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Points North: habitat project highlights moose management challenges

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A group of DNR wildlife professionals recently ventured into moose country, where Dave Ingebrigtsen, DNR assistant wildlife manager in Grand Marais, showed them a 90-acre site in the Grand Portage State Forest where habitat work is intended to benefit moose and eventually restore native tree species. The site also illustrated the many challenges facing wildlife managers in Minnesota's northern forests.

The challenges were familiar to the tour members, DNR assistant wildlife managers and shallow lakes specialists from throughout northeastern Minnesota, nearly all of whom are focused on forest habitat work. The tour, which I accompanied for a morning, was a chance for muddy boots biologists to trade notes and share ideas.

The project site was a logged-over area that reverted to hazel brush, thus attracting browsing moose during the winter. The brush had grown old and become less productive as browse. Ingebrigtsen said the site presented an opportunity to shear brush to foster new growth and to plant native conifers for cover.

Although the loggers had left behind scattered islands of mature white pine, aspen and white cedar, new tree growth was sparse. The area had not been inventoried by DNR Forestry staff and was not included in harvest plans. While wildlife habitat efforts such as this one fall outside the realm of traditional forestry, the project would not conflict with any forestry activities.

Ingebrigtsen contracted with a heavy equipment operator to shear brush on the site in early 2011.

"He had to plow through three feet of snow to do the job," Ingebrigtsen said. During the shearing, brush and forest debris were pushed into windrows. A crew of migrant workers contracted by the DNR planted the cleared areas with white pine, white cedar, tamarack and white spruce. The shearing and planting were paid for with $11,000 in Legacy grant funding.

The tour group walked the site to assess the conifer planting's success and get a feel for the place. Ingebrigtsen hopes the young trees eventually provide cover for moose and other wildlife. Several tour members were impressed to see thriving white pine and cedar saplings. Elsewhere in the state, saplings of these species are usually destroyed by hungry deer. Here, deer migrate to wintering areas near Lake Superior, sparing the saplings from winter browsing.

However, Ingebrigtsen said he sees deer tracks at the site as soon as the snow melts in the spring. Old droppings and evidence of browsing showed moose use the area in winter, but there were more deer tracks than moose tracks in the dirt.

Ingebrigtsen wants to do a second habitat project just north of this site, but may have difficulty getting DNR approval to do so because it is located on School Trust land, as is the first project. The Legislature has emphasized School Trust lands should be managed for economic returns to the trust, which may affect how hundreds of thousands of acres of public land in northern Minnesota are managed for wildlife. Although moose are a North Shore icon and one of the region's most popular tourist draws, shearing brush to create browse or planting pines and cedars that live for hundreds of years doesn't put dollars directly into the Trust coffers.

Habitat improvements benefit moose, but biologists say such work won't stop the ongoing decline of northeastern Minnesota's moose population. A variety of factors--parasites, disease and predation--seem to be contributing to unusually high moose mortality. Ironically, even habitat improvements can be deadly for moose, because the animals are attracted to forest openings during the hunting season. In October 2011, state hunters killed two bulls on the project site.

The reality of the dire situation confronting wildlife managers in the moose range was summed up in a remark by Ingebrigtsen. He said he now sees less moose tracks and sign in the vicinity of the project than he did when he started the work three years ago. Even though the habitat improved, there are fewer moose to use it. This is happening, he said, in what is considered one of the top moose hunting zones in the state. The group didn't dwell on the future of Minnesota's moose. Perhaps this is because assistant wildlife managers are directly involved in field-level moose management, but they are beneath the DNR's decision-making hierarchy. As we walked, one of the tour participants told me there is often a disconnect between the field staff in the northern forest and the higher-ups in St. Paul. I suspect if the field staff were calling the shots, they would be more proactive at addressing the moose decline.

After viewing the project, the group drove to the Irish Creek access at the Swamp River wetland complex where they took a break and ate sandwiches. It was then that I thought about the changes occurring within the DNR. Not so long ago, the Wildlife Division was dominated by men. This group, however, was about 50-50 men and women. While their ages ranged from the 20s to the 50s, the younger crowd made a strong showing and was mostly female. It must be noted that several women were avid hunters. Lunchtime conversation was dominated by tales of hunting trips near and far.

When lunch was finished, the group unloaded canoes to spend the afternoon exploring the Swamp River wetlands, an outstanding wildlife area. Most hoped to see small white water lilies, an uncommon plant found in the marsh. After taking a few photos as the canoes embarked, I bid the group adieu. I hoped that somewhere out in the marsh, they'd be lucky enough to encounter a moose.

Airdate: July 6, 2012

Photo courtesy of Kenny and Steve via Flickr.