U.S. Fish & Wildlife considers putting Minnesota moose on endangered list

Brian Larsen

The Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add Minnesota’s moose—like this cow spotted in the Gunflint Trail area last week—to the animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. 
Photo by Nace Hagemann ~ The Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add Minnesota’s moose—like this cow spotted in the Gunflint Trail area last week—to the animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. Photo by Nace Hagemann ~ On June 2, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that Minnesota’s declining moose population might warrant protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The FWS response is to a petition filed last year by the Center for Biological Diversity citing the decline in Minnesota moose numbers from an estimated 8,840 in 2006 to less than 3,000 in 2013. The petition seeks federal protection to ensure moose survival.

“We are seeking endangered status for moose. The petition that we filed last summer asks for protection for moose in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Dakota,” said Collette Adkins, a Minneapolis-based attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. Adkins asserts that the special designation will lead to more resources that can help save the moose.

“The Endangered Species Act listing would lead to more money and research for moose. It would also lead to better habitat protections that would help moose cope with this warming world.

“Climate change is the largest threat. Listing the moose would highlight what we are at risk of losing from climate change. Endangered species should be considered when decision-makers are considering new projects that will emit greenhouse gases and further global warming.

“Moose are experiencing very steep population declines especially in Minnesota and I predict that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will eventually protect the moose but that it would likely take several years,” said Adkins.

The FWS may conduct a 12-month review of the status of the moose, but before doing so the service will seek comments from the public through August 2, 2016 to help in deciding whether or not to go forward with the Center for Biological Diversity’s request.

It’s not just climate change that wildlife researchers and scientists have been looking at, however. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) also conducted mosquito, flea and tick studies to see if they are contributing to the deaths. Researchers are also looking at food supply, predation, habitat, and brain worm which is caused by a parasitic nematode carried by white tail deer that infect moose and cause them to die, and other diseases that might be impacting them.

In response to the moose population decline, the Minnesota DNR has proposed to keep lower deer densities in the moose range.

“Fewer deer in the moose range minimizes the risk of parasites or disease spread by deer that harm or kill moose,” said Adam Murkowski, DNR big game program leader.

While the studies are ongoing, work has begun to improve the habitat for moose.

Partners in the Minnesota Moose Habitat Collaborative include the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Fond du Lac Band, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy, the Minnesota DNR, the University of Minnesota Duluth, the 1854 Treaty Authority, St. Louis County, Lake County and Cook County.

Funding for this project comes from the $2.96 million Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment’s Outdoor Heritage Fund. The goal is to restore high quality habitat across 8,500 acres of Minnesota’s prime moose territory.

Begun in 2013 and set to run through 2017, the collaborative’s goals include planting 2.5 million trees, as well as selected brush clearing, timber harvest and prescribed burns to allow regeneration of young trees.

The DNR also cancelled the moose hunt in 2013 and until the numbers come up, there are no plans to reopen it.

Biologists are also studying areas where the U.S. Forest Service has used prescribed burns to reduce fuel loads, monitoring burned over acres to see what effect the new growth has on the health of moose. Moose prefer to browse in young, new growth areas, preferring to eat cedar and fir trees.

There has also been a renewed call to bring back GPS radio collar tracking devices placed on adults.

In April 2015 Governor Mark Dayton, who was concerned that collaring seemed to cause unnecessary deaths, especially in newborn calves, called for and received a ban on collaring. Last year Grand Portage called on the governor to reverse the ban, citing the importance of gathering more pertinent information in the study of what is causing moose to die.

Glen DelGiudice, Ph.D., led the calf study for the state. When asked about the governor’s stance on collaring moose, DelGiudice responded, “As far as we know, the governor has not reconsidered removing the ban on collaring moose, and I’m not aware that the Grand Portage petition or letter has had any effect.

“Presently, there are no moose calves collared; however, we have been able to continue the calf study (estimating calf production, survival, and specific causes of mortality) by intense computer-monitoring for the movements of 34 GPS-collared adult females, and then doing field confirmation of the calving activity and mortality events of the calves,” he said.

While there have been no more moose collared since the governor’s edict, “We have 52 collared adult moose still actively transmitting in our adult mortality study,” said DelGiudice.

“Unfortunately, collar failure rates have been high and we have lost the ability to actively monitor about 50 moose since our study began in 2013,” said Michelle Carstensen, Ph.D. Wildlife Health Program supervisor, DNR.

“We’ve been scheduling flights to look for the missing moose from their VHF signal and have been successful in remotely blowing off several of these collars, but we continue to try to find the others. The collar company predicted batteries to be able to last 4-5 years, but we are far short of that timeline in a majority of the collars.”

Scientists like the collars because they can keep track of where moose are and where they have been. If something happens to a moose the scientists will soon know what has caused the problem. GPS tracking devices on collars send researchers six locations of each moose each day, as well as the ambient air temperature. If a moose doesn’t move for six hours researchers will text its location every 30 minutes for the next six hours so DNR staff can track the animal.

The goal is to locate moose that have died within 24 hours so they can be brought back and studied to determine what caused their death. If the moose is too big or too far away to retrieve, a necropsy is conducted in the field.

As far as the petition for the Center for Biological Diversity, if the FWS places the moose on the endangered list, DelGiudice said, “It’s way too early to tell how such a designation could affect our research.” But for Adkins, she said the move would be a step in the right direction to help save Minnesota’s iconic moose.

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