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Blane Klemek column: Researchers seek public's help in tracking moose numbers

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outdoors Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

The moose is the largest member of the deer family. And though Minnesota is home to this remarkable mammal, the northern-tier states are really at the southern boundary of moose range.

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Here in North America, prime moose range exists throughout Canada and Alaska. Moose also inhabit boreal forests of Eurasia.

Formidably large, bull moose can reach heights of more than six and a half feet at the shoulder and weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Add an enormous head and impossibly huge and heavy antlers, moose command respect by humans and wild animals alike.

Except for cows with calves and during the fall rutting season, moose lead mostly solitary lives. The animals' coat may give a clue about their individualism. It is believed that since moose are not especially social deer, it had no need for pelage markings that could signal their presence to other moose. The coat of moose is dark brown to black.

On the other hand, white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and caribou, all have whitish rumps. Even other gregarious species of hoofed mammals such as bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope have white rump patches that serve as markings that are visible to their conspecifics.

The light-colored rumps of all these social ruminants serve an important function: communication. Those white rump patches help the animals remain in contact with one another or, as in the white-tailed deer's case, when their tails are raised, they signal to other deer that danger may be present. It stands to reason, therefore, that the unsociable moose simply had no reason for such markings and so evolved without rump patches.

For such immense size, moose are well adapted to the habitats they prefer. Often found in wet environments like wooded swamps and bogs, their bodies are perfectly suited for such conditions. Long and powerful legs help them negotiate difficult terrain, snow, muck and water. Large hooves and dewclaws assist in solid footing. And though appearing bulky, moose can navigate easily through dense brush and timber.

Even their heads, snouts and lips are specially designed. Moose feed on aquatic plants, many of which are completely underwater. Having long noses provide the means to reach submerged forage while nimble lips help to pluck the delicacies from where they're rooted.

Well known are the amorous and aggressive behaviors of rutting bull moose. When the mating season commences in September until it ends in mid to late October, dominant bulls seek receptive females while calling in loud and guttural "ee-yhoo" vocalizations as they search.

Once while archery hunting for deer, I was able to coax a young and rutting bull close to me by imitating his call. As lumbering as moose appear, the animal was swift and graceful as he approached. For a moment the bull stood below my deer-stand, looking this way and that, his bell swaying back and forth. His throaty vocalizations and heavy breathing were clearly audible.

As well, the great hump on his shoulder, deep chest and muscular dark body was impressive. His antlers, though not very large, were draped with lengths of shedding velvet that looked like soiled rags. Eventually the youngster gave up and began walking a sweeping circle around my tree - searching, calling, and finally disappearing into the woodland.

Recently, two bull moose were struck by a motor vehicle near Waskish and Kelliher. Both animals died. As unfortunate as this is, moose are occasionally observed throughout the Big Bog and Red Lake areas. Moose have probably always had a presence in this region of Minnesota.

Late in the summer of 2009, a cow moose was seen in a field a few miles south of Bemidji. And just this September, sightings of a young bull moose were reported by multiple people as they travelled on roadways southeast of Bemidji, including a report from one individual who observed the animal swimming across a local lake.

The Crookston area, although formerly home to more moose than exist there today, continues to be a region that generates reports of sightings. Last winter, a neighbor of mine reported observing a moose near Fertile. And yours truly, on occasions when I've helped conduct aerial deer surveys, have also observed moose in this area of northwestern Minnesota.

Without question, seeing a moose in the wild is an exciting event. In the meantime, while scientists and research biologists continue to solve the mysteries of declining moose populations in Minnesota, and as wildlife and forest managers continue to enhance forest and brushland habitats where moose persist, you can help by reporting your moose observations.

If any of you happen to observe a moose, whether it's healthy, sick, dying or already dead, please consider reporting your moose observations to this website - "Moose in Minnesota: Investigating Moose Populations in Northern Minnesota."

The website address is http://www.nrri.umn.edu/moose/general/WhySightings.html.

Once there, you will discover much more than simply a way to report your moose observations; you will also learn about current moose research, where the reported moose sightings have occurred throughout the state, moose natural history information, as well as detailed explanations about why reporting your sightings are important to moose and moose research.

Indeed, moose are fascinating animals. Plagued by parasites, disease, predators, harsh weather, habitat loss and shortages of preferred forage and needed minerals, moose in Minnesota appear to be a species in trouble.

Some wildlife research biologists believe that a changing and warming climate is the primary reason for Minnesota's declining moose population.

That stated, with continued research and habitat management, perhaps moose populations will rebound as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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