Points North: It’s Time to Start Shooting Elephants

Cow moose with calf
Cow moose with calf

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Recently, Minnesota Outdoor News columnist Ron Schara wrote that when it comes to understanding the cause of northeastern Minnesota’s mysterious moose decline, wolves may be the elephant in the room. He points to Montana, where a wolf hunting season began this year, in part because researchers there believe wolf predation on elk calves is causing elk numbers to decline. In Minnesota, where more wolf research has occurred than just about anywhere else in the world, Schara thinks scientists have ducked the predation issue.

That may be true, but wolves are not the only predators hiding behind an elephant. Right next to them are hunters. Biologists say the annual harvests from the state and tribal moose hunts are statistically insignificant. In contrast, as I drove to work this morning, I heard a radio announcer on the local Grand Marais station say if the population decline continues at its present rate, moose will nearly disappear from Minnesota by 2020. When I reached Grand Marais, I saw some hunters clustered around a truck toting a moose at the local registration station. I don’t know much about statistics, but the audio and visuals of my morning drive made a significant impression on me.

During the last 10 years, state and tribal hunters have killed 184 moose annually. During that same time frame, population surveys have shown moose numbers are declining by a few hundred animals each year. While scientists say there is no correlation between the hunting harvest, which is mostly bulls, and the moose decline, it sure seems that continuing the hunt at a time when the population is unable to sustain itself is questionable wildlife management at best. After all, hunting harvest is the only form of moose mortality we can control.

To hunt or not hunt moose may be more a matter of politics than biology, leading us to yet another elephant in the room. Every autumn, three separate moose hunts are conducted in northeastern Minnesota by the State, the 1854 Authority (which represents the Grand Portage and Bois Forte bands) and the Fond du Lac Band. The state recognizes the treaty rights of the three tribal bands to hold moose hunts, but the 1854 Treaty has not been tested in court. If the state closes its moose hunt for conservation purposes and one or more of the bands continues hunting, a treaty rights controversy may flare up. Such a situation may also affect the cooperation that exists between the state and tribes on moose research projects. Certainly, closing the state moose hunt conjures up potentially scary political consequences. Thus the elephant remains sitting in the room.

Hiding behind yet another elephant are white-tailed deer. The previous generation of wildlife biologists believed more deer meant fewer moose, because deer are a vector for the brain worm parasite, which is fatal to moose, and other illnesses. Today’s biologists are not so sure there is a correlation between deer abundance and the moose decline. The DNR’s draft management plan calls for keeping the deer herd at less than 10 deer per square mile within the moose range and proposes curtailing recreational deer feeding there as well. But the plan also includes this statement: “Minnesota moose likely face a host of health issues, and reducing deer numbers in the absence of a more comprehensive moose management strategy may not lead to significant and sustained recovery of moose numbers.” Since reducing deer numbers or banning feeding may be as politically charged as treaty issues, the agency seems to be hedging its bets.

A little history lesson is in order. The modern Minnesota moose hunt began in 1971, the same year the deer season was closed statewide because whitetail numbers were decimated by two severe winters. From the 1970s through the ‘90s, deer numbers remained so low in the northeast moose range that the bag limit was restricted to one antlered buck per hunter. During the 1980s, when antlerless permits became available, they were metered out via a lottery. If you applied, you were lucky to get an antlerless permit every other year. After 2000, deer became significantly more numerous and bag limits were liberalized. Much of the moose range now has a two-deer limit and hunters have been allowed to kill up to five deer. This explosion in whitetail abundance may be the most significant change occurring on the northeast landscape during the last 40 years.

DNR officials attribute the surge in deer numbers to milder winters brought about by global warming, which they believe is the ultimate cause of the moose decline. However, northeastern Minnesota’s primary moose range has the longest winters, deepest snows and coldest temperatures in the state. Let me put it this way: When it is springtime in Grand Rapids, there are still two or three feet of snow on the ground north of Grand Marais. The climate may be getting warmer, but winter hasn’t gone away.

So why are there more whitetails in moose country? Perhaps it is because many, if not most, of the deer in the moose range migrate to wintering areas where they have access to corn and other supplemental food at backyard feeders. While winter deer feeding has occurred for decades, it has become far more common in recent years. Unfortunately, the DNR doesn’t have any new data or research regarding the extent of backyard feeding and food plot plantings nor how better food availability has affected deer populations. On this issue, the DNR appears to be behind the curve, because three North Shore municipalities—Duluth, Two Harbors and Silver Bay—have already banned deer feeding to address nuisance issues.

That local communities are taking steps to deal with their deer management issues leads us to what may be the biggest elephant in the room: inertia. The DNR bureaucracy has been painfully slow to address the moose population decline. The draft moose management plan released in August is nearly two years behind schedule. It is fair to say there wouldn’t even be a plan were it not for the efforts of the Minnesota Deer Hunter’s Association, which worked through the state legislature to demand the DNR to come up with a moose management plan before the northeast herd collapsed, echoing what happened to the northwest herd during the 1990s. Judging from the DNR Division of Wildlife’s continued foot-dragging, it seems clear that saving moose in Minnesota is not a priority for the agency’s bureaucracy.

Compounding moose problems is the Division of Wildlife’s seeming inability to work with land managers, conservation organizations, sportsman’s clubs and others to address fish and wildlife management issues in northeastern Minnesota, including moose habitat improvement. It is likely the pent-up frustration of the DNR’s potential partners will reach a boiling point. Judging from some off-the-record conversations I’ve had with folks outside the agency, the steam is already rising.

Of course, it is possible we could boldly address the elephants in the room--wolves, hunting, treaty politics, deer management and DNR complacency--without changing the eventual outcome for moose. Perhaps, as some in the DNR believe, a future where Minnesota moose exist as a tiny, remnant population is inevitable. Then again, we won’t know unless we try. If we want to save Minnesota’s moose, it’s time to start shooting elephants.

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