By Shawn Perich
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Maybe consistently forgetting my camera at home is subconscious job security. Wandering in the woods last week, I was struck at how much vegetation still shows the evidence of past heavy browsing by moose.
You can see balsam trees that look like green lollipops, because all of the lower branches were munched by moose. Stunted aspens and birch sprout new growth like fingers beginning at the browse line. This is much easier to show with a couple of photos than explain with words. But I left the camera at home.
Evidence of fresh browsing is less noticeable, because there isn’t much of it. Balsam must be a secondary forage source, because most new browsing appears on the twigs of deciduous trees and shrubs. There seems to be more browse than there are moose to eat it. Once a common sight on the backroads of northeastern Minnesota, moose are now scarce.
Considering Governor Dayton curtailed further radio-collaring of moose for research because of high losses of adult and calf moose mortality due to research-related stress, it is interesting to note that biologists once worried over browsing was damaging moose habitat. Retired DNR wildlife biologist Bill berg shared a 1967 paper titled “Management of Minnesota’s Moose Herd” by the Minnesota Department of Conservation (forerunner to the DNR) in which wildlife managers said it was time to begin a moose hunt, due to an abundance of moose that was threatening to eat themselves out of house and home. The first hunt was held in 1971.
According to the paper, intensive aerial surveys of the primary moose range in the northeast and northwest portions of the state began in 1959. The survey areas are shown on the map accompanying this story. In 1967, the moose population within those two survey areas was approximately 7,000 animals. But the paper goes on to say: “The total moose population in Minnesota is considerably larger than 7,000 because animals are found outside of the area censused and the census is based only on those animals actually seen. It is estimated that there are now more than twice as many moose in the state as there were in the 1930’s.”
In some places, wildlife managers worried there were too many moose. The paper notes: “…in certain parts of northern Minnesota their numbers have increased to the point where their range is showing signs of deterioration due to overbrowsing of certain shrubs and trees. In these areas some hunting is necessary if adequate range is to be maintained. In one plot sampled in the Isabella area in 1961-62, more than 80 moose were counted per 25 square miles. This is better than three moose per section and equivalent to 30 deer per section as far as winter food is concerned. A moose requires 40- 50 pounds of browse per day. The Superior National Forest big game range cannot support 30 deer or three moose per section and maintain itself. Unless moose numbers are kept within reasonable limits, the same type of overbrowsing and range deterioration will occur as was experienced with deer during the 1930’s and early ‘40s.”
Moose reached a historic low point during the 1930s and early 40s, when deer numbers were at a historic peak. This scenario should sound familiar who has been following the current moose situation. Quite likely, moose became abundant in the regenerating forests that grew up following big pine logging and subsequent wildfires of the early 1900s. As the saplings and brush, which moose prefer for browse, grew into trees, the landscape became more suitable for whitetails. Some folks suggest a similar situation is occurring now, because the extensive openings from logging in the 1980s and 90s have become forests.
Via the paper, the Department of Conservation recommended legislation to allow moose hunting seasons. Officials recommended the initial seasons be very restricting to guard against possible damage to the moose herd. To start, the department proposed issuing 1,000 licenses to residents age 16 or older for a fee of $15. Hunters could apply alone for licenses or in groups of two or three. Such a season would result in an estimated harvest of 300 moose of any sex or age.
As can be seen from the accompanying map, the proposed hunting areas were relatively small. A zone of 750 square miles would be opened for 700 licenses in the Superior National Forest. In northwestern Minnesota, a 1,300-square mile zone in the Red Lake area would have 300 licenses. The suggested hunting season was nine days, same as the standard firearm deer season then, running from Dec. 2-10.
The paper doesn’t explain why theproposed moose season would be held so late in the year, well after the October moose rut and deer hunting seasons. In many years, hunters would contend with deep snow in December, which would close forest roads and greatly limit access. Perhaps this is why the actual moose hunts were held in October.
With a current moose population estimated at less than 4,000 animals for the entire state, Minnesota undoubtedly far fewer moose than existed in 1967. It is also likely northeastern Minnesota presently has far fewer deer than it did in 1967, following the hard winters that resulted in the 2014 deer harvest being the lowest in two decades. Today, no one seems able to figure out how to turn the corner from decline to recovery for moose. And recent deer population goal-setting meetings for northeastern Minnesota resulted in no recommendations because some members of the committee were adamant about keeping deer numbers as low as possible in order to benefit moose and forestry.
So right now, we have few moose, few deer and few loggers. Funny thing, but we used to have more of all three. I’m not sure what has changed, other than the times.