Missing Moose? A lot of bull

Photo by Shawn T. Stewart Yellowstone bull moose looking healthy and strong.

This week 'The New York Times' came out with a troubling story about decimated moose populations around North America, from Montana and British Columbia to Minnesota and the Northeast. However, according to our local FWP biologist Shawn Stewart, Carbon County moose are doing just fine. “I have been counting moose since 1989. The 2013 count for the Carbon County area was 26 percent above the long term average.” Although the article cites Minnesota as experiencing a very extreme decrease in moose numbers, it also quotes Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist, Nick DeCesare, “There’s fewer moose out there, and hunters are working harder to find them.” When asked if it were a little extreme to lump Montana with Minnesota, a state that has reportedly seen its moose population drop from 4,000 to less than a few hundred Decesare agreed.

“I think so. We’re just starting to count our moose. There has been no statewide survey.” He explained, “I started here a little over a year ago because we saw the drop in half of hunting tags from 1995 to 2012.” However, “We didn’t know how many moose we had. In 2006, we counted about 5,000 but that was a very informal survey of our regional biologists. They were simply asked to estimate how many they thought they had in their area. The hunter stats give some index.” He will be watching reproducing females to see how many calves survive. “It’s hard to count at this point,” he admitted. Regarding ticks he said, “We have seen some moose covered with ticks in our initial group and it does affect body condition.” Another concern is arterial worms. They block the artery to the brain. “It is spread by mule deer and is not a threat back East. It seems to affect the moose much more negatively.” With warmer temperatures, Decesare theorized, the ticks may not be dropping off and dying in April but are having another reproductive season. But it is not so simple. “Colorado’s moose are doing fine.

They are not showing lower numbers of moose in warmer years and higher numbers in colder years.” The possible reasons moose are missing from natural habitats nationwide are complex, but a common suspect is climate change. Resulting heat stress on moose, loss of their habitat from pine bark beetle tree kills (as in British Columbia) and increasing tick, brain worm and liver fluke populations are cited as possible causes. “Places that have not been clear cut or experienced fires may not be ideal habitat for moose anymore,” said Decesare. “Moose prefer young trees and bushes.” But he reflected, “It’s difficult to say: old growth does provide shelter in deep snows and a Wyoming study of habitat after the ’88 Yellowstone fire did not show an increase in moose reproduction as expected.” Decesare cautioned against simply blaming wolves.

“Minnesota had big drops in moose population. It’s not just wolves-which they’ve always had. They saw their moose dropping; they started the study because they knew something else was going on.” He said there is probably some influence here, where wolves were introduced in the mid-90’s, but he does not know the degree of impact compared with other causes. Does Stewart see reason for local concern? He looks at his records. “Actually it was the second highest count I have ever had. Local moose populations went through a down turn about 10 years ago but appear to have bounced back nicely.” Decesare hopes Carbon County’s numbers are evidence that the cause of decline has passed here. In the meantime, Montana is working hard to determine the state of its moose.

“We are gathering information from three different habitat areas: Big Hole-southwest Montana; the Cabinet Mountains-northwest Montana and Choteau, the eastern front. We hope this will result in a representative sense of what’s happening.” Any solutions, according to Decesare, “will depend upon what we find. There is some evidence of effects on moose of temperature, parasites and predators. We have some tools-habitat management, wolf management and moose hunting.”