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Eyewitness News Special Report: A Desperate Measure

Posted at: 02/04/2013 3:28 PM
Updated at: 02/04/2013 10:32 PM
By: Laurie Stribling
lstribling@wdio.com

In the middle of the North woods, far from any town or well-kept road, there is a makeshift helicopter pad and trailer. The little camp, organized by the Department of Natural Resources, is set up to solve a big problem.

"We are doing a big, adult mortality project trying to figure out why our moose population is declining," DNR Veterinarian Erika Butler said. "We are trying to catch 110 moose in the area between Grand Marais, Ely and Two Harbors."

Butler said moose are dying at an alarming rate. The population has been cut in half over the past six years, plunging from about 8,000 animals to just over 4,000.

"We have prime-age animals dying," Butler said. "Animals that should be fit and healthy. The speed of the decline that we're seeing indicates to me that it's likely health related."

To find out for sure, DNR crews launched their biggest effort yet to save the species. They are using spotter planes to find moose then a helicopter to track them down. David Pauly, a field biologist, is one of the few people who is on the ground with the spotted mammals.

"It's a hard job to beat," Pauly said. "It's fantastic. I'm glad I could be a part of this project."

Once the helicopter moves in on a moose, the animal is darted with a drug. That's when researchers can start collecting information on the ground. Crews are taking blood, hair, teeth and assessing body size. It's work that is done quickly for the safety of the animal; the DNR can collect samples in about 20 minutes.

This information will hopefully give researches important insight about the moose population. Tests tell crews if the animals are showing sings of disease or how well they're eating. Once all the samples are taken, the animals are fitted with a GPS collar so they can be tracked.

When a moose dies, this collar will alert DNR officials through a text message. The goal is to get to the animal before it decays and can still provide answers.

"It's going to give us information quicker," Butler said. "It will allow us to get into those mortality sites faster to get information that we've never been able to collect before."

Researchers are optimistic they will be able to find answers to why the moose population is dramatically declining.

"Moose are my favorite animal," Butler said. "[They] have been since I was a kid. So, it's nothing that makes me feel good, but hopefully we're going to be able to get out here and figure out what's going on, and find some management implications from our findings."

The research is also ironic; Butler has to wait for a moose to die in order to further her insight.

"For us to collect data, they have to die," Butler said. "While we aren't hoping that they do, that is what we a going to need happen for us to get the information that we need."

It won't be in vain. Death will hopefully lead to understanding, which will keep moose where they belong, in the Northwoods.

The project will most likely wrap up in the next couple weeks if weather permits. Wildlife officials will also be collaring calves come spring.