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Moose in decline in NE Minnesota

Wildlife experts from across North America were in Duluth Monday to help jump-start an effort to save Minnesota's moose.

Hit hard by parasites and warmer weather, Minnesota's moose population is shrinking, and experts fear the state may lose the big, beloved animal for good.

"We're going to figure this out. We're going to set a course that's proactive,'' said Laurie Martinson, deputy director of the state's Department of Natural Resources, which held its first-ever moose summit at the Inn on Lake Superior.

"There's nothing that makes your heart beat faster [than seeing a moose], and we want to make sure we save that for future generations," she said.

The agency announced a seven-month moose advisory committee that will decide what research is needed to understand moose issues and to de-velop a species survival plan. The 24-member committee is to report next summer on what should be done and will look at habitat, disease, parasites, hunting and climate, among other issues.

But a warming climate may be too much for moose to overcome, said Rolf Peterson, a world-renowned moose expert from Michigan Technological University.

"I don't know that we can do it," Peterson said of preserving the species in Minnesota. "The changes we've set in motion in terms of climate change are already there, are already in motion."

Shorter winters, hotter summer days and more extreme climate all are combining against moose on the southern edge of their natural range, Peterson said.

"Things are just chang-ing too fast for moose to hang on in all of their former range," he said. "It will be a challenge to hang onto a species [so affected] by summertime heat."

Peterson said moose are hit hard by even moderately warmer days because of their black coat, thick hair and inability to perspire. Moose can lose heat only by breathing faster, he noted. When they're overheated, they don't eat, preventing them from gaining enough weight during summer to survive the winter. It's believed some elderly and diseased moose even perish from heatstroke.

Other factors include a brain worm carried by deer that is harmless to whitetails but often fatal to moose. In areas of even modest deer densities -- about 10 deer per square mile -- the parasite becomes prevalent and moose die out.

Warmer weather also leads to infestations of winter ticks, which bother moose so much they rub off their insulating hair, leaving them vulnerable to death by exposure.

In contrast to Minnesota, North Dakota's prairie is seeing its moose population expand slowly. There, liver flukes, ticks and brain worms are al-most nonexistent despite warmer weather, said Bill Jensen of the North Dakota Department of Game and Fish.

• Moose were common across the northern third of Minnesota before settlers arrived. Their numbers were decimated by intense logging, clearing of forests for farming and over-hunting, and moose hunting seasons were closed in 1921.

• Moose numbers slowly rebounded, peaking in the mid-1980s with more than 4,000 moose in northwestern Minnesota and up to 8,000 in Northeastern counties. The DNR resumed a limited hunting season in 1971, and moose seemed to be doing well.

• Starting in the 1990s, however, the northwestern herd crashed. Now, fewer than 100 moose remain.

• In recent years, the northeastern herd also has started to decline, by about 6 percent annually since 2002. The herd remains strong at about 7,600 animals. But wildlife officials fear the same rapid decline could strike the northeast as it did the northwest.

• Moose pregnancy rates remain unusually low in the northeast, and the number of moose that die from natural causes in Minnesota remains unusually high compared to Canada and other areas where moose are common.

• Moose also are declining rapidly in areas of northwestern Ontario and North Dakota near the Minnesota border.

• Efforts to bolster moose numbers could include reducing white-tailed deer numbers in some areas. But it's not clear if that would be publicly accepted or even work.

• Wildlife experts say efforts also may include reducing or eliminating moose hunting. This year, about 2,700 hunters applied for just 250 permits to hunt moose. Minnesota hunters shot 110 bulls. Ojibwe tribal hunters shot another 30 or so. But shooting only a few bulls each year is not believed to affect the overall population, said Dave Schad, DNR fish and wildlife division director. Still, Schad said it's not clear how much longer hunting seasons can be offered. "At some point, the population will be low enough where we can't sustain hunting seasons,'' he said -- a matter to be mulled by the moose committee.