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For nearly a decade, wildlife managers have seen a decrease in moose populations across their range in the lower 48 states. Minnesota’s population is no exception. They have calculated a sharp drop from about 8,000 moose in 2005 to 4,300 in 2014. Biologists have attributed the decline to a variety of factors including climate change, human development, disease, parasites and predators. To better understand the decline, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) initiated an expansive moose mortality research project.
The DNR program studied the causes of mortality on radio-collared moose. Of the 31 moose that died during the study, 17 were killed by wolves. Wolves did not always have a large impact on moose numbers, but in 2001 Minnesota implemented a wolf management plan that provided enough protection for wolf populations to expand their range. Minnesota now has the second highest wolf population in the U.S. with 2,420 wolves comprising 470 packs. This number continues to grow, as does wolf distribution and movements into moose territories.
Other biologists are now starting to examine the impact wolves have on moose. In a study titled Re-evaluating the Northeastern Minnesota Moose Decline and the Role of Wolves, University of Minnesota professors David Mech and John Fieberg reevaluated a 2009 report that listed January’s low temperatures as the primary reason for moose mortality. The study concluded that there was a significant correlation between the number of wolves in moose territory and moose mortality.
“My data tends to indicate the problem was there were more wolves,” Mech said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the only answer. Is there some change affecting moose that allows wolves to take more of them, or is it merely that there’s more wolves?”
In an effort to understand the factors contributing to the range wide decline of moose, other states have started research projects to gather better information on their moose populations. Both New York and New Hampshire are actively investigating their moose populations to learn which factors most negatively affect moose survival. Neither New York nor New Hampshire have wolves, but the information gathered in these areas will help to explain other factors that are impacting moose populations and the potential effects of other predators.
While the biggest threat to moose in Minnesota might be the increasing wolf population, in New Hampshire it might be the increase of winter ticks. In the coming years, more knowledge will be shed on the many variables that are affecting moose declines. Understanding how the different variables that impact mortality will allow wildlife managers to be proactive in moose conservation.
SCI Foundation, like many organizations, values the dedication of conservationists. As long as research continues, efforts to restore moose populations can be successful and moose will remain a source of awe and enjoyment in Minnesota’s north woods and throughout their North American range.
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