Like many Minnesotans who go up north, Robin Johnson of Eden Prairie has fond memories of driving along the Gunflint Trail and seeing moose.

Now that moose population is in steep decline, and she feels it's her purpose to protect the animal she calls "Minnesota's Wilderness Symbol."

"There are a lot of people like me who don't want to see the moose disappear from this state. People who love the Boundary Waters love paddling along and seeing a moose."

Johnson, owner of Sweet Retreat in Edina, has established "Save Minnesota Moose," the first and only citizen's group that focuses on raising money for researchers working in Grand Marais and Ely, Minn.

The company is hosting a fundraiser Saturday that will donate $1 from each cupcake sold to help pay for the equipment researchers need to figure out why moose are dying at such a rapid pace.

"There has been an unbelievable decline in our moose population since 2006," she said. "They are dying at a 20 percent rate annually, and it's dropped from 8,000 moose in 2006 to 4,000 this year."

Disease, climate causes?

It's not known why moose are dying, but researchers believe diseases, parasites and climate change are in play.

"Signs indicate that it's likely health-related," said Erika Butler, wildlife veterinarian for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "We are trying to figure out what diseases are playing a role here."

Butler said it appears the diseases are transmitted via hosts such as mosquitoes or snails.

"When we have shorter winters and longer summers, that allows more of these diseases to be out on the landscape," Butler said.

With the use of GPS collars, researchers are able to monitor the movement of moose by satellite. Once a moose dies, researchers know the location and can send a team to investigate the death within 24 hours.

The DNR research team had collared 31 moose since the project began in January. Each moose that is collared will be tracked for the next six years.

Butler said she and her team are very excited about Johnson's efforts to help.

"Many people aren't aware that our moose [are] declining at such a rapid pace," she said. "I think it's good to bring attention to it and allow people an opportunity to contribute."

Moose used to roam most of the northern third of the state. But Butler said that over the span of 15 years, the moose population in northwestern Minnesota went from 4,000 to fewer than 100. The northeastern part of the state is on the same track, she said.

Goal: $2,000

Johnson said that she hopes to raise $2,000 in cupcake sales at her fundraiser Saturday and that all of the money raised will go toward the project. The collars, immobilization drugs, helicopter flights, cameras and other equipment needed to conduct the research are very expensive, she said.

"I really want to focus on raising money to help the researchers because they just don't have enough money," she said.

Johnson said that she plans to host an event at Sweet Retreat four times a year and that she won't stop fundraising until researchers can figure out why the moose are dying. She also will have a donation bucket at her bakery and can accept online donations at anytime.

"There are so many organizations that are always asking for money and to help, and it's really hard to pick," Johnson said. "But this one, I feel, isn't anything extra out of your pocket."

Social media efforts

Along with her new website, www.saveminnesotamoose. org, Johnson will use her organization's social media pages to promote fundraising events and to inform supporters of the DNR's progress.

In order to keep the public updated on the DNR project, University of Minnesota Duluth graduate student Amanda McGraw is developing a Facebook page dedicated to moose management research in Minnesota.

"The goal is to provide the public with a central location to access moose information," McGraw said. "I think there is a huge interest for moose in general, what they represent by being an icon."

McGraw said the Facebook page will provide links to project websites that people may not know about or that they may have trouble finding, as well as links to news stories from a variety of media outlets.

The page will be affiliated with the university but is McGraw's personal project aside from her research on moose habitat, including their food. The page also will include photo albums, notes of field activity and DNR research updates.

"I have really seen the response of the public and how interested they are in the moose," McGraw said. "It's important to get the word out to those interested publics. I'd just like to keep them interested."

Candice Wheeler is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.