The plight of Minnesota’s declining moose may not be quite so dire after all.
This winter’s annual survey by the Department of Natural Resources found an estimated 4,350 — considerably more than the 2,760 reported last year, and about the same number that were counted in 2012.
That doesn’t mean they are out of the woods, state officials said. Mostly it means that this year’s widespread snow cover made it easier to see moose from the air, producing a more accurate count.
“The higher estimate this winter likely is related to ideal survey conditions rather than any actual increase in the population,” said Lou Cornicelli, wildlife research manager for the department.
In a separate research project, scientists this month used helicopters and tranquilizer guns to put collars on 36 adults moose to track their movements. They will replace moose that died during the first year of study, bringing the total number back up to 100.
Researchers also collared 50 calves in the springtime, and expect to collar more again this year.
So far, they said, a fifth of the adults have died — with predators, infections, parasites, or injuries listed as causes. And 74 percent of the calves died, a number that surprised researchers. The greatest number of calf deaths were attributed to wolves and bears. But another 11 died as a result of being collared: Nine were abandoned by their mothers, one died after the mother stepped on it during the collaring attempt, and the 11th died for unknown reasons.
Researchers want to find 30 moose that could be fitted with devices that measure ambient and body temperatures to determine whether heat stress from higher average summer temperatures is playing a role in their demise. The climate may also be playing an indirect role by encouraging the number and type of parasites that prey on moose.
But for now, at least, hunters will not reduce their numbers. Last year the DNR canceled the moose hunt even though, officials said, killing only a limited number of bulls, as the law allows, does not hurt the overall population. DNR officials said Friday that no decision will be made on the hunt until they consult the affected Chippewa bands in the 1854 Treaty ceded territory of northeastern Minnesota.
Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said he believes hunters will support a continued suspension of the moose hunt for the same reasons they supported it last year.
“It was the one thing they could do,” he said.