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Disappearing Minnesota Moose may get listing as species of 'concern'

Ben Anderson
Denali National Park photo via Flickr

Alaskans may take moose for granted. There are hundreds of thousands of the massive, half-ton ungulates wandering the state’s wide open spaces, so we don’t really give them a second thought -- except when one wanders into our backyard or crosses the road in front of us. But in Minnesota, a dwindling moose population has prompted the state's Department of Natural Resources to recommend the moose be labeled a “species of special concern” under the state’s endangered species protections.

That could clear the way for the Minnesota moose to eventually be listed as threatened or endangered if the population continues to fall. 

The suggested status still has to be approved, and officials say such a listing shouldn’t hurt Minnesota's relatively meager annual moose hunt. The moose would be just one of 67 animals and 114 plants recommended for endangered species consideration in the state.

Minnesota's moose population is at all-time lows. In the Northeast region of the state, populations have dropped sharply since 2005, when an aerial survey estimated a little more than 8,000 moose in the region. By 2012, that number had dropped to 4,230. Things were even more dire in the northwest, where fewer than 100 moose are estimated to remain.

And the culprit of choice among state officials? Not hunting. Not predation. Rather, climate change.

“Warming temperatures have been correlated with the decline of the northwestern Minnesota moose population, and high temperatures have been correlated with higher mortality observed in the northeastern Minnesota population,” the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said in its recommendation to list the species.

Scott Pengelly, spokesman for the department, said climate change isn’t the only detriment faced by Minnesota moose. He noted that parasites such as the winter tick -- which Alaska moose don’t have to worry about -- have been a problem for moose in the area.

“We’re definitely seeing early signs of climate change,” Pengelly said. “So that combined with a lot of other factors may be contributing to the decline.”

Interestingly, very little is made of moose predation. Nevertheless, as Minnesota's moose population has fallen “precipitously” -- as one DNR employee put it -- the state's wolf population has increased.

That’s thanks in large part to the gray wolf’s own protections provided under the Endangered Species Act. For decades, Minnesota had liberal wolf hunting and trapping regulations, which helped limit the population to an estimated 350-700 animals. By 2008, however, about 3,000 wolves were believed to live in the state.

Wolves are now actively managed under predator-control programs in Minnesota. Up to 400 animals are expected to be killed this year. Interestingly, in the northwest part of the state, where the moose population is most threatened, only 49 wolves have been killed out of a quota of 187. Statewide, about half of the quota of 400 has been met with less than two months remaining in the season.

Predator control programs are still contentious in Alaska, but neither moose nor wolves have ever been listed as endangered in the state. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates the number of wolves in Alaska as between 7,000 and 11,000, with as many as 200,000 moose.

Alaska's moose have problems of their own, though. Hundreds of moose are killed every year on Alaska's roads in collisions with vehicles, and moose on the Kenai Peninsula may have a hard time getting through winter this year after starting the season weaker than normal.

Contact Ben Anderson ben(at)alaskadispatch.com