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Agency studies moose decline in Montana

Fewer and fewer moose in Montana are being observed by hunters and biologists. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) has historically relied on these sightings for population estimates without scientifically tracking the moose. A few years ago, MFWP launched a 10-year study hoping to obtain actual data to either corroborate or dispel anecdotal information. Wildlife managers also hope to learn more about what’s going on with the moose population and why it may be declining. The harvest rate also has dropped dramatically in recent years, with only 274 moose taken by hunters in 2012 compared to about 500 in 2006.

Female moose in western Montana in March
Merle Ann Loman

This is not a problem just in Montana. Minnesota used to have two distinct moose populations, and now is close to only having one. An aerial survey of moose in northeastern Minnesota in early 2013 showed a 52 percent drop in population since 2010, which prompted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to completely call off the 2013 moose hunting season and refuse to consider future seasons unless the population rebounds.

In various regions of British Columbia, populations have declined anywhere from 20 to 70 percent in recent years.

In North Dakota fewer moose are being found in their traditional ranges, yet their numbers are increasing in areas where they typically don’t reside, like in northwestern prairies of the state. According to a report in the Bismark Tribune, the population losses in the traditional ranges are being offset by what are known as the “prairie moose.” North Dakota is getting ready to start a second study on moose in the state; the first was conducted between 2003 and 2007.

In Montana, biologists are focusing their research primarily in three regions of Montana, including the Rocky Mountain Front, the Cabinet Mountains and the Big Hole area, to monitor adult female survival, pregnancy and calf-survival rates.

They capture and collar moose in each of the three areas, and take blood, fecal, hair and teeth samples for analysis. They’re also monitoring the number of ticks on the moose, and use a portable ultrasound machine to measure the layer of rump fat.

About one-third of the tested animals have no fat on their rump; that was in the winter making that observation a pretty big deal, and whether or not that’s a problem is a question for the study according to Montana Scientist Nick DeCesare. He also wants to know if lean animals dying, not giving birth to calves or could they just be leaner this year and are doing fine next year?”

They hope to eventually collar 30 moose in each of the three study areas. The study also calls for sampling moose from across the state for genetics and parasites.

The study will also try to establish the impact of predator s such as black and grizzly bears, wolves and mountain lions, as well as humans on the moose. They’re looking at whether climate change may allow parasites like ticks to become better established. It will also consider whether older forests, like in the Cabinet Mountains, are negatively impacting moose, which like to forage on young plants, especially willows.

Moose decline is probably not caused by just one of these; they interact and there’s a whole host of things yet to figure out. So much of what scientists are trying to learn hangs on things that happen over a long period of time, like survival of adult females.

For more information visit Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks website.

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