It is nearly inconceivable, isn’t it? Ten thousand lakes and the vast expanse of our North Woods, but not a single wading or meandering moose to be found. Unthinkable. Minnesota without moose is like Paul Bunyan without Babe the Blue Ox. Like a gluten-free Pillsbury Doughboy. Like Rocky without Bullwinkle.
And yet, that is the trajectory we are on — that the moose is on. In Minnesota and throughout North America, moose populations are in crisis and are rapidly collapsing. The New York Times reports that one of Minnesota’s two distinct moose populations has all but disappeared in the last 20 years. The second population, found in the northeastern part of the state, is losing 25 percent of its population annually and is down from 8,000 to fewer than 3,000.
At this rate of decline, those of us not yet grandparents will only have stories to tell our grandchildren about the ungainly yet beautiful beast that once roamed our woods. We will struggle to explain how a Minnesota icon became a Minnesota myth. Our grandchildren will never have the opportunity, as we have had, to actually encounter one of nature’s grandest creatures.
And how breathtaking those encounters have been.
I moved from Chicago to Minnesota in the 1980s in large part because living in the Twin Cities allowed me to work in a thriving metropolitan community while also offering ready access to the wonders of the woods. It wouldn’t be altogether wrong to say that I moved to Minnesota in order to be closer to moose. Although moose have not likely shared my sentiment, they have never let me down in their capacity to thrill.
I first made the acquaintance of the Minnesota moose on a camping trip to Isle Royale in the mid-1980s. Two of my brothers joined me on this trip in the hope of catching a glimpse of wolf or moose — predator or very worthy prey, compelled to contend with each other on a spit of land only 45 miles long. On a crisp and crystal morning on our third day on the island, we had our close encounter.
As we huddled around a fire brewing coffee, we were startled fully awake by a wild-eyed adolescent bull charging directly through our campsite and nearly, in his haste, knocking over our coffee pot. A wolf, we surmised, must have been hot on the trail of our terrorized visitor. In an unpredictable instant, we had each glimpsed the soul of a wild animal terrified by its own wild existence.
This was but the first of several magnificent Minnesota moose encounters I have had over many years. Another nearly cost me my marriage.
While on a Boundary Waters trip, my spouse-to-be took our canoe on her shoulders and set out ahead of me on a half-mile portage with the instruction to meet her in case she needed help with the unwieldy canoe. I gathered our packs and kept pace just behind, until a moose disrupted the plan.
As I followed the portage trail next to a stream bed, I saw a ripple midstream that widened to wave as a mature female emerged dripping from the stream’s bottom, where she had been feeding. I froze and took a knee as she chewed, not 10 yards from me. I was close enough to see her nostrils flare, to hear her drawing deep, snorting breaths, and to see the black-and-brown shading on her flank. Sensing that I may never again be as close to an animal of her size in the wild, I watched, riveted, as she submerged again and again to forage.
Only after the black flies started biting was I reminded of my neglected duty. I sprang awkwardly with my load to the portage end where I found my fiancée, still with the canoe on her shoulders, unable to remove it alone, and also the object of the black flies’ desire.
Although our relationship (barely) survived our encounter with a moose, it is far less clear that the moose will survive. There are many factors contributing to its calamitous demise, but all of them — substantially shorter winters, loss of habitat, ticks, brain worms and other parasites thriving in a warmer moister environment — almost certainly stem from climate change.
And the plight of our moose is not the only alarm sounding from the forest. The Audubon Society reports that many bird species are moving out and northward, some by an anticipated average of 35 miles over the next 40 years. Not to mention that the woods themselves are under severe climate stress. Experts believe that the border where prairie meets north woods in Minnesota may, due to global warming, shift up to 300 miles northward before the end of this century.
None of this bodes well for the landscape and wildlife that define our Minnesota lives — that to many of us define what Minnesota is. None of this bodes well for our grandchildren. Although the insidious impacts of warming are taking place everywhere on our planet, it may be no more apparent at the moment than right here at home, where the climate-change canary isn’t in a coal mine and isn’t a canary. It is in our woods. It is a moose. And it is dying.
Bill O’Brien is a lawyer in Minneapolis.