A three-year hunting reprieve for Minnesota's struggling moose population has come to an end this fall with the planned shooting of 38 bulls by three Chippewa Indian tribes.

Twenty-five of those moose already have been killed by members of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in a legal hunt that went against the wishes of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Now the state is negotiating with the Grand Portage and Bois Forte bands for significantly smaller, ceremonial hunts expected to take place before year's end. The targeting of moose in 2016 ends a three-year period when state and tribal game managers stopped moose hunting in the face of an alarming population decline in the state's Arrowhead region.

"We just don't feel it's appropriate to hunt moose in this time when they have declined significantly," said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife populations program manager.

While there has been no public furor over the renewed harvest of antlered moose by Indian hunters — a practice that state and tribal game managers agree will not threaten the Minnesota herd — the Fond du Lac hunt has added to existing natural resource friction between the state and Indian communities.

Last month, Gov. Mark Dayton and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr were strongly rebuked by Minnesota and Wisconsin Chippewa bands for deliberately exceeding the state's 2016 allotment of Mille Lacs walleyes.

Seth Moore, director of biology and environment for the Grand Portage band, said there is no connection between the moose and walleye issues.

He said the 2013-2015 moose hunting hiatus stemmed from sociological concern at a time when uncertainty surrounded a plunge in the state's moose population. From a peak of 8,840 moose surveyed in 2006, the DNR now estimates the population to be under 4,000 animals. Brainworm transmitted by deer is viewed as a prime contributor to the decline, but ticks, predation by wolves and bears, and climate change also have taken a toll.

Endangered or not

So delicate was the issue of moose mortality last year that Dayton ordered DNR researchers to stop hanging radio collars on moose after news surfaced that some collared calves perished from the stress of capture.

Eighteen months later, Moore is saying the cultural importance of a subsistence moose hunt overrides public sensitivities. That's because game managers now believe the state's moose population has stabilized, adult moose mortality is low and calf survival is "reasonable," Moore said.

"We've been sacrificing the hunt for the benefit of the moose population, but it doesn't have a population effect."

Continuing to cancel fall moose hunts would do more harm than good, Moore said, because it puts undue focus on a cause of moose mortality that doesn't detract from the overall population. Moose breeding isn't limited when a statistically safe number of bulls are harvested, biologists have said.

But Merchant said there are other valid reasons not to hunt moose at this time, including overwhelming public opinion and an ongoing federal review to possibly list the moose as an endangered species in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Fond du Lac band officials did not answer questions about the hunt.

The push to add moose to the endangered species list came in large part from The Center for Biological Diversity, a national non-profit. But the center, too, would not comment on the renewed hunting of Minnesota moose by Indians.

"The center isn't going to weigh in on that issue,'' said Collette Adkins, senior attorney for the group.

Susan Thornton, executive director of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), said she checked with the DNR about the Fond du Lac moose hunt after more than one member of the commission asked if the state could stop it. The LCCMR has been a major funding source for moose population research, and Chippewa tribes have been partners on LCCMR wildlife projects.

Merchant said the DNR urged the Fond du Lac Band not to authorize a moose hunt, but the tribe chose to exercise its sovereign hunting and fishing rights. The Fond du Lac hunt opened Sept. 24 and ended Friday when members hit the limit of 25 tagged bulls. Three more bulls will be killed by the tribe for community needs, the band has told the DNR.

Research benefit

Under a 1988 agreement, the state has been paying the Bois Forte and Grand Portage bands to limit their moose harvest and conduct seasons at the same time as the state. Merchant said current moose hunting talks with the two bands are outside of the 1988 agreement. He said the state is close to allowing them a total of 10 moose kills under a scientific and educational permit for "ceremonial'' purposes.

"We think the ceremonial taking of 10 additional moose is not a biological threat to the state's moose population,'' Merchant said.

One of the bulls killed this fall near Grand Marais was wearing a DNR radio collar that had stopped working in December 2015. Two DNR wildlife researchers said the collar was quickly handed over to the agency and the hunter gave the agency access to the gut pile and bones and a tooth for testing purposes.

Michelle Carstensen and Dawn Plattner of the DNR's Wildlife Health Program, said the moose's body was in thin condition in January 2013 when it was first collared. But it had grown healthy and died with trophy-sized antlers.