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Moose populations not what they used to be

On the day before the 2001 Minnesota firearms deer hunting season opener, my brother-in-law Jim Kimball, longtime friend and hunting partner Jim Jahnke and I sat in a law office in the town of Warren, Minn., to close the deal on an 80-acre parcel of Kittson County hunting land.

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.

Kimball and I had made the trip up north on a couple of separate occasions earlier in the fall, in October, to hunt grouse and deer there. Mostly, however, we scouted. We spent a great deal of time walking through the woodlands and wetlands of the property and adjoining state land in an effort to assess on whether we wanted to purchase the hunting land.

The incident that helped make our decision for us occurred during an evening bow hunt for deer. As we sat in our portable tree stands overlooking the open land of 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 80, a half-mile, and ambled past my brother-in-law, too.

This autumn will mark the eighth hunting season the three of us and our families have enjoyed in Kittson County. And during the first three, 2001-2003, we observed plenty of moose and their sign. 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 popple trees as big around as soccer balls, 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.

But that was then. We haven't seen a single moose over the past four years, though I still occasionally come across piles of aged droppings, beds and an infrequent track. Moose in the far northwest, in the heart of what is still called the "Moose Capital of the North," have nearly vanished.

Particularly telling was a discovery I made last November while hunting deer one day. I found a bleached-white skull of a cow moose lying pitifully on the forest floor. No other skeletal remains could be located nearby. Even the animals' bones are gone.

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 has caused the disappearance of this incredible species, but it's hard to determine, let alone accept -- especially for those who remember the 1980s.

A population survey conducted then revealed a thriving population that numbered more than 4,000 animals in Minnesota's northwest. A more recent survey uncovered fewer than 100 moose. Factors that appear to be contributing to the population decline include rising temperatures, infestations of parasites, lack of certain minerals in their diet, diseases and infertility of both cows and bulls caused by unknown reasons. Some people have suggested over-hunting, while others believe surviving moose have migrated to more suitable habitats.

Whatever the reason or reasons for the moose's demise, one glaring fact is undeniably clear: the moose population of Minnesota's great northwest is significantly diminished. And while a handful of holdouts are hanging on, unless something extraordinary happens to change the apparent downward population trend, some wildlife biologists have predicted that moose will eventually become extinct in that part of Minnesota.

Unfortunate as this is, it is not the first time a species has disappeared. After all, woodland caribou once ranged across northern Minnesota. Sometimes the niche left behind by one species is claimed by another. Perhaps, one could argue, it is occurring right now in northwestern Minnesota.

A few years ago, while we sat around a warm fire at our Kittson encampment talking about how we used to see moose, I suggested that another, equally majestic, ungulate might be on the verge of filling the void left behind by moose. I reasoned that if any species of cervid was suited for the transitional zone of Minnesota's aspen parklands, it is the elk.

The elk herd of Kittson County appears to be growing. The population, which also migrates across the international border into Manitoba, is estimated at between 100 and 125 animals. That's about twice as many elk as Minnesota's other, more renowned elk herd located near Grygla. Those animals, which number between 50 and 60, support a limited hunting season from time to time when the population is suitably sized.

Though Minnesota's northwest moose population has, for the moment anyway, seen better days, a related, cud-chewing, large species of deer more adapted to grassland habitats than moose, looks to be expanding their presence in the northwest. It could be that bugling bull elk might, in the end, replace the bellowing bull moose as the premiere megafauna deer in northwestern Minnesota.

Until next week, be sure to 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