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Will elk replace disappearing moose in NW Minnesota?

Moose used to be common in parts of northwestern Minnesota, but have now largely disappeared. This photo was taken on Oct. 6, 2011, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region and posted on Flickr.1 / 2
Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek2 / 2

The City of Karlstad, Minn., about 35 miles south of Manitoba in the northwestern-most county of the state, Kittson County, once hailed itself as "The Moose Capital of the North." Maybe the town's residents still makes this claim, I'm not sure, but moose are essentially gone from the landscape these days.

This autumn will mark my 18th season of owning 80 acres of hunting land a few miles north of Karlstad. During the first three years of ownership, 2001-2003, I observed plenty of moose and their sign. It was common to encounter their large hoof prints left deep in marsh soils, or marvel at the sheer sizes of their beds in sedge meadows, or gasp at the antler-rubs on 10-inch diameter aspen trees, or delight in the guttural calls of amorous bulls.

Better yet, to see a moose was a sight to behold. Ungainly as they outwardly appear, a moose moves effortlessly with an aura of nobility and sure footedness.

But that was then. I haven't seen a single moose over the past several years, though I still occasionally come across tracks. Moose in northwest Minnesota, in the heart of what is still thought of as moose country, have nearly vanished. Particularly telling was a discovery I made a few falls ago while hunting deer one day. I found the bleached-white skull of a cow moose lying on the forest floor. No other skeletal remains could be located nearby. Even the animals' bones are gone.

When unremarkable little flowers, or butterflies, or tiny fishes disappear, not many people notice. Yet when an animal the size of a small car seemingly drops off the face of the earth, everyone notices. And most everyone wonders why. Theories abound, of course, for what has caused the disappearance of this incredible species. But it's hard to determine, let alone accept; especially for those who remember the 1980s.

A population survey conducted then revealed a thriving population that numbered over 4,000 animals in Minnesota's northwest. More recent surveys while DNR biologists survey elk uncovered less than 100 moose. Factors that appear to be contributing to the population decline include rising temperatures, infestations of parasites, lack of certain minerals in their diet, diseases, predators, and infertility of both cows and bulls caused by unknown reasons. Some people have suggested over-hunting, while others believe surviving moose have migrated to more suitable habitats.

Whatever the reasons for the moose's demise, one glaring fact is undeniably clear: the moose population of Minnesota's great northwest is significantly diminished. And while a handful of holdouts are hanging on, and unless something extraordinary happens to change the apparent downward population trend, some wildlife biologists have predicted that moose will eventually become extinct in that part of Minnesota.

Unfortunate as this is, it is not the first time a species has disappeared. After all, woodland caribou once ranged across northern Minnesota, too. But sometimes the vacancy and niche left behind by one species is claimed by another species. Perhaps, one could argue, this is occurring right this minute in parts of northwestern Minnesota.

A few years ago while my hunting partners and I sat around a warm fire at our Kittson County Deer Camp talking about how we formerly observed moose, I suggested that another, equally majestic, ungulate might be on the verge of filling the void left behind by moose. I reasoned that if any species of cervid was suited for the Aspen Parklands of northwest Minnesota it is elk.

The elk herds in northwestern Minnesota appear to be doing fairly well with the exception of the Grygla area elk herd that number only 15. Meanwhile, elk in the Lancaster area were counted last March at 75 animals. The fourth herd, which is a herd that travels across the international border into Manitoba, was estimated at around 133 animals combined, with the elk counted by Canadian biologists in Manitoba.

Elk are native to Minnesota and evolved as an open landscape species of deer. They thrive wherever there is grass and aspen trees, but will do equally well in mountain ranges where grass, sagebrush, and aspen and pine exist. Indeed, elk are a species that one could accurately call a generalist. They can survive in almost any environment if given the chance and if the habitat provides adequate food, water, shelter, and space.

Though Minnesota's northwest moose population has, for the moment anyway, seen better days, a related large species of deer that's actually more adapted to grassland habitats than moose are, looks to be expanding its presence in the northwest.

It could be that elk might, in the end, replace moose as the premiere megafauna deer in northwestern Minnesota, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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