Worried that Minnesota's iconic North Woods moose population could be doomed, the state Department of Natural Resources is proposing an end to recreational deer feeding in northeast Minnesota and the possible closure of moose hunting.

But neither step may be enough to keep moose from vanishing from Minnesota.

"If we don't do anything, the end point [for moose] is fairly certain,'' said Lou Cornicelli, DNR big game program leader.

The proposals are part of a long-term moose management plan released by the DNR this week. The plan offers those strategies and others, including improving habitat and boosting research, to try to reverse the decline in the moose population.

But no one knows what factors led to the decline. Climate and habitat changes, parasites, impacts from deer and predation all could be causes.

About 5,000 moose roamed northeast Minnesota last winter. In the northwest, the population has dropped from 4,000 to fewer than 100.

Recreational deer feeding is common in northern Minnesota, and Cornicelli said that tends to concentrate deer, which can spread diseases and parasites, such as brainworm, to moose. The plan suggests a deer-feeding ban in the state's primary moose range, which includes the entire Arrowhead region. An 18-person moose advisory group made the same recommendation two years ago.

"If you want to pick a controversial topic, that's going to be it,'' Cornicelli said. "People like to feed deer. They feel deer feeding helps the population. But are they doing it to the detriment of moose?"

Feeding deer exposes them to disease, creates unnatural concentrations, increases deer-vehicle collisions and can destroy vegetation, he said. "There's a laundry list of reasons why you shouldn't feed deer,'' Cornicelli said. And, he said, deer don't need the supplemental food.

The plan recommends keeping deer densities in the moose range below 10 deer per square mile -- a level already achieved in all but one permit area.

It's unclear whether the DNR could impose the deer-feeding ban or if it needs legislative approval.

"The real question is, do we want moose in Minnesota?'' asked Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and a member of the moose advisory group. "And if we do, there's a whole bunch of things we need to do, and one of those is not feeding deer. That probably won't sit well with some of our members.'' The association hasn't taken a formal position.

Hunting isn't believed to be responsible for the long-term moose decline -- hunters kill fewer than 200 bulls each fall -- but the plan sets thresholds for closing the season if the decline continues.

"Hunting isn't what's driving the population,'' Cornicelli said. About 6,000 hunters will apply for the 105 licenses available this fall, down from 213 licenses last year. They likely will kill about 50 moose.

A problem with ending hunting is that hunters pay for most of the state's moose studies and management. Moose hunters generated $90,000 in license and application fees.

"Moose management is disproportionately paid for by hunting license fees, even though moose are important to state tourism and recreation and to the non-hunting public,'' the plan states.

Officials also don't believe wolves are responsible for the moose decline. "All the research we've done shows very few adult moose are killed by wolves,'' Cornicelli said.

Doug Smith • 612-673-7667