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Blane Klemek column: Moose scarcity is a recent phenomenon

It was May 2000. I was the new manager and director of the Wetlands, Pines and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary, an 800-acre wildlife refuge and environ-mental education center in northwestern Minnesota near the City of Warren. Fresh out of graduate school and ready to roll up my sleeves and get dirty, I was eager and grateful to be working in the wildlife profession.

One afternoon, probably only a couple of weeks into the job, I was on the office telephone talking to a customer service representative of a long distance telephone company. She had an interesting accent, so I asked her where she was from. She answered that she was from Missouri and that her company was headquartered there.

As we talked about the various long distance service plans, et cetera, I happened to glance out the window of my office. To my complete surprise, a trotting moose suddenly appeared and ran quickly past my frame of view at no less than 50 feet away. I abruptly stopped talking and announced to Ms. Missouri, "A moose just ran by my window!"

"Well my goodness", she replied. "I heard there were moose up there in Minnesota!"

We had a good laugh as I continued to scan the yard for another moose passerby, but no others showed up.

Indeed, such is the case with Minnesota's northwestern moose population these days; not many are showing up. Not long ago, moose were common there. In fact, in the 1980s, some 4,000 moose inhabited the aspen parkland region of the state. By all accounts, it appeared that the population of moose was healthy, growing, and expanding.

Moreover, during that period, including throughout most of the 1990s, one could, if having never observed a Minnesota moose before, be practically guaranteed of seeing a moose by simply driving through Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, north of Thief River Falls. The refuge then, and yet today, offers plenty of prime wetland and woodland habitat for moose. Not so today. The moose are, for all practical purposes, gone.

The same is true for Minnesota's northwestern-most county - Kittson County. Karlstad, a bustling community in the county about 35 miles northwest of Thief River Falls, was designated many years ago by its citizens as, "The Moose Capital of the North."

It was there, during the summer of 1994 while working as a forest health monitor for DNR Forestry Resource Assessment, that I saw one of the largest bull moose I've ever seen. In fact, up to that point in my life, I believe the animal was only the third moose I had ever observed.

The first night of my two or three-day stay, I asked a Karlstad resident where I might see a moose.

He smiled and said, "North, south, east or west, take your pick; they're all over the place."

Next morning an hour or so before work, I drove a few miles northeast of town to a narrow township dirt road near Twin Lakes Wildlife Management Area. It was there that an enormous bull rose out of a cattail-choked ditch, dripping wet, and strode across the road a few yards in front of my vehicle. His antlers looked impossibly large on top of his mammoth head. His legs were like stilts carrying a dark body the size of a mini-van. He was an impressive beast to say the least.

Although only 15 years ago, it seems like a long time from then to now. Today, on land that I own just a few miles north of the place I observed the big bull I just wrote about, virtually the only sign of moose I encounter are the bleach-white bones of those that have perished. Just last November, for instance, I found the ribs, leg bones, and skulls of two cow moose - former producers of calves, and calves that will be no more.

What happened to these two particular moose? It was, after all, only eight years earlier that I wrote in a September 2001 column, "We are lucky here in northwestern Minnesota to be the home of moose. And while it is true that there may not be as many as there once were just a short time ago, many people agree that the population may be recovering."

I continued, "In only one week's time, I have seen eight moose and heard two others. Five of those observations were right here at the Sanctuary, while the other moose were observed in the Karlstad area."

Moose that inhabit northern Minnesota have always been considered as those occupying the southern edge of their range. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that if the species truly depends on the relatively cool environment of boreal forests and peatland bog country for food, water, shelter and space, then a warming climate - no matter how insignificant it might seem to you and me - might not bode well for Minnesota's moose.

Recently, a group of concerned men and women committed to moose and moose habitat preservation, convened to discuss and provide management and research recommendations to the DNR. The recommendations, which were formally presented to the DNR in August, are a good beginning for the future of moose in Minnesota.

Changes in Nature, as inevitable and natural as it is, are sometimes cataclysmic; that is, what affects something, affects another, which affects something else, and so on. No matter what the case is with regard to these remarkable animals, something negative has happened to Minnesota's moose, especially to those animals that once seemed to be flourishing in the northwest part of the state.

Let us hope that help is on the way for these magnificent animals 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