with Mitch Cox
*Note to the readers: The version of this inadvertently posted Monday February 25 was a draft. This is what I would like you to read and consider.*
Minnesota will not hold a moose hunt this year, following an aerial survey that indicated the state's moose population is crashing harder than previously feared. Minnesota moose numbers have been declining for decades, but not like this. The winter population estimate of 2,760 was down 35 percent in one year. As recently as seven years ago, the estimate was 8,840.
The state has held a moose hunt every year since 1971, and Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr stressed that the highly restricted if popular hunt had not caused the moose decline. Last year, bull-only permits were issued by lottery drawing to just 76 of 3,600 applicants. Forty-six moose were taken, an insignificant number in terms of overall population.
"Yet taking this action is reasonable and responsible in light of the latest data and an uncertain future," Landwehr was quoted in a release. "It's now prudent to control every source of mortality we can."
Better safe than sorry, right?
To try to get a handle on the situation, the Minnesota DNR launched a $1.24 million research project to determine what is killing off the moose. So far, about 100 have been fitted with tracking devices designed to signal researchers should the moose die, so the carcass can be located quickly and cause of death determined before decomposition and scavengers make that impossible. Then, hopefully, a common cause for most of the deaths will be found, and something may be done to save the remaining moose.
Sounds good, but I doubt it works out that way. Even if a common cause for most moose deaths is found, being able to prevent those deaths in a free-ranging herd will be much more problematic. The many natural processes that effect wildlife populations are interrelated, and such relationships are, well, complicated.
I don't fault Minnesota officials for trying to find out why the moose are dying, even though I doubt they are going to be able to do much about it. I've been wrong before. But the decision to cancel the hunt does seem a little knee-jerk, especially when the guy announcing it goes on to explain why it won't make any difference.
The elephant in the room, or in this case the moose leaving the woods, is climate change, what used to be called global warming. Google in "Minnesota moose and global warming" and read some of the speculation. The supposition is that since Minnesota is on the southern edge of western moose range, a warming climate must be shifting that line farther north. Some Minnesota DNR biologists believe as-yet-unidentified parasites, disease, or a combination of the two is likely to blame, a theory that dovetails nicely with global warming.
An outbreak of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease across the upper Midwest took a heavy toll on deer last year, and biologists believe summer heat and drought helped the infectious disease spread between animals gathered around dwindling waterholes. EHD is a well-known deer-killer but was always considered more of a problem in southern climes.
EHD is not suspected in the Minnesota moose decline. But could a warmer climate be making a different disease more virulent?
Then again, maybe not.
According to research posted on the Minnesota DNR website, while temperatures increased in the 1990s across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, moose numbers only declined in Minnesota and actually rose everywhere else. At that time, moose in northwestern Minnesota were crashing in a similar way to what is now happening with the remaining moose in the northeastern portion of the state.
Maine, at slightly more southerly latitude than Minnesota, reported a record hunter harvest of 2,895 moose last year from a thriving population estimated at 29,000. Last fall's Maine moose hunt was made even more enjoyable by unseasonably cool weather--following unseasonably warm weather the year before.
Yes, it's complicated.
Some say the state's growing wolf packs could be the problem. Again, there are reasons to believe this could be true. Wolf numbers are up, wolves do prey on moose, and when a moose carcass is found in Minnesota, it often shows signs of wolves feeding on it. But that doesn't mean the wolves killed the moose. Minnesota biologists already have investigated the possibility and concluded that, more often than not, the wolves are scavenging opportunistically on found carcasses.
"We know from previous studies that predation and hunting are not the primary causes of adult moose mortality," a release quoted Lou Cornicelli, Minnesota DNR wildlife research manager. "The decline is particularly troubling because, more often than not, we can't determine the primary cause of death."
As a boy growing up in central Ohio, I never saw a deer track -- much less a deer -- despite being outdoors year-round. The deer had been all but eliminated many years before. I didn't see my first Ohio deer until around 1970, when the herds were coming back. A few years after that, I saw deer beds for the first time, in a woodlot on my uncle Earl's farm. I also saw my first coyote that day, though I had no idea what it was at the time. I just knew it was too big and too blond to be a fox, and it didn't move like any dog I'd ever seen. By then, deer were not that rare, yet the idea of a coyote in central Ohio was just too much to wrap my head around.
As recently as 1988, the outdoor columnist for The Columbus Dispatch, the largest newspaper in central Ohio, still was speculating in print as to whether coyotes actually had been seen "mousing" around the airport. Today, coyotes are established in all 88 Ohio counties, and, around here, a road-kill coyote is about as common as a road-kill deer.
As the rise of the so-called Eastern coyote escalated, I heard a lot of speculation as to why coyotes were spreading so rapidly across a region as vast as the eastern United States. Our magazine's trapping editor attributed it to cutbacks in Western predator poisoning programs; I also heard speculation the coyote boom was being fueled by the somewhat simultaneous comeback of deer across the East.
No doubt less poison out West meant more coyotes to breed and disperse east, and coyotes do feed more heavily on eastern deer than was once believed. I doubt it was coincidence that I saw my first coyote working a deer bedding area. Yet those are just theories, impossible to prove and ultimately insufficient to fully explain what occurred.
At a trappers rendezvous I discussed all of this with a noted Alaska fur buyer. He told me about the oral history of a Native tribe that described hundred-year cycles of boom and bust in the caribou herds--cycles that biologists could not explain but that the region’s shorter historical record was starting to reflect. His theory was that observations by people acutely in tune with the natural world, accumulated and passed down from generation to generation, had revealed things that Western science could not explain any better than Native mysticism.
In a truly big picture view, what is happening in the northeast corner of Minnesota really doesn't make much difference. Worldwide, moose still appear to be doing fine on a warming globe. There are more than a million in North America, another million-plus in northern Europe. The species will likely adapt, as species are wont to do. And if it doesn't, well, there probably isn't a whole lot anyone is going to be able to do about it.
It is complicated.