With Minnesota’s moose population on the decline, several conservation groups are teaming up with government agencies to help the animals survive by enhancing the habitat that’s critical to their survival.
During a backwoods tour Wednesday, a caravan carrying conservation officials and a gaggle of reporters bumped along a road deep into the forest near Finland, Minn., to see the project in action.
First stop: roadside evidence of moose — browsed aspen and the print of a cloven hoof on the mud.
Thriving moose populations traditionally had large areas of disturbed forest, where fires and logging would clear room for the new growth that moose need, said Ron Moen, a researcher at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
But timber harvesting has dwindled. And with fewer naturally occurring fires, the forest has lost the low, young growth where moose like to browse.
“What this project is doing is providing additional forage for the moose across their entire range,” Moen said.
Northeastern Minnesota’s moose population is down about 60 percent from 2006, to roughly 3,450 in the latest count. Scientists are still trying to understand why, but they suspect interplay among warmer temperatures, parasites, disease and changing forest habitat. The state suspended moose hunting in 2013.
To restore moose habitat, the Minnesota Moose Habitat Collaborative will use prescribed burns, selective logging, brush-cutting and the planting of about 2.5 million trees to provide better food and cover across 8,500 acres of Minnesota’s prime moose territory. The project is aided by nearly $3 million from the state’s Legacy Amendment sales tax.
Justin Mayne, a forester who is running a portion of the project for Lake County, pointed out a stand of aspen trees that are getting bigger. Soon they would be cleared away, leaving a stand of tall pine as an island among low new growth that moose love.
The changes would be “good for logging and wildlife,” he said. “It’s land management that is ecologically minded.”
A bit farther along the road, the group stopped to watch a work crew plant cedars and fir trees, species that moose prefer to eat.
Officials don’t expect the project to reverse the decline by itself. But Chris Dunham, forest manager for the Nature Conservancy, said restoring high-quality moose habitat is one area where they have the power to make a difference.
The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association took the lead in organizing the initiative, partnering with federal, state, county and tribal agencies, UMD and the Nature Conservancy.
“You might ask, will any of this make a difference?” said Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota deer association. “I’ll say what I always say to that: We have to try.”
Staff writer Josephine Marcotty contributed to this report.