A national wildlife protection group wants to place moose alongside the polar bear as a tragic symbol of climate change by petitioning the federal government to protect it under the Endangered Species Act.
Warming global temperatures are a driving factor in the sharp decline of moose numbers in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which Thursday asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review the animal’s status. Listing it would provide permanent protection against hunting and legal incentives to improve its habitat, the petition said.
“Under a warming climate, those habitats are shifting,” said Collette Adkins, a Minnesota attorney with the center. “It’s a contributing factor that intensifies other threats that moose are facing.”
Moose numbers have dropped sharply in northeastern Minnesota in recent years, and wildlife researchers have launched a series of ambitious projects to pinpoint the causes.
But at this point, state researchers said Thursday, there are still too many moose in the Midwest — 3,500 in Minnesota, 500 in Michigan, 1,000 on Isle Royale, and more in North Dakota and Wisconsin — to consider the species endangered or threatened.
More importantly, they said, the Endangered Species Act offers little protection for moose because there’s little or no hunting now and they are not under threat from development.
“There are very few mortality factors we can control,” said Lou Cornicelli, wildlife research manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Researchers have linked declining moose numbers to predation by bears and wolves and to diseases and parasites.
But the Midwest lies on the southern edge of the moose’s historic range in the boreal forest. And like any species on the edge of its range, as the climate warms they become more vulnerable to every threat they face — from hot summer days to a rising population of ticks that are surviving milder winters.
“It’s more indirect effects than simply the heat itself,” said Seth Moore, wildlife biologist for the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa Indians, who has been studying moose decline in northeast Minnesota. “But there are other ways to get attention on climate change.”
The petition cites the changing forest and the rising number of parasites and ticks as driven by climate change.
Adkins said the Endangered Species Act is one of the most powerful regulatory tools to protect species, and argued that the federal government should use it in setting climate change policy as well.
“Impacts on endangered species should be considered,” she said.
Increasingly, the Fish and Wildlife Service is facing that dilemma. The polar bear is a case in point.
It was listed as threatened in 2008 after the Center for Biological Diversity and other national groups petitioned for its protection because the polar ice the bears rely on for hunting is rapidly disappearing as a result of climate change. Initially, through the early part of its review, the agency did not highlight climate change as a critical factor in the listing. But by last week that had all changed. In its July 2 draft plan for protecting polar bears, the agency cited climate change and rising global temperatures as the leading factors behind melting polar ice.
“The single most important action for the recovery of polar bears is global reduction of atmospheric greenhouse gases,” it said in announcing the five-year, $13 million plan.
But whether climate becomes a critical factor in the listing decision for the moose could take years to decide. The Fish and Wildlife Service has several months to respond to the Center’s petition. If it finds enough evidence to support protection for the moose, it is likely to take many more months to weigh the research, and solicit more, before issuing a recommendation.