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A Desperate Measure: Communities Concerned About Moose

Posted at: 02/05/2013 3:48 PM
Updated at: 02/05/2013 11:01 PM
By: Laurie Stribling
lstribling@wdio.com

Rising moose mortality rates are not just alarming for wildlife officials, it's a concern for many people in the Arrowhead region. For example, Larry Schanno, who owns Our Place bar in Finland, has been fascinated by the creature for decades.

"Moose are cool," Schanno said. "Some people have their special animals. Moose have always been mine."

In every nook and cranny of his bar, you'll find moose tracks. His walls are full of moose memorabilia.

"If you can't see it out in the woods, I guess you have to come in here and see it," Schanno said. 

Schanno has watched the moose population decline first hand because he's been in the area his entire life.

"Seeing a moose was like seeing a rabbit," Schanno said. "That's just something you always see. I've seen one live moose in the last three years."

Down the shore in Beaver Bay, a similar story from Sandra Long, who owns the Wolf Tracks Gift Shop. She has watched the same trend Schanno described.

"It was in the earlier days that we saw more of them," Long said. "In the last couple years, I really haven't seen them."

Long said she hopes big-time research being conducted by the Department of Natural Resources in the Arrowhead region puts an end to the decline.

"I hope they find out what's going on with them," Long said. "I hope they find out how to solve this problem and get them healthy again, and get their numbers up again."

Erika Butler, Wildlife Veterinarian with the DNR, is hoping for the same thing. She is part of a bigger team collecting samples and collaring moose in an effort to figure out why so many moose are dying so fast.

"It doesn't feel good," Butler said. "It happened in the northwest though. We had about 4,000 animals in northwestern Minnesota and we have less than 100 now. It's something that definitely has gotten our attention; something we're hoping to put a halt to."

If the DNR can't find answers, within 20 years they could be extinct from Minnesota.

"We have some projections that could indicate that moose would essentially be disappeared off our landscape," Butler said.

The animals normal mortality rate should be around 8 percent, but for moose in Minnesota, it's about 20 percent. In the last six years, the moose population dropped from about 8,000 animal to just over 4,000 making this $1.2 million effort crucial.

Butler understands just how much moose mean to communities in the Arrowhead. Northeastern Minnesota's tourism industry brings in about $750 million dollars each year, and about 12 percent of people who come are viewing wildlife, according to research analysts with Explore Minnesota.

"It's just a staple of northern Minnesota, northeastern especially," Butler said. "All you have to do is go to a restaurant, or a bar, or a hotel or even a coffee shop and look at all the moose paraphernalia they have everywhere. It's clear this animal is an icon for our northeastern Minnesota residents."

Schanno's bar is just one of many that is filled with moose décor. One of his most interesting pieces is a picture of a live moose kissing him on the cheek.

"You can see who was kissing who here, but I was enjoying it, I'll tell you that," Schanno said.

While the DNR has conducted several studies over the years, Schanno thinks this mortality research may be too little too late.

"It makes me sad," Schanno said. "Why are you just getting concerned now. I've seen it happening over the last 20 years."

Phase one of this DNR study will be complete within the next couple weeks. Once all the animals are collared, wildlife officials will have to wait for an animal to die in order to start piecing the puzzle together. Also, in the spring, crews will collar calves.

The latest moose population numbers are expected to be released later this week.