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KBJR-TV 6 Special Report: The intense project aimed at saving Minnesota’s moose

Feb 20, 2022 05:09AM ● By Editor
Photos: KBJR-TV

By Dan Wolfe from KBJR-TV Duluth • February 17, 2022

On a snowy day at the tip of Minnesota’s arrowhead, a research team with the Grand Portage Band prepares for an annual hunt. With snowshoes in tow, they load up several vehicles and drive to a remote location in the woods they call “LZ”.

The team has darted and collared about 170 moose in 12 years. Photo: KBJR-TV

This is a hunt for moose happening from the air. The guns are loaded with tranquilizer darts rather than bullets. The goal is to collar rather than kill. From a helicopter, a crew made up of a pilot, vet and gunner spot a moose.

They get close enough and take a shot. Then it’s go-time for Grand Portage biologist Seth Moore. He’s flown in to the downed moose, where he and fellow biologists have less than an hour to do a lot of work. That includes a COVID test, blood sample, ear tag, stool and urine sample, tick count, tick treatment, ear biopsy and more.

The moose is also fitted with a collar for tracking. 


Moore’s team has become a well-oiled machine, as earlier this month, they darted and studied their 170th moose in 12 years.

“We really started focusing on what is causing moose population decline and ultimately what can we do about it to reverse that trend,” said Moore.

According to the DNR, there were roughly 9,000 moose in Minnesota in 2006. By 2013, the population plunged to an estimated 2,700 animals. News that shocked state leaders and sent researchers scrambling to find answers.


“It’s concerning because moose are the primary subsistence species of the Grand Portage Band,” said Moore. “It’s an iconic species of Minnesota. It’s a keystone species of a healthy boreal forest ecosystem. It’s absolutely a vital species in Minnesota.”

“Our intent comes from the background of us wanting to help,” said Grand Portage fish and wildlife biologist Edmund Isaac. “Moose are kind of losers on the landscape under the light of climate change.”

Moore was able to show us exactly what that losing looked like while studying a darted moose. He counted dozens of winter ticks that were feeding on the animal. Experts say shorter, milder winters have sent winter tick numbers soaring. In recent years, some moose have become covered in thousands of them, causing the animals to focus more on itchy pests, and less on nutrition and their calves.

“We’re treating half of our moose with tick medication and half don’t get it, and we’re seeing how controlling winter ticks on moose might effect their survival rates,” said Moore.

But ticks are just part of the problem. Milder winters and less snow have also helped the deer herd thrive and grow deep into moose country. That introduces another deadly pest.

“About 25% to 35% of moose that die in a year are dying because of brain worm,” said Moore. “It’s a parasite transmitted by deer.” And where deer go, predators follow. “By collaring the calves, we’ve been able to determine that 80% of calves are preyed on by bears and wolves in the first two weeks of life.”

Lessons the Grand Portage researchers have learned from years of darting, studying and collaring. It’s work the team hopes will ultimately shape future policy to protect and restore the herd.

“We need to address the moose population decline quickly and aggressively,” said Moore. “If we lack the societal will or the legislative will, I don’t see how moose populations will recover.”

As for what Moore and his team want that policy to look like, it’s a three-pronged approach based on their research. They want more aggressive deer hunting in moose territory to keep brain worm in check. They want good forestry and more prescribed burning to help keep ticks at low levels. And the researchers would like to see the return of wolf hunting, at least inside moose range, to help cut down on the number of calves killed.

While there’s some pushback from deer hunters and wolf advocates, Moore says state lawmakers and DNR leaders have been receptive to the ideas. Almost all the work they do on the project is funded through federal grants.

They’re also the only group in Minnesota doing this type of work.

Previously, darting and collaring was being done by the DNR, but the governor put an end to it years ago due to concerns over the stress of the collaring experience leading to higher moose mortality. However, Grand Portage researchers say they’ve been able to keep collaring mortality between 1% and 2%. That’s well below levels researchers consider concerning.

To see the video version of this KBJR-TV Special Report and related stories, follow this link to the KBJR-TV website.

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