MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota canceled its moose hunting season Wednesday, citing a precipitous decline in the moose population, as researchers try to get a handle on why the iconic symbol of the north woods appears to be faring worse here than elsewhere across its range.
The population has dropped 35 percent over the past year and 52 percent from 2010 to an estimated 2,760 moose left in northeastern Minnesota, according to the annual aerial survey conducted by the Department of Natural Resources in January. That's down from an estimated 4,230 moose last winter. Minnesota's moose numbers were estimated as high as 8,840 in 2006.
"So it's just a plummeting population here," DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr told reporters.
While moose might not die out completely in Minnesota, the population could be too small well before 2020 to accurately estimate, said Steve Merchant, the DNR's wildlife populations and regulations manager. He noted the big drop in just the past year.
"That's a steep slope, and it comes down to that – very few animals left, very shortly," Merchant said.
Researchers are conducting studies to better understand why moose are dying out in Minnesota. Scientists suspect some combination of higher temperatures, parasites, diseases, contact with deer and changes in forests in northeastern Minnesota. A separate moose herd in northwestern Minnesota is now so tiny that the DNR no longer conducts surveys there.
DNR officials said it isn't clear why moose are struggling more in some places than others. New England has a much larger moose population and the range there may be expanding, although numbers may be declining in some northeastern states. The population appears to be holding its own or growing in parts of North Dakota. But some Rocky Mountain states are experiencing declines. While Canada's moose population remains large, it's been falling across the border in Ontario.
While the decline in Minnesota seems precipitous compared to those elsewhere, Lou Cornicelli, the DNR's wildlife research manager, said the state keeps better population data than others so it's hard to say whether that's the case or how populations elsewhere are actually faring.
While Landwehr reiterated some scientists' opinion that Minnesota's small, bulls-only hunt has not been a factor in the population decline, he said it was prudent to suspend the hunt in light of the new data and the animals' uncertain future. State officials said they won't reopen hunting unless the population recovers.
Landwehr also said the DNR talking to the state's three Ojibwe bands about whether they'll continue their moose hunts, which they're entitled to do by treaty. The Fond du Lac, Grand Portage and Bois Forte bands killed a combined 36 moose last year.
"We don't anticipate there will be a biological impact from that," Landwehr said. "It's going to be up to the tribes how to proceed."
The DNR late last month launched a $1.2 million multi-year effort to capture and put tracking collars on 100 adult moose and 50 calves, and implant instruments in the digestive tracts of 27 of those adult moose to let researchers know when they die. The researchers hope to be able to get to those carcasses within 24 hours, before wolves and other scavengers make it impossible to determine the cause of death.
Lou Cornicelli, the DNR's wildlife research manager, said 91 adult moose had collars by Wednesday and 100 should have them by Friday or Saturday. The calves will be collared after they're born this spring.
Data from previous studies suggest that predation by wolves and bears has only a small effect on the adult moose population. Cornicelli said researchers hope to learn more from the new study about how predation affects calf survival rates.
Opposition to the moose hunt had been building in recent weeks. Three state senators introduced a bill Tuesday to impose a temporary moratorium on the moose season. The owner of an outfitting service at the end of the Gunflint Trail, in Minnesota's prime moose country, started an online petition drive last month to stop the hunt. It has collected over 700 signatures.