Minn. moose study examines declining populations

6:03 AM, Aug 13, 2013   |    comments
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FOREST LAKE, Minn. - States with declining moose populations from New Hampshire to Maine and North Dakota are now looking to Minnesota and its new study for answers.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources launched a $1.2 million dollar study to determine what is causing rapid moose mortality in northern Minnesota.

The moose population declined 35 percent this year compared to last, which is the largest decline DNR scientists have ever seen.

Last winter, DNR officials used breakthrough technology to collar 107 moose. So far, 18 have died.

"(The) last mortality was two weeks ago," said Erika Butler, a Minnesota DNR wildlife veterinarian based in Forest Lake, checking an app that sends her text messages when collared moose die.

Many surviving moose in northern Minnesota can be monitored by a swipe of Butler's cell phone. She's leading the breakthrough study and said it shows a high mortality rate of 17 percent only halfway into the year.

She said she tracks the course and movement of moose online until the point of death. Now, states and countries with similar patterns are looking to Minnesota for answers. Butler says she has heard from wildlife officials in Sweden this week and has also been contacted by scientists in Ontario, Canada.

New Hampshire made headlines in the Washington Post with a rapid moose decline due to winter ticks, which abundantly attack in warmer winters. Ticks usually die after a life cycle when dropping into the snow, but warm winters there have allowed them to thrive.

"You can have hundreds of thousands of them on one moose at a time. And they can drain so much blood the animal actually becomes anemic," said Butler, who said the moose scratch all their hair off to try and rid themselves of ticks.

"Their entire body can turn white and they are referred to as 'Ghost Moose,'" she said.

New Hampshire wildlife officials say their moose population stands at 4,500, and they will also launch a study to try and determine exactly what is causing the state decline.

"We are not studying a winter tick decline specifically, rather we have evidence that our moose population is in decline. We know from previous studies that we suffer periodic moose losses due to winter ticks," said Mark Ellingwood, New Hampshire Wildlife Division Chief.

Butler says in the Minnesota DNR study, only three moose have died from winter ticks this year. She believes other health problems besides ticks are driving Minnesota's decline.

"We think there is another issue going in. We are seeing (deaths) year round, prime age animals that shouldn't be dying," said Butler. "So we have a couple of theories. We aren't sure yet, just at beginning phases of it but could be brain worm, could be mosquito-borne virus, could be any host of issues." 

For the first time, Butler says she has seen deadly bacterial infections in moose suffering from wolf attacks and wolf bites.

"Probably the thing that is most interesting for us is these secondary bacterial infections that I don't think anyone could have been aware of without this sort of technology," said Butler.

She says moose in Minnesota didn't suffer as much from ticks with a colder and longer winter, but believes the next few months will be very telling in a season when moose don't usually die.

Northeast Minnesota is home to about 2,700 moose, which is down 55 percent in population in the past three years. At one time Minnesota was home to 8,000 moose. Butler said they could disappear entirely by 2020 without intervention, and she's hopeful the study will save the state's most iconic and majestic animal.

The moose study was primarily funded by the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.

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