Numerous moose sightings surprise Minnesota researchers
From the Boundary Waters, where moose are common, to northwestern Minnesota, where they were thought to be nearly extinct, Minnesotans are reporting more moose sightings than researchers expected.
More than 500 moose have been reported, and more than 440 locations mapped -- backed up by more than 200 photographs -- in the 11 months since the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute asked the public to report moose sightings.
Not only are we seeing more moose, we're seeing them in areas outside the traditional moose range, said Ron Moen, a wildlife researcher with the NRRI.
"If we can get this many reports in just 11 months, in so many places we really didn't expect people to see many moose, we probably have more than we think,'' said Moen, noting that 40 percent of the reports have come from outside the area the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources looks for moose during population surveys.
"These reports don't replace (scientific research), but they can help fill in some gaps and offer some new ideas on what we need to do next,'' he said.
While some public wildlife sightings are treated with skepticism, such as reports of cougars that turn out to be dogs or smaller cats, Moen said "it's pretty hard to mistake a moose for anything else.''
The DNR broadly estimates there are about 6,000 moose in the core moose survey area in Cook, Lake and northeastern St. Louis County. But Moen said that number doesn't reflect any moose to the west. And, clearly, there are some moose to the west.
"Minnesota's moose population clearly is larger than the number of moose reported from the annual survey area,'' Moen said. "We really don't know how much larger.''
Yet Mark Lenarz, who heads the DNR's Forest Wildlife Populations and Research Group, called the public reports interesting but of little statistical value.
"If people see a moose in the Boundary Waters, it's something they expect to see, it's not something they would feel compelled to report, so we probably won't get as many reports from there as you might expect,'' he said. "On the other hand, there are so few moose in the northwest now that people are going to be more likely to report it. So any comparison likely isn't very realistic.''
Also, Lenarz said, there are always pockets of moose outside of the usual moose range.
Still, Moen is intrigued by moose sightings in Koochiching, Itasca, northern Aitkin and western St. Louis Counties, an area where dozens of moose have been reported well outside the traditional moose survey range.
No one knows if moose are hanging on, expanding or declining in that area because they aren't counted there.
About 11 percent of all moose reported by the public have come from northwestern Minnesota, where wildlife managers believed moose were nearly extinct. A combination of factors, likely spurred by rising temperatures over the past 25 years, reduced that area's moose population from more than 4,000 in the 1980s to about 84 animals when the DNR last checked in 2007. That's so few moose that it is impossible to conduct a scientific population survey.
But Moen said there now appears to be pockets of moose hanging on, possibly even increasing, in northwestern Minnesota.
"This clearly isn't scientific. But it gives us some indication that moose are persisting at some level in that area,'' Moen said. "It's not likely that people are seeing half or even 25 percent of the moose up there. ... That's 200 animals up there on the low end, and that's double what was last estimated.''
Moen said researchers now should attempt to track moose, using radio or GPS collars, and find out what habitat in northwestern Minnesota is holding the most moose.
"We may able to find out what they are getting in those areas that they couldn't across most of that area and maybe figure out a way to bring them back,'' he said.
Along with the crash of northwestern Minnesota moose, Northeastern Minnesota moose have been gradually declining over the past 10 years. Scientists don't fully know why.
Lenarz said the public sightings aren't enough to determine whether northwestern Minnesota moose may be hanging on. But he said the DNR will go back into the area after five or 10 years and find a way to see if the remaining population is hanging on or increasing.
"We'll go back in, not every year, but at some point to see what's left up there,' Lenarz said. The public reports "may well be different people seeing the same moose.''