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Minnesota moose population continues to decline

A sick cow moose tries to get up when approached by biologists along the Echo Trail in November 2008. The moose, reported by deer hunters, had been unable to rise for two to three days before biologists arrived and euthanized her. Later, the moose was determined to have brainworm, a disease that proves fatal to moose. (Photo by Mike Schrage)

On a July evening a few years ago, a massive bull moose wallowed belly-deep in a small stream in the canoe country north of Ely. Facing the other direction, he had no idea a canoe was silently slipping up behind him. He kept dipping for the stems of water lilies and chewing them in the rich evening light.

We approached so closely that the 17-year-old in the bow of the canoe began backpaddling. He looked over his shoulder and shot me a silent glance that told me we were too close to that moose.

He probably was right.

I doubt that he will ever forget the moment. Thousands of others have had equally memorable encounters with Minnesota moose. But sadly, those encounters are growing less and less frequent.

The latest survey of Minnesota's moose, released 10 days ago, brought more bad news. The population of Minnesota moose, perhaps the most iconic of all north woods creatures, had dropped again.

The population has been declining for several years, but recent developments are cause for more concern.

"When you get a population with low adult survival and low cow-calf counts, that's when you're in trouble. That's where we are now," Mark Lenarz, the forest wildlife and populations group leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, told the News Tribune.

The current population in Northeastern Minnesota is estimated at 4,900 animals, down from 5,500 last year and down from a high of 8,000 to 9,000 animals. The ratio of calves to cows is at a record low of 24 calves per 100 cows, according to the DNR's aerial survey. The ratio of bulls to cows, historically one-to-one, is has dropped to 64 bulls per 100 cows.

In Northwestern Minnesota, the moose population has dwindled from several thousand in the 1980s to fewer than 100 now.

"On an optimistic day, I think we can do a lot more to change the direction things are going," said Mike Schrage, a wildlife biologist with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and a member of the state's Moose Advisory Committee. "I think we know a lot and could be doing a lot more."

And on other days?

"On my pessimistic days, I'm not sure we can turn it around," Schrage said.

The state's long-awaited moose management plan is due out for public review in a couple of weeks, said Lou Cornicelli, the DNR's big game program coordinator.

"It's not going to be a prescription for recovering the moose population," Cornicelli said. "It may be something that's out of our hands."

The problems facing moose are multi-faceted. Predators such as wolves and bears take some moose. Published papers say a warming climate also stresses moose. And unexplained diseases take a toll.

"In the past eight years, a third (of radio-collared moose found dead) have tipped over without a mark on them, absolutely untouched by wolves," Schrage said.

In addition, prime-age moose 4 to 9 years old have been killed by wolves, Schrage said.

A limited state and tribal hunting season also takes about 150 bull moose each fall, a number that biologists say does not have a significant effect on the overall population.

The state's Moose Advisory Committee presented its recommendations to the DNR 18 months ago, but a management plan has been slow to evolve.

"It's taken way longer than it should have," Cornicelli conceded.