By BILL ZIEGLER
For The Daily News
CRYSTAL FALLS - Ever since the original Michigan moose re-establishment program, called Moose Lift, outdoor enthusiasts in Michigan have looked forward to seeing a wild moose in the Upper Peninsula.
Moose cow and calf feed near U.S. 141 at the Iron-Baraga County line. A large beaver pond on the east side of the highway just south of the county line and north of Cable Lake Road has become a favorite spot to occasionally see moose in the morning or evening.
Moose are native to Michigan but, according to historical records, other than a few scattered individuals in the U.P., they had largely disappeared by the late 1800s.
The Michigan Department of Conservation attempted to re-introduce moose to the U.P. in the 1930s but that attempt failed. A group of Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wildlife biologists felt that adequate moose habitat was still present in parts of the U.P.
In January 1985, Michigan DNR Wildlife personnel worked with specialists from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to transfer moose from Algonquin Provincial Park to Michigan.
On the original Moose Lift, 29 moose (10 bulls, 19 cows) were captured using helicopters to dart them and then airlifted with a larger helicopter to waiting trucks. The moose were trucked to a release site north of Michigamme.
In 1987, a similar effort transferred 30 moose from Algonquin Park back to the same area in the U.P.
The original goal was to grow the moose population to about 1,000 animals by the year 2000 and then consider a limited hunting season.
Unfortunately, the moose population did not increase as expected.
According to DNR Wildlife Research Biologist Dean Beyer the moose population grew slowly to about 215 animals by the turn of the century.
In recent years concern has been growing among wildlife management agencies across the southern tier of the U.S. moose range.
Minnesota has had a stable moose population with a carefully regulated hunting season for many years.
According to the Minnesota DNR their moose population has dropped 52 percent since 2010. On the southern tier of the moose range, state wildlife conservation agencies like New Hampshire and Montana have also reported a decline in their moose population.
The Minnesota DNR reports they have two geographically separate moose populations. The northwest Minnesota moose population has dropped dramatically since the 1990s from about 4,000 down to about 100 recently. The northeastern Minnesota moose population is also dropping from a recent high of about 8,000 as recently as 2006, down to about 3,000 in 2013.
Although a number of factors are likely to have contributed to Minnesota's moose decline, Minnesota DNR suspended their 2013 moose hunting season as a precaution.
Tom Landwehr, Minnesota DNR Commissioner said "it is now prudent to control every source of mortality we can as we seek to understand the causes of population decline."
Minnesota DNR reports they have collared over 200 moose and outfitted them with GPS and data collection collars.
Researchers will investigate the causes of moose calf and adult mortality and survival, moose use of existing habitat, and habitat quality. It is likely that this research will shed light on important mortality factors that may also apply to the Michigan moose population.
Dr. Dean Beyer of the Michigan DNR monitors the Michigan moose population. He said "from 1997 to 2007 the U.P. moose population was growing by 10 percent a year."
He went on to say that "from 2009 to 2013 the moose population only grew by two percent per year."
Beyer said the current moose population aerial survey indicates there were about 451 moose in the western U.P. during January 2013.
Beyer explained the DNR's survey efforts have been primarily focused on the western U.P. moose population that was re-introduced in the "Moose Lift" program.
Dr. Beyer explained that the moose herd in the eastern U.P., "likely number fewer than 100."
The source of the eastern U.P. moose is not known for certain. It is possible that a few scattered moose remained from native moose although it is also likely some immigrated from eastern Ontario or the western U.P.
Beyer listed the following factors currently causing mortality in Michigan moose: disease kills 30 percent; trauma (stuck in mud/fall through ice, etc.), 24 percent; 14 percent die from liver flukes; and four percent die from collisions with vehicles.
Current Michigan moose monitoring cannot give an exact figure, although during intensive radio collar monitoring between 1999 to 2005 about five percent of moose emigrated out of the study area.
Brain worm that caused 35 to 40 percent of U.P. moose mortality early after the re-introduction, has recently fallen to only "two percent of the overall moose mortality."
Beyer felt that winter ticks that have been very detrimental to moose in some other areas were not as significant a factor in the west U.P. The researcher did not consider wolf predation to be a significant mortality factor to the west U.P. moose population.
"The moose calf survival rate is higher in the U.P. than many other monitored moose populations, especially those systems with wolves and brown bears," he said.
"Wolves would more likely target deer than moose in the western U.P. and many of the deer in the core U.P. moose range move to deer yards outside this range in the winter. Wolves would be more likely to follow the deer away from the moose in the winter," Beyer said.
Some moose experts have speculated that this hard winter would actually help the moose population.
Beyer felt that was a reasonable assumption since "moose have evolved to prosper in deep snow and very cold winters. Moose are easily heat stressed and the southern distribution of moose in the world is controlled by temperature. It is possible that the colder winter could especially help control winter ticks that are a significant moose problem at Isle Royale," and in some other states and provinces.
In 2011, the DNR Moose Hunt Advisory Council, a legislatively created council, investigated the potential of a moose hunt in Michigan.
The council felt a moose hunt was a feasible option provided the moose surveys indicated that the moose population continued to grow at sustained growth rate of over three percent per year.
"Since the Michigan moose population is currently only growing at two percent per year, the Michigan Natural Resources Commission is not currently considering a moose season," Beyer said.