The moose die-off all across North America has wildlife officials and scientists puzzled. “Across North America — in places as far-flung as Montana and British Columbia, New Hampshire and Minnesota — moose populations are in steep decline. And no one is sure why,” reported the New York Times on Oct. 14, 2013.
“Something’s changed. There’s fewer moose out there, and hunters are working harder to find,” said Nicholas DeCesare, a biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Similar to Montana, Minnesota is also reporting mysterious dwindling numbers of moose. One of the moose populations in Minnesota has declined from 4,000 to less than 100. In northeastern Minnesota, the moose population has dropped from 8,000 to fewer than 3,000.
As a result of the moose die-off, wildlife officials have either suspended all moose hunting in certain areas or have drastically limited hunting licenses for moose.
Theories about the mysterious moose die-off range from too much unregulated hunting, brain worms and liver fluke, an infestation of ticks, too much deforestation, to climate change.
However, scientists and wildlife officials say that other factors could also contribute to the massive moose die-off. Since most moose die in the fall, scientists hope that the next few months will shed some light into what is causing the moose die-off.
“Moose deaths are hard to study, scientists say. The moose is a member of the deer family, but unlike deer it is a solitary animal that does not run in herds, so it can be hard to track. Moreover, moose have such high levels of body fat that they decompose rapidly; after 24 hours, a necropsy has little value.”
In an attempt to solve the mysterious moose die-off, Minnesota began an unusual $1.2 million study in January using advanced modern technology in order to track the moose and to find out what is causing their death.
“Live animals are captured and fitted with collars that give their location every 15 minutes, and they are given feed containing a tiny transmitter that remains in the body and monitors heart rate and temperature. Then the moose are released back into the wild.”
Dr. Erika Butler, who was until recently the wildlife veterinarian at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, leads the study of tracking the moose and says that text messages are used to find the moose as soon as they die.
“If the heart stops beating, it sends a text message to our phone that says, ‘I’m dead at x and y coordinates.’ The messages are monitored around the clock; when a moose dies, a team on call rushes to the scene by car or helicopter.”
According to Dr. Butler, the moose die-off affects not only hunters but the whole ecosystem. “The stakes go beyond the moose themselves. The animals are ecosystem engineers; when they browse shrubs, for example, they create habitat for some nesting birds.”
In addition to the effect on the ecosystem, the massive moose die-off is also affecting the economy in many states. “In New Hampshire, for instance, moose-watching tourism is a $115-million-a-year business.”