Minnesota's moose are in trouble. Populations are low, still declining and no one's exactly sure why. Recently the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released a draft moose management plan for public comment, and at least one part of the plan will no doubt cause some controversy.
Here's the situation, according to the DNR:
"Over the last two decades, moose density declined dramatically in the northwest population, from at least 4,000 to fewer than 100 animals. The northwest moose population is on the verge of extirpation.”
In the northeast population, "annual non-hunting mortality of adult moose ... was found to be comparable to that of the northwest population during the 1990s ... "
So things are not looking good for Minnesota's moose, and in 2008 the Minnesota State Legislature directed the DNR to study the issue and formulate the just-published plan.
In the plan the state proposed six objectives, including ones that involve moose hunting, research and habitat, and also deer management.
One proposal is to end moose hunting in the state if moose decline to a certain threshold. But that's not going to make a huge difference because the current hunt is bulls-only and kills account for less than 2 percent of the moose population. Instead, the most controversial recommendation is likely to be banning deer feeding throughout the moose's range. The reason: disease.
The DNR notes that cow moose pregnancy rates are high, but calf survival is low. Biologists don't know why that's happening yet, but one possibility is whitetail-carried diseases.
"Whitetailed deer occur across all of Minnesota’s moose range and may carry parasites (e.g., liver fluke, brainworm) and possibly diseases [West Nile virus, Lyme disease, etc.] that can adversely impact moose. Little is known about the extent to which moose succumb to parasites and diseases that are maintained by the presence of deer in the landscape."
To minimize deer passing these ailments to each other and to moose, the DNR proposes banning deer feeding. Here's why:
"Recreational deer feeding is a controversial issue in many states, and more negative than positive attributes have been described. Congregation around artificial feeding locations creates a host of problems, including the increased risk of spreading disease (e.g., bovine tuberculosis, chronic wasting disease) ... "
"Controlling deer numbers through hunter-harvest as a means to benefit moose will be increasingly difficult if, as predicted by many sources, severe winters occur less and less often. Intervals between severe winters may see higher deer numbers due to supplemental feeding with possible negative impacts on moose [because] deer are implicated in predisposing moose to disease and/or parasites."
Lou Cornicelli, DNR big game program coordinator, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that "if you want to pick a controversial topic, that's going to be it. People like to feed deer. They feel deer feeding helps the population. But are they doing it to the detriment of moose?"
That's because deer hunting is huge in Minnesota. Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, told the paper, "The real question is, do we want moose in Minnesota? If we do, there's a whole bunch of things we need to do, and one of those is not feeding deer. That probably won't sit well with some of our members."
His association hasn't taken a formal position on the issue yet.
Cornicelli told another paper, "The most important thing in a long-lived, slow-growing population like moose is life spans of adults. They're dying faster than they can replace themselves.
"Before we do anything we have to figure out what’s causing the mortality and the plan is a start to addressing that. The only certainty is that there isn’t a magic prescription and it will take time, but if we do nothing the future of moose in Minnesota looks fairly grim."
On that topic, another hot issue has been wolves: Many residents believe wolves are a cause of the moose population decline. On that topic Cornicelli told a reporter, “It would be overly simplistic to say wolves are eating all the calves — it’s just biologically more complex than that."
As the DNR notes, "There is no cookbook or prescription for reversing a declining moose population in Minnesota. The issue is decidedly complex, and the research needed to answer critical questions will take time and will be very expensive."
Since hunters and anglers foot the bill for DNR work, it noted that because a healthy moose populations benefits "all Minnesotans, it is critical that a broad funding source be developed ... "