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Aerial survey shows Minnesota moose holding their own in past year

Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist with Fond du Lac Resource Management Division, took this photo of a bull moose driving through deep Minnesota snow.

John Myers | Duluth News Tribune

Minnesota’s beleaguered moose herd appears to have held its own over the past year, with an aerial survey showing little change in the population.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife officials conducted an aerial survey in January of several areas in the Northeastern Minnesota moose range and used those surveys to estimate a total population about 4,350 animals.

That’s up significantly from the 2,760 estimated in 2013. But DNR officials caution that the difference may have been more in the visibility of moose against plentiful snow, and not a true increase in moose on the ground.

“The higher estimate this winter likely is related to ideal survey conditions rather than any actual increase in the population,” said Lou Cornicelli, the DNR’s wildlife research manager. “This year’s heavy snows across northeastern Minnesota made it comparatively easy to spot dark-bodied moose against an unbroken background of white.”

Cornicelli noted that this year’s estimate is very close to the 2012 estimate of 4,230, which suggests that last year’s estimate may have under-counted the population.

“All wildlife population surveys have inherent degrees of uncertainty,” he said. “Long-term trend and population estimates are more informative and significant than annual estimates.”

DNR officials say they see no change in the long-term trend of a rapidly declining moose herd that’s now less than half of the 2006 estimate of 8,800 animals. The population declined to a point last year that DNR officials opted to cancel the state’s very limited moose hunting season after years of scaling back the number of licenses offered.

The DNR said Friday they have not yet decided whether to resume the moose hunt for 2014.

The DNR has joined with numerous other agencies and research groups to study why moose are declining. Crews in recent weeks tranquilized dozens of additional moose to fit them with GPS transmitting collars so researchers can see where the big animals go to eat, mate, rest, cool off, have their young, escape predators and — possibly most important — where they die.

It’s the second year of the major research effort and scientists have been homing in on dead moose as rapidly as possible to harvest key organs and other body parts that can help them determine why the moose are dying faster than they are being born. Researchers just completed collaring an additional 36 adult moose to replace those that died in 2013. Another 50 newborn calves will be collared this spring.

Data so far shows that 21 percent of adult moose are dying in the first year they are collared, considered too high for the herd to continue. Moreover, 74 percent of the calves fitted with radio collars perished in the first year — most in the first few months. That’s considered far too low a survival rate to sustain a viable population.

“Mortality rates of 21 percent among adult moose and 74 percent for calves in the first year of the studies illustrate the complexity of Minnesota’s moose population problem,” Cornicelli said. “Even though we counted more moose on this year’s survey than last year, the radio-collar data and overall population trend over time indicate a continuing population decline.”

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