Courtesy Grand Portage Reservation Trust Lands and Natural Resources Division
Seth Moore, tribal director of biology and environment for the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa Indians, attaches radio collar to a cow moose on the Grand Portage Reservation as part of an investigation into unprecedented moose deaths in Minnesota.

Minnesota Governor Halts Study of Moose Deaths Because Moose Are Dying

Douglas Thompson
7/31/15

As tribal and environmental authorities race against time to determine why moose are dying by the thousands in Minnesota, Governor Mark Dayton has pulled state support from the initiative—claiming that the moose deaths are being caused by the research.

He did so without consulting either tribes or environmental and moose experts, say the people who have been involved in the three-year-long study. Failure to find an answer, they said, will make the vanishing species’ hold in the state even more precarious.

“What is happening to moose is a reflection of what has happened to tribal people in the U.S. historically,” said Seth Moore, director of biology and environment for the Grand Portage Band. “It is the gradual loss of a species and a culture, both of whom have occupied the country through history, and we have a responsibility to attempt to make reparations to prevent its loss.”

The decline in Minnesota’s moose population has been nothing short of tragic. The animal has virtually disappeared from northwestern Minnesota, which once held several thousand of them. Results of recent aerial surveys indicate that the population has plummeted in the northeastern portion of Minnesota from almost 9,000 in 2006 to as few as 3, 450 animals today—an almost 60 percent drop.

RELATED: Minnesota Tribes Cancel Moose Hunt as Animals' Population Plummets

Blaming some of this loss on researchers’ recent practice of radio collaring moose, Dayton handed down Executive Order 15-10 in the spring, ending Minnesota Department of Natural Resources involvement in a major research initiative designed to help understand why Minnesota’s moose population is disappearing. The ban essentially terminates the regional study—only in its third year—which had recently received negative publicity due to the death of a number of the subject animals.

“Their methods of collaring are causing too many of the moose deaths they seek to prevent,” Dayton said in a statement, referring to the researchers. “Thus, I will not authorize those collaring practices to continue in Minnesota.”

In early July, Norman Deschampe, chairman of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, wrote to Dayton requesting that he reconsider. Deschampe asserted that, though the ban does not affect the band’s ability to continue its own research, the governor’s executive order would stymie regional collaborative efforts to understand and address the causes behind the decline in Minnesota’s moose across the broader landscape.

“The Minnesota moose collaring program is critical in helping us understand the reasons for the decline of this species over a larger region,” said Moore. “It is naïve to believe that doing nothing will benefit this species.”

There is much at stake for the tribes of northern Minnesota, given the key role that moose have traditionally played in their lives.

“Moose are the primary subsistence species for our community,” said Grand Portage member and Trust Lands Administrator Tony Swader. “Because of the long history of dependence on moose for sustenance, it has immeasurable cultural value. To simply watch this species disappear while doing nothing would be a blow.”

The loss of research support is having a profound impact on the Minnesota moose research community. A science-driven moose research collaborative comprising tribal interests, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Zoo, the Minnesota Natural Resources Research Institute and Voyageurs National Park have been working together in recent years to determine the best approach to take toward moose management decisions.

“This collaborative dialogue led to a consensus that radio collaring moose was the only way to methodically understand and solve this problem,” said Moore.

“If we are going to effectively implement new management practices that might benefit moose, we need to understand why this species is declining,” said Tiffany Wolf, a veterinarian and wildlife epidemiologist with the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Already we have learned quite a bit, but the complexity of studying a wild species and understanding all of the processes that can influence its survival requires long-term research, more than the three years we currently have.”

Though they have come up with clues, the reason for the decline remains elusive.

RELATED: Minnesota Moose Deaths Still Confound Scientists

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