Minnesota Moose Mystery: Is Climate Change Killing this Icon of the North?
It seems like every third business in Northern Minnesota has "moose" in its name, reflecting the importance of the iconic mammal on local culture. But if current trends continue, the word on commercial signage may be the only trace left of the moose population in northern Minnesota.
An unexplained population crash in the northwestern corner of the state has led to the near extinction of the moose in that territory. Naturalists fear that moose in the northeastern quadrant are following the same pattern. Finding answers rivals a crime scene investigation, as the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Minnesota moose lovers seek answers that can help put a stop to further moose deaths.
Reports have attributed moose decline to climate change, but a local reporter this week says there are "still too many questions to link moose decline to climate change." Marshall Helmberger, of the Ely Timberjay, fears that blaming climate change lets the DNR "off the hook" for the moose population collapse. Helmberger questions why moose elsewhere are not dying at similar rates, whether genetics or natural cycles play a role, if wolves may be to blame, and how forest management fits into the puzzle.
Clearly the Minnesota DNR realizes that the issues may be more complex than climate change alone, as evidenced by the Minnesota Moose Research and Management Plan, published late in 2011. Current research does not support the idea that wolves are killing off the moose. More likely culprits, including tick bites and brainworm parasites, may be thriving in warmer climates -- leading to moose deaths indirectly related to climate change.
But the fact remains that most of the moose deaths (74%) directly observed in collared populations cannot be explained. The moose are simply dropping dead, often apparently from what the DNR describes as "heat stress". If climate change is killing moose, the case may be out of our hands: action to limit climate change can only come too late. But until it can be proven that climate change is to blame, we agree with Helmberger: we dare not waste precious time that could be used to find manageable causes which could help to prevent the tragic loss of moose.
It is hard to imagine Minnesota without moose. Saving them will require that dedicated Minnesotans like Helmberger keep the pressure up to find answers to the questions, and that legislators fund and the DNR executes the moose research plans. Something to think about next time you swing by the Chocolate Moose.