Blane Klemek: Still a moose mystery in northwest Minnesota
Not that many years ago, about a dozen or so, my brother-in-law and a good friend of mine sat in a law office in Warren, Minn., to close the sale of an 80-acre parcel of property in Kittson County. The land, which borders a large state wildlife management area, was exactly what we had been searching for: plenty of game, remoteness, adjacency to public hunting land, and, not the least of which, affordable.
A few weekends before our purchase, my brother-in-law and I received permission from the landowner to hunt and camp there. We spent a great deal of time walking the woodlands and wetlands of the property and adjoining state land in an effort to assess whether we truly wanted to buy.
The incident that helped “seal the deal” occurred during an evening archery hunt for deer. As we sat in our portable tree stands overlooking the “80,” we could clearly hear the vocalizations of rutting bull moose coming from the big marsh on the state land. Later in the evening, just before sunset, a medium-sized bull emerged from the aspen and passed within 15 yards of me. The same animal walked the length of the property, a half-mile, and ambled past my brother-in-law.
This autumn will mark the 13th hunting season the three of us and our families have enjoyed in Kittson County. And during the first three, from 2001-2003, we observed plenty of moose and their signs. It was common to encounter their large hoof prints left deep in marsh soils, or marvel at the sheer sizes of their beds in sedge meadows, or gasp at the antler-rubs on trees, or delight in the guttural calls of amorous bulls. Better yet, to see one was a sight to behold. Ungainly as they outwardly appear, a moose moves effortlessly with an aura of nobility and grace.
But that was then. We haven’t seen a single moose on our property or the state property since fall of 2003 or 2004, though I still occasionally come across a reminder the animal once existed — bones, a skull, or someone from town remarking they “saw one.”
Last fall, remarkably, I found a shed antler of a very young bull, which was likely its first rack. Even more remarkable, my 13-year old nephew found the other antler a short distance away. Both antlers were in good shape and indicated they may have been shed during the winter of 2011-12.
Despite those finds, moose in the far northwest part of Minnesota, near Karlstad in an area still called the “Moose Capital of the North,” have for all intents and purposes vanished.
When unremarkable little flowers, or butterflies, or tiny fishes disappear, not many people notice. Yet when an animal the size of a small car seemingly drops off the face of the earth, everyone notices. And most everyone wonders why. Theories abound, of course, for what caused the disappearance of this incredible species, but it’s hard to determine, let alone accept — especially for those who remember the 1980s when moose were virtually everywhere in the northern tier of Minnesota.
A population survey conducted sometime in the ’80s revealed a thriving population numbered more than 4,000 animals in northwest Minnesota. A more recent survey, however, uncovered less than 100 moose. Factors that appear to be contributing to the population decline include climate change (warmer winters and warmer summers), parasitic infestations, diseases, lack of certain minerals in their diet, and infertility of both cows and bulls caused by unknown reasons. Some people have suggested over hunting, wolf, coyote and bear predation — particularly on calves — while others believe surviving moose have migrated to more suitable habitats.
Whatever the reasons for the moose’s demise, one glaring fact is undeniably clear: the moose population of Minnesota’s great northwest — and throughout northeast Minnesota, too — is significantly diminished. And while a handful of holdout moose are hanging on in the northwest, and unless something extraordinary happens to change the population trend, some wildlife biologists predict moose will eventually become extinct in that part of Minnesota.
Unfortunate as this is, it is not the first time a species in the member of the deer family has disappeared in Minnesota. After all, woodland caribou once ranged across northern Minnesota from the bog country of Red Lake to the Arrowhead Region. But sometimes the niche left behind by one species is claimed by another. Perhaps, one could argue, it is occurring right now in northwest Minnesota.
Not long ago while the three of us sat around a warm fire at our Kittson County Deer Camp, I suggested another equally majestic ungulate might be on the verge of filling the void left behind by moose. I reasoned that if any species of deer was suited for the transitional zone of northwest Minnesota’s aspen parklands, it is the North American elk.
The two elk herds of Kittson County appear to be growing. The population, which also migrates across the border into Manitoba, is estimated at between 100 to 125 animals, sometimes higher. That’s about twice as many elk as Minnesota’s other, more renowned elk herd located near Grygla. Those animals, which numbers fluctuate but are normally between 50 and 60, support a limited hunting season occasionally when the population is suitably sized.
Though Minnesota’s northwest moose population has seen better days, a related species of deer more adapted to grassland habitats than moose could expand their presence here if given the opportunity. It could be that bugling bull elk might, in the end, replace the bellowing bull moose as the premiere deer of northwest Minnesota — perhaps making this area of our great state “The Elk Capital of the North” as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org