ST. PAUL, Minn. - The fire still smoldering in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness should give a boost in the long-run to the region's declining moose population, but it's a big problem for hunters who were registered for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to bag a bull moose this fall.
The Pagami Creek fire east of Ely has kept hunters out of the area and left them unable to scout it ahead of the season that opens Saturday. So the Department of Natural Resources is offering them refunds for the cost of their highly coveted permits. The plan is to give those hunters permits for next season.
Some 6,000 hunters entered the lottery for moose-hunt permits this year. The DNR issued only 105. Hunters who win permits normally don't get to apply again, whether they get a moose or not, and the future of moose hunting in the state is in question. Under rules proposed by the DNR, 2013 could be the last year Minnesota allows moose hunting if certain population markers don't improve over the next two years.
The fire has scattered quarry, changed the landscape and forced closures in ways that make the challenge for hunters even harder.
"It's a game-changer," said Steve Merchant, wildlife program manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. "If you went up on a trip or scouted an area and thought you had a pattern figured out, those moose are somewhere else now."
Only 12 of the state's 20 moose-hunting zones are affected by the fire, and only one was still off-limits.
But the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports moose hunting in northeastern Minnesota is as much about the effort as the hunt itself. Bull moose roam large expanses of remote terrain, and hunting parties often venture deep into the backcountry to track an animal before the season starts. Merchant said he wasn't sure hunters would think they had enough time to scout their areas. Adding to the challenges — and the adventure — hunters who shoot a moose in the backcountry must field dress an animal weighing more than 1,000 pounds and then transport it several miles by foot and/or canoe before the meat spoils.
Researchers are still trying to figure out why northeastern Minnesota's moose population has fallen from about 8,000 moose during the middle of the last decade to less than 5,000 now. Parasites and stress from warmer temperatures are possibilities. Experts say it's unlikely that the Pagami Creek fire killed significant numbers of moose because the animals can walk long distances and are good swimmers.
"They're going to run from the fire," said Ron Moen, a researcher at the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth who monitors dozens of moose that have been fitted with radio collars and GPS units. Moen told Minnesota Public Radio he expects moose will soon move into areas that weren't burned as severely as new saplings and shrubs emerge in place of the older, woodier trees and shrubs consumed by the fire.
Mike Schrage, a biologist with the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe, said he's noticed that the fire area held fewer moose compared with other areas of northeastern Minnesota. He said the regrowth of the forest over the next few years could change that.
"As soon as I heard there was a fire up there, I thought — woo-hoo! I can't say that very loudly because there's people in Isabella (a town near the fire) who are quite inconvenienced by it, but I think moose will benefit from this fire," Schrage said.
Schrage said research across North America indicates that moose numbers increase in areas where fires cause new growth. He said he's seen anecdotal evidence of that in areas in and near the BWCA that burned during the Ham Lake fire of 2007 and the Cavity Lake fire of 2006.
How well suited the forest will be for moose may depend on how hot or how long the fire burned in any particular area.
Merchant expects the affected land will be a mix of areas that didn't burn and areas that burned a lot. That means that in a few years, moose will have both new growth for food while less-burned and untouched areas where tall trees still stand will offer cover against the winter cold and summer heat. "That interspersion is what really creates that ideal moose habitat," Merchant said.