ST. PAUL - The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources confirmed Wednesday what locals in northern Minnesota have long feared. The moose population is dying off faster than anticipated.
For that reason, DNR officials announced they will not allow state-licensed hunters to hunt moose this year and most likely for a number of years until the population increases.
The moose population in northeast Minnesota dropped 35-percent from last year, according to a DNR survey. It's disappointing news that some who live in the northland have been witnessing for years.
"You always drove defensively because you knew you were going to have to hit the brakes," said Larry Schanno who owns 'Our Place' bar in Finland. "And now if you see a (moose) track you tell people about it."
The state hunt has been limited to only male moose, also known as bulls. Cows, or female moose, were not to be touched by state-licensed hunters. Under the DNR's management plan, if the bull-to-cow ratio dropped below 67 bulls to 100 cows three years in a row, the state would have stopped the hunt.
Lou Cornicelli, the wildlife research manager for the DNR said that hasn't happened yet, but the state felt it needed to act since the population decline this year was so steep.
"Harvest mortality is the one bit of mortality that we can control right now. Even though it's small, I think the prudent decision is to go ahead and stop the hunt," said Cornicelli.
Three tribes also hunt in the northeast part of the state. It is unclear if they will stop the hunt.
The entire state has seen a rapid decline of moose over the years.
Moose roam two portions of northern Minnesota. In the northwest, they have all but disappeared over the last two decades from at least 4,000 to fewer than 100, according to the DNR. The state closed the hunt in that region in 1997.
In Northeast Minnesota, the moose population has been falling too. It was nearly 9,000 in 2006 to just about 2,700 of the animals today.
It is why in recent weeks the DNR started what is believed to be the most aggressive effort in North America to try to save them.
Last week, KARE 11 followed researchers and biologists as they tracked moose. From a chopper, they shot moose with a tranquilizer dart rendering the beasts immobile for about 20 minutes.
Once the moose were sedated, scientists took blood and hair samples. They also inserted a state-of-the-art implant that the moose swallowed. It monitors their heart and internal body temperature.
Finally, researchers placed a collar on the animals that will track their every move, most importantly sending an alert to researchers when they have died. That's how this is different from other collaring efforts. The DNR will now be able to get to the moose within 24 hours before decay and scavengers take hold.
"If we don't get there soon enough, we'll lose the ability to gain some pretty significant information," said Dave Pauly, a DNR biologist.
They are on track to collar about 100 animals.
Right now, all scientists have are theories as to why moose are dying off. Disease, wolf kill, and climate change are just some of what's being discussed.
Before Wednesday's decision to close the hunt, the pressure from the public to do so was growing.
"I hear and see more people supporting a stopping of the hunt," said Schanno.
Doug Thomspon is with Minnesota chapter of the Nature Conservancy. He was one of one of 18 people who served on the DNR's moose advisory council back in 2009.
"During the course of serving on this committee I did have some doubt creep in about whether or not I should hunt," said Thompson.
An avid hunter who lives in Duluth, Thomspon wondered whether the DNR should stop the hunt when KARE 11 spoke with him last week. Although he believes climate change is the underlying issue causing the moose to die, he made a personal decision to no longer try to hunt moose.
"I really want to moose hunt. I really do. But I just can't do it because of the uncertainty," he said.
Thomspon is far from the only one who had doubts about hunting moose.
"I'd like to see it stopped," said Dan Anderson, a pilot in Grand Marais.
For decades, he has flown people above the Grand Marais area as part of his company, Anderson Aero.
He said he used to see moose on the runway at the airport in Grand Marais years ago, now it is tough to see them in the air. In fact, he once guaranteed people they would see a moose on his tours. He started losing money a few years ago so he stopped.
During an interview with KARE 11 last week, he predicted the numbers were worse than the DNR thought.
"I believe the numbers are much lower than the DNR has populated," he said."It may be half."
Canada wildlife biologist Vince Crichton is one of the leading experts on moose. He agrees with the DNR's decision and in fact told us last week officials may need to be more aggressive with managing the hunt.
"If it keeps going the way it is, they're going to have to shut it down at some time and that might be the appropriate step to take right now," he said.
But he was quick to praise the DNR's current effort to figure out what is killing Minnesota's moose.
"In terms of ongoing research to find out what's going on, Minnesota is at the top of the class right now," he added.
Yet the DNR still says stopping the hunt won't stop the decline. Officials said state and tribal hunters killed fewer than a hundred moose last year, which officials believe has little impact on the population.
"The bigger question is why is the population dying, not why this one individual here and this individual there as terms of harvest," said Cornicelli.
And he adds that the moose hunt can be valuable, getting important information from hunters about the moose they kill. But even those numbers have dwindled. Hunter's success rates went from 84-percent in 1993 to 53-percent in 2012, according to state figures.
So time is of the essence. While the DNR is in the middle of what could be its best and perhaps last chance of solving this moose mystery, the entire state waits and wonders.
"I hope it ain't too little too late, that's all," said Schanno.
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