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Moose hunting season put on indefinite hold by MN wildlife officials

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DULUTH - The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced today that the population of moose in Northeastern Minnesota dropped 35 percent from last year. The agency said it will not hold a season this fall “or consider opening future seasons unless the population recovers,” according to a news release today.

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The plight of Minnesota's moose is well-known. The population of the iconic species has declined from an estimated 8,800 in 2006 to the current estimate of 2,760 animals, according to the DNR. In December, the moose was added to the state’s endangered species list as a “species of concern.”

Some Minnesota residents had called for an end to moose hunting because they said they don’t believe it’s right to hunt the species when its population is in continuous decline. DNR biologists had maintained that taking a small number of bulls from the population, about 2 percent, is not detrimental to the overall population. Over the past decade, state and tribal hunters have harvested an annual average of about 184 moose annually.

Minnesota’s modern moose hunting season began in 1971. Seasons were held in both the northwestern part of the state and in the northeast. The northwest population declined precipitously in the 1990s, and that season was closed in 1997. Hunting continued in the northeast. Out of concern for the declining population, the Northeastern Minnesota hunt became a bulls-only hunt in 2007. The DNR has reduced the number of permits available for the hunt in recent years. Last year, 45 bulls were taken by state-licensed hunters.

Here is the full news release issued Wednesday by the DNR:

A recently completed aerial survey of moose in northeastern Minnesota indicates the rate of population decline has accelerated dramatically.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced today that the northeast population declined 35 percent from last year. Since 2010, the moose population has declined 52 percent.

In response to the survey results, the DNR will not open a 2013 state moose hunting season or consider opening future seasons unless the population recovers.

“The state’s moose population has been in decline for years but never at the precipitous rate documented this winter,” said Tom Landwehr, DNR commissioner. “This is further and definitive evidence the population is not healthy. It reaffirms the conservation community’s need to better understand why this iconic species of the north is disappearing from our state.”

Landwehr stressed the state’s limited hunts are not the cause of the population decline.

“Yet taking this action is reasonable and responsible in light of latest data and an uncertain future,” Landwehr said

Based on the aerial survey conducted in January, the new population estimate is 2,760 animals, down from 4,230 in 2012. The population estimate was as high as 8,840 as recently as 2006.

Completed in 2011, the DNR’s moose management and research plan established biological and management thresholds for closing the season.

While those thresholds have not been met, DNR managers did not anticipate such a precipitous decline in the overall moose population when the thresholds were established.

“It’s now prudent to control every source of mortality we can as we seek to understand causes of population decline,’’ said Landwehr, explaining the rationale for closing the season.

To help solve why moose are rapidly dying, the DNR is leading the largest and most high-tech multi-partner moose research effort ever initiated.

Starting in January, wildlife researchers began fitting 100 moose in northeastern Minnesota with GPS tracking and data collection collars. This multi-year research project will investigate the causes of adult moose mortality, calf mortality, calf survival, moose use of existing habitat and habitat quality. To date, 92 collars have been placed on moose in the Grand Marais, Ely and Two Harbors areas.

Information and insights from this pioneering research may help identify management options that could stop or slow the moose population decline.

Rolf Peterson, a research professor at Michigan Technological University who is renowned for his study of the wolf-moose relationship on Lake Superior’s Isle Royale and chaired the DNR’s former moose advisory committee, concurred with the DNR’s commitment to conduct pioneering research and discontinue hunting until more is known.

“The DNR’s decision to suspend hunting makes sense given the disturbing and abrupt decline in moose numbers,” Peterson said. “To me, the big news is the incredibly disappointing survey results. The hunting decision is simply a logical reaction to an uncertain situation that researchers are trying to resolve.” 

The DNR has conducted aerial moose population surveys in northeastern Minnesota since 1960. The survey involves flying transects in 49 randomly selected plots spread across the Arrowhead region of Minnesota. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and 1854 Treaty Authority contributed funding and provided personnel for the annual survey.

A copy of the aerial survey report is available online at www.mndnr.gov/moose, a Web page that also provides field updates from moose researchers, an interactive map of the study area as well as photographs and video of field research activities.

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