I walked out onto the plains of Southeastern Minnesota and opened my eyes to the sea of Bison. I put my ear to the earth and heard the earth’s heart beat as they thundered across the plains… but this is only a dream. A dream it will remain. The plains are silent now. The bison are mostly gone and will never regain their former status in the Midwestern Ecosystem. The Bison are gone and the furs are gone. In the 19th century we decimated Bison herds for their furs. We used the furs and lost the Bison.
Today, Foot sore, I sit on the ledge of a cliff overlooking Beaver Pond near the North Shore of Lake Superior. After a long day of hiking I want to set up camp and eat some dinner. Suddenly, below the cliff the silence of the day breaks with the snapping of branches underneath the weight of a 900 pound beast. A giant Moose comes into the clear to cool off in Beaver Pond. She calls for her calf, but this is a dream, and all I hear is silence. At least this dream is still a real posibility.
The Problem and it is Complex
My chances of seeing a moose in the wild, however, are getting slim. Moose populations have plummeted as shown by a census in 2013 that showed a decrease of two-thirds in the last decade. The math is simple. Of the 9,ooo moose in Northeastern MN 6,000 have died, leaving only 3,000 Moose left. Numbers can go up and down based on sighting conditions, but clearly these are to drastic to be explained as such.
The problem is multifaceted, involving; warmer temperatures, increased deer and wolf populations, new diseases, and logging and mining projects. With each warm winter the numbers of moose are decreasing. Higher temperatures cause deer populations to rise and bring with them several threats to moose. More deer around means less young foliage is available to sustain the moose diet. Deer also bring a deadly parasite known as brainworm. Deer are immune to its effects, but in moose it causes their heads to tilt and inclines them to walk in circles. Not only do moose die from brainworms, but it also makes them more vulnerable to wolves. We can then cycle the argument back to weather, because the warmer the weather the worse off moose are from a nutritional standpoint. They move slower, pant more and change their feeding patterns. It follows, when moose are weaker nutritionally it makes them easier prey for the wolves. We could get caught up in this sad loop and say the problem is hopeless, yet, that is just a convenient way to avoid the solutions when we don’t like how they will affect us.
The Problem is Political
Here is where deer hunter’s step in and say we need to bring back the wolf hunt. However, the wolves are another endangered species and decimating their population would be another sadness, and could have its own negative effects on the ecosystem. Besides, many of the moose deaths cited in the research show that in many cases the moose were more susceptible to the wolves due to poor health. Deer hunters are seeing it the way they want to, but are not getting to the root of the problem.
The problem for the moose is coming from multiple directions for sure, but the DNR also has a vested interested in keeping deer populations high as much of their revenue comes from hunting licenses. However, reducing deer populations would certainly help improve the situation for the moose. Nearby Isle Royale offers a convincing testimony where moose are flourishing. There are no deer on Isle Royale, and researcher Michael Peterson of Michigan University claims that the brainworm parasite that deer bring is a major cause of death in moose on the mainland.
The DNR is not the only ones standing in the way of the moose. Logging and mining companies are also at play. Preventing forest burns reduces the amount of tender foliage that moose can eat and weakens their nutritional health.
We can Choose the Solution
Sometimes it is hard to see through the smoke of opinions when there is so much at stake for different groups of people. However, in my opinion we have to choose the solution that is best for the long term for everybody. We can’t sacrifice moose for the sake of fulfilling a hunting hobby, because if we do, that hobby will just be a memory like the Bison are today. As the director of biology and environment for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Seth Moore said, “To me, if there was one thing we could manage to improve moose populations, I would start with deer.” With brainworm carried by deer causing between 20-40% of moose deaths, it seems doing anything else without changing deer hunting practices would be leaving out a big piece of the puzzle. By reducing the number of deer we can lessen the moose’s competition for food and help make them strong enough to fight off the wolves.
If we try to save the moose by killing off more wolves, we risk losing an equally iconic Minnesotan symbol forever. Obviously, warming temperatures are not helping the moose population, but we have little to no immediate control of that. What we do have control over is how much of the moose’s diet is eaten by logging and mining. Canadians are learning a similar lessons as they see a drastic decline in moose populations in Manitoba as industrial activity increases. It should be obvious that as we inhabit the lands more, the moose will have less natural habitat to thrive in.
We can save Minnesota Moose, but we have make it a priority. I don’t want our generation to be remembered for their wastefulness the way we think of the 19th Century settlers that decimated buffalo herds in a few short years. We don’t have to look far for other examples. The herd of 4000 moose that used to in habit the Northwestern side of our state up until the early part of the 21st century has fallen to fewer than 100 today. If we don’t change our deer hunting practices, slow our mining and logging expansion, and protect moose habitats, the Northeastern herd of moose will suffer the same fate. Hopefully we can learn something from history and set our priorities straight.