The annual Department of Natural Resources aerial moose survey is complete and the results are promising.
While there hasn’t been an increase in the number of moose in northeastern Minnesota, the DNR is reporting that the population is stabilizing, which continues a trend they’ve seen the past few years.
That’s good news considering the rapid decline of the population since 2006. That year the DNR reported an estimated 8,840 moose in northeastern Minnesota.
This year’s estimate is 3,710.
“At this point, results do not indicate that moose are recovering in northeastern Minnesota, ” said Glenn DelGiudice, DNR moose project leader said in a news release. “While it is encouraging to see that the decline in the population since 2012 has not been as steep, the apparent stability does not allow us to forecast the direction of the population’s trajectory into the future. ”
According to the DNR, each year the agency conducts an aerial survey in northeastern Minnesota to estimate the moose population and to monitor and assess changes in the overall status of the state’s largest deer species. The surveys have been conducted each year since 1960 in the northeast.
The goals are to estimate moose abundance, percent calves, and calf/cow and bull/cow ratios and then use that information to better understand the population’s long-term trend (decreasing, stable, or increasing), composition, and distribution; set the harvest quota for the subsequent State hunting season (when applicable) ; improve understanding of moose ecology; and contribute to sound future management strategies.
The survey is done by flying over survey plots that cover the full extent of moose range in northeastern Minnesota
This year the survey was conducted from Jan. 5 to Jan. 14 and included 8 actual survey days, the same as 2014, 2015, and 2016.
It included a sample of 52 survey plots.
According to DNR information, the 2017 aerial moose survey estimate of 3,710 moose in the northeastern part of the state is statistically unchanged from last year’s estimate of 4,020.
Again, good news but not a sign that the population is going to recover to previous numbers or even continue the current trend.
The DNR is continuing to research causes of a the moose population decline that started about a decade ago.
And while research suggests the recent signs of stability could have resulted from higher calf survival, much remains unknown.
What is known, according to the DNR: Factors including infections, parasites and other health issues are killing moose and predisposing them to being preyed on by wolves.
· Each year the population estimate is compared to 2006, because the state’s highest moose population estimate of 8,840 occurred that year. Currently, northeastern Minnesota’s moose population is estimated to be 58 percent lower than in 2006.
· The DNR’s moose mortality research project shows that survival of adult moose has remained between 85 and 88 percent from 2014 to 2016, a bit higher than the average of 81 percent during 2002 to 2008, and 81 percent in 2013.
· Wolves do prey on healthy adult moose and calves, although research data have indicated modestly higher calf survival in the past couple of years compared to 2013, which may be contributing to the population’s recent apparent stability.
· Adjustments were made in 2005 to make the survey more accurate and annual results more comparable.
Tower Area DNR Wildlife Manager Tom Rusch, who has spent the past 15 years as an observer and NE MN moose survey coordinator, agrees that there are reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic about this year’s results.
Rusch said large wild fires (Cavity, Ham Lake, Pagami Creek, Winchell Lake, and Knife Lake) and prescribed burns have created excellent moose habitat five to 15 years, post-fire.
“These landscape level disturbances create the highest quality moose habitat. Fire suppression has minimized these large fires outside the BWCAW, ” he added.
However, re-occurring historically mild winters like 2016-17 do not bode well for the future of moose in northeast Minnesota. Moose are adapted to long, cold, deep snow winters and Minnesota moose are already at the southern edge of their territory.
Back-to-back mild winters also help lead to higher deer population which also affects the moose population because moose parasites like brain worm and liver flukes are spread more readily by higher deer populations.
“Over the long term, very few areas have high deer numbers and high moose numbers, ” Rusch said. “The best moose areas have very low deer numbers, none in winter.”