Points North: A Population Collapse Measured in Dog Years

Shake it off! by Travis Novitsky
Shake it off! by Travis Novitsky

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In the corner of my garage is a large bin overflowing with antlers. Dig through the bin and you’ll find some deer and even caribou antlers, as well as a moose skull or two. But the bone heap is mostly made up of moose antlers, from giant brown paddles to timeworn, gray relics. Moose grow their massive antlers annually, shedding them in early winter after the autumn breeding season. I like to roam the woods in April and May, looking for fallen moose antlers. It’s a great way to add a little adventure to a daily dog walk.

Not so many years ago, I’d find about a dozen moose antlers every year by making daily walks with my dogs. We covered a lot of country, because moose antlers are rarely found along the beaten track. I enjoyed free-ranging antler hunts as much as spring trout fishing—something my trout-fishing friends couldn’t understand. While I saved a few antlers for myself, most were sold to a local fur buyer. Fresh, high quality moose antlers can fetch upwards of $10 per pound. At the time there was even a market for moose skulls and heavy leg bones, which were much easier to find then antlers. I hauled home enough skulls and bones to easily cover the gasoline expense of my antler excursions.

My antler hunts rarely took me more than 20 miles from my North Shore home, because there were lots of moose and endless room to roam. During the heyday of modern timber harvest in the 1980s and ‘90s, clear-cut areas quickly became giant moose pastures filled with new saplings and brush—favorite winter browse. Moose were so abundant that the new twigs on aspen and birch saplings were pruned by browsing every winter. It took years for these heavily browsed trees to grow above the reach of a hungry moose. In deep snow years, the moose browsed on balsam firs, eliminating all of the lower boughs. Where you saw evidence of browsing was a good place to look for antlers.

Finding a moose antler was never easy. Often I walked for miles, following moose paths as wide as sidewalks through the brush, hoping to happen upon an antler. Moose antlers, like gold, are where you find them. It feels pretty good when you do. Occasionally, I’d find a pair of antlers dropped simultaneously. Usually, I’d find just one antler and then search, often fruitlessly, for the other. Once in a while I’d hit a bonanza and stagger out of the woods carrying three or four heavy antlers. Days like that keep you coming back for more.

Moose encounters were so frequent that I took them for granted, whither along the roadside or out in the woods. Often, I’d hear a moose crashing away unseen in heavy forest cover after being startled by me or my dogs. Quiet trout-fishing sessions at remote beaver ponds were frequently interrupted by visiting moose. While out for walks, my husky-shepherd Abby occasionally brought moose to bay, barking excitedly as if to say, “Come quick, I’ve got a moose!” Extracting her from such situations was always interesting. One time she treed a mother bear and three cubs, then led me to a nearby antler freshly chewed by said bears.

To my knowledge, Abby was never attacked by a moose even though she pressed her luck with these unpredictable animals. I’ve been charged on three occasions, twice by rut-crazed bulls and one time by an ornery cow. Once, a fat aspen was all that stood between me and a wild-eyed bull that smashed into the tree at full force. It wasn’t an experience I care to repeat.

Nearly everyone who visits our Hovland home wants to see a moose, a request that was once fairly easy to satisfy with a pick-up truck safari through the backcountry, especially at dawn or dusk. Moose sightings were so consistent along some well-traveled routes, such as State Highway 1 north of Finland and the famous Gunflint Trail, that they were a driving hazard.

As a volunteer firefighter, I responded to several moose-vehicle accidents along Highway 61. One time, a conservation officer gave the road-killed moose to our fire department. It was a warm June evening, so we wasted no time processing the animal, using my garage as a butcher shop. We hoisted it with a skid-steer loader, skinned and quartered it, then completed the butchering, finishing the whole task in about four hours. The next morning, my neighbor, Tim, came to retrieve his loader from my driveway. The bucket was still raised.
Beneath it, the moose head dangled from a chain. Tim and I paused to take in this grim scene.

“We had to let the neighbors know we scored,” he said.

I was lucky enough to participate in Minnesota moose hunts. In 1989, I shot a nice bull southwest of Greenwood Lake in Cook County. At the time, that area offered the best moose hunting in the state and possibly in North America. On pre- and post-hunt scouting trips that fall, I saw four other trophy bulls within a mile of where I made the kill. A decade later, in 1999, I accompanied my father when he killed a bull north of Hovland, the crowning achievement of his hunting life. Moose were still abundant, because we saw four bulls and a cow during two days of hunting.

We didn’t know it then, but we were reaching the end of the good old days. When I go out looking for moose antlers now, it’s difficult, even in good habitat, to find the browsed brush and droppings left behind by wintering moose. I haven’t added any new antlers to the pile in my garage for at least three years. While I used to take moose sightings for granted, now I feel darned lucky to see them once or twice a year. In fact, most of the moose I’ve seen in recent years were being registered by successful hunters at the hardware store across from my Grand Marais office. I haven’t scared up a moose while grouse hunting or dog walking for several years.

For many years, moose were important to me, not only for my antler-hunting hobby, but as a constant in my life on the North Shore. While it seems like wistful nostalgia to write about the moose that used to be, it is sobering to realize the population crash occurred within the span of a dog’s life. Abby, my moose-chasing husky-shepherd, is now 15 years old. Sadly the collapse of northeastern Minnesota’s moose herd can be measured in dog years. Although her moose-chasing days are behind her, I hope Abby remembers the good old days, too.

Airdate: February 15, 2013


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