Big, old trees are usually in that picture,” Straka said. “But variety is important. Moose need variety. They need old trees for cover and they especially need young forest for food.”
Moore said social attitudes will need to change if efforts to truly restore the state’s moose population are going to succeed: attitudes about managing and killing some wolves, attitudes about large clear-cut swaths of forest and attitudes about wildfire.
Fire, Moore noted, is how nature created moose habitat for millennia.
“We're going to have to make some difficult decisions to keep moose on our landscape in northern Minnesota,” Moore said. "I’m not sure how we got to a point where people think clear cuts are all bad. … It's how we keep part of the forest young. And moose can’t make it without young trees to eat.”
Schrage agreed. While some people may bristle when miles of forest briefly appear blackened from fire, or void of big trees after a logging operation, Schrage says they will also be surprised at how fast the forest regenerates. And it’s that young growth that moose need most: shoots of aspen, paper birch, alder and balsam fir. Many species of tree and brush that moose favor regenerate on their own.
“I think people wouldn’t mind looking out over a clear cut if there was a moose in the middle of it,” Schrage said.
For Minnesota moose, many maladies
It seems at times as if humans and Mother Nature are ganging up on moose, throwing a bevy of problems at the big animals that they seem unable to overcome.
Perhaps foremost is the warming climate, with warmer summer temperatures taking a toll on the big, dark animals that tend to stop feeding when it gets too hot. Warmer winters allow white-tailed deer to thrive farther north and allow tick numbers to build.
So-called "winter ticks" have become a huge problem for moose, with sometimes thousands of them building up on a single animal. Moose, for whatever reason, don’t seem to notice the ticks until it’s too late, then begin to furiously scratch their thick hides on trees in an attempt to get rid of the parasites.
That causes moose to lose their insulating hair, and many of the tick-infested moose eventually have so much bare skin exposed that they die due to exposure to the elements.
Generally, warmer winters also have allowed deer to thrive farther north over the past 50 years. Whitetails were not native to the northern forest but moved in after the massive logging and fires of the early 1900s. Deer numbers peaked during a string of mild winters in the early 2000s, thriving far into moose territory and bringing along a parasitic brainworm, P. tenuis, that, while harmless to deer, is fatal to moose.
The brainworm’s unusual life cycle requires that it passes through a snail first, and then is picked up by moose as they forage. Moore’s research found that 25%-30% of moose mortality in Northeastern Minnesota was from brainworm, a larger percent of adult moose than are killed by predators.
Snowier winters, fewer deer may be helping
A string of deep-snow winters in the past decade has substantially reduced the region’s deer population, which is good news for moose. To curb the brainworm problem, Moore said, deer numbers should be kept to six or fewer per square mile in moose territory.
“We thought 10 (deer per square mile) would be low enough. But in areas where we had that many deer we still had a lot of brainworm,” Moore said.
The number of moose infected with brainworm seems to be dropping some as deer numbers have dropped in recent years, Moore added. But when deer numbers rebound from the tough winters, as they always have in past decades, Moore wants the Minnesota DNR to encourage more hunters to kill more deer in the state’s moose range by offering more doe permits and longer hunting seasons.
The DNR already has designated much of eastern St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties as primary moose habitat. But intentionally keeping deer numbers very low is likely not something many deer hunters in the region would support.
“The deer will come back after a few mild winters. And we need some sort of ongoing effort to keep their numbers down,” Moore said.
Wolves, bear taking most calves
Moose have lived alongside wolves for millennia. But, in northern Minnesota, wolves have grown to higher densities thanks to white-tailed deer - some of the highest densities of wolves anywhere in the world. Wolves are most numerous in areas where deer are more numerous because it's far easier for wolves to kill a deer than kill a moose or elk.
But now that deer numbers have declined in the northeast, wolves either move out, starve or turn to other prey. And, for several weeks each summer, wolves and black bears are feasting on moose calves too small to escape. The number of calves surviving their first year, and getting old enough to reproduce on their own, is extremely low, barely enough to keep moose numbers stable. Until more calves make it, Minnesota’s moose population can’t grow.
“The primary cause of calf mortality is predation,” Moore said. Of the calves researchers have collared, 80% are killed in their first two weeks by wolves and bears.
Wolves in Minnesota are considered an officially “threatened” species, with slightly less protection than endangered status. That’s allowed an ongoing federal program to trap and kill wolves near farms where livestock have been killed. Moore thinks that would be a good idea in prime moose range, too, if public hunting and trapping moose remains off the table.
“Moose are the primary subsistence species of the Ojibwe people, that's their livelihood, their crop, so to speak. And you wonder why we can have a management program for farmers to protect cattle but not a wolf management program to protect moose,” Moore noted.
Moore added, however, that several tribal officials across northern Minnesota remain opposed to any wolf killing efforts.
“It’s a difficult topic. … I realize some tribal people are opposed to killing any wolves. But we have to realize what’s at stake here? Do we want to lose moose in Minnesota?” Moore added.
Good news, then bad news, but still hope
Last winter, the annual state survey of moose in Northeastern Minnesota showed an increase to about 4,700 moose after their numbers appeared stuck around 3,500 for several years. Crews will be back out next week to start the 2023 survey, with results released in spring.
The 2022 aerial survey found calves comprised an estimated 19% of the population with an estimated 45 calves per 100 cows. That’s the highest both indicators have been since 2005, when the population was near its peak and considered healthy. Both factors are indicators of potential improvement in reproductive success, critical to increase overall moose numbers.
In 2005, when the moose population was healthy, 52% of all cow moose surveyed had a calf still alive in January. That number dropped as low as 32% in the worst years recently but rebounded to 45% in 2022, the 2022 survey found.
But the 2022 survey was conducted in January, still early in a winter that became so severe that even long-legged moose struggled to survive, Moore noted. Some areas of moose range had nearly three feet of snow on the ground well into spring.
“We lost most of our collared deer due to winter severity last winter. But we also lost probably 25% of our collared moose. They started going in April and were still dropping even into July … they just got so weak during winter they couldn’t recover and died,” Moore said. “I have a feeling that the (2023) moose survey is going to be back down again after seeing so much mortality after last winter.”
Moore wants to see a cooperative effort eventually agree to a Minnesota moose recovery zone — an experimental area where extra efforts would be tried to see if moose numbers can be increased. That would mean not only large-scale swaths of fires and logging, but also an ongoing effort to keep deer numbers very low as well as some sort of focused wolf management, at least short term, to give moose calves a fighting chance at growing up.
Moore said he believes the effort can work if obstacles are overcome.
“I have some hope. I think it’s possible to keep moose on our landscape, but we have to act soon,” Moore said. “The good news is that the (Minnesota) DNR seems to be reinvesting some time, energy and thought into moose again, and that hasn’t really happened for a while. We need the DNR, and the Forest Service, fully engaged to really make this work.”