April 29–Citing the number of moose killed as a result of scientists handling them, Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday abruptly halted all radio collaring of the animals in Minnesota.
The action was met with immediate criticism by scientists in the state and elsewhere, who accused Dayton of putting the interests of public relations and sentimentality toward individual animals before the needs of the larger moose population.
The wild moose wandering the northern forests of the state with radio collars will remain collared and studied, but Dayton’s ruling bans any new collars, effectively putting an expiration date on a number of studies of the iconic animals stretching from Voyageurs National Park to the shores of Lake Superior.
Moose research is especially pressing now in Minnesota, as the state’s population has fallen by roughly half in the past decade, a trend that has sent scientists searching for answers — and whether anything can be done about it.
Images and reports over the past year of unusually high levels of deaths of moose calves after being handled by researchers prompted Dayton’s decision, he said. He spoke of pictures of “poor little calves” with collars around their necks when talking with reporters Tuesday.
“You can study, study and study and that information is good,” Dayton said. “When you are damaging the breed you are trying to study, it’s just not right.”
Two years ago, the Department of Natural Resources embarked on a pair of ambitious projects to determine what was killing Minnesota’s moose.
Death rates of newborn calves seemed a bit high, but the most vexing problem was that adults in the prime of their lives were dying.
The $1.6 million effort — hailed by many as the most advanced moose research ever undertaken — involved adult moose and newborn calves.
Adult moose were affixed with GPS radio collars and in some cases moose were implanted with devices that transmitted vital signs such as body temperature and heart activity. Calves were affixed with radio collars immediately after being born.
The primary goal was to positively identify the cause of death of every moose. The technology immediately alerts researchers if a moose is dead or dying, and allows them to get to the animal within hours. That sort of rapid-response had been unprecedented with moose — and is especially valuable for calves, which naturally die at high rates, but those deaths are rarely explained with certainty.
The rapid response is essential, researchers say, to determine a cause of death because the huge and well-insulated animals decompose swiftly when dead, even in the chill of a northern Minnesota winter.
But problems surfaced quickly. Of the 74 calves collared in the spring of 2013 and 2014, many were believed to have died of starvation after being abandoned by their mother cows, and many of those were believed to have been the direct result of researchers’ handling of the calves, a phenomenon that has been known to researchers since the 1970s. DNR officials said the abandonment rate was too high and took steps to lower it by handling the calves for less time — a minute or two tops, just to put a collar one — even forgoing efforts to determine the gender of the newborn.
Last month, criticism over the calf mortality mounted when a former DNR veterinarian alleged in the Ely Echo newspaper that senior DNR researchers had failed to plan adequately for the abandonment. Dayton referenced the story Tuesday, but did not criticize the agency.
Dayton noted that in the first two years of the study, the second-leading cause of death for the research calves, after being eating by wolves, was likely researcher-related.
Additionally, Dayton noted that some adult moose had died likely from being tranquilized and handled by researchers. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said six adult moose died in that manner over the winter.
Hopeful they could reduce calf mortality this spring, DNR officials publicly had said they planned to continue the work, although researchers said earlier this year that if mortality was high, they would shut it down.
Then Dayton shut it down with his executive order Tuesday, followed by statements by Landwehr, a Dayton appointee, supporting the governor’s move.
The state’s current moose population is estimated to be 3,450, give or take a few hundred, and scientists said hundreds of calves are born each spring. It appears that a few dozen total animals have been killed as a result of research activities in the past two years, although a DNR official did not respond Tuesday to a request for specific numbers.
Two of the nation’s pre-eminent wildlife researchers Tuesday said Dayton’s decision suggests a misunderstanding of the value of research — and the population dynamics of moose.
“Very shortsighted,” said David Mech, a senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota. “It’s a public perception problem. It’s not a biological one. Most of those calves would have died anyways.”
Mech, one of the nation’s top wolf experts who has studied the relationship between moose and wolves, said in most years, fewer than half of moose calves die before reaching age 1, and the point of the DNR project was not to save individual animals but to determine what exactly was killing them — including learning clues about why cows abandon their offspring.
The 50 calves the DNR had planned to collar in the next two years could have provided key information.
“Had it been allowed to continue, it was probably on the verge of discovering the cause of natural abandonment of calves,” Mech said. “We have no idea what the natural rate of abandonment is. It’s just not possible to find out without this kind of work.”
Similar criticism was leveled against Dayton’s decision from Rolf Peterson, who has been a leader of a renowned study of moose and wolves on Isle Royale in Lake Superior.
Peterson, who sat on ad advisory committee to determine Minnesota’s moose management strategy last decade, said that ending collaring of moose calves might be acceptable — since the primary problem in Minnesota is that adults are dying too frequently.
But Dayton went too far in ending collaring of adult moose as well, said Peterson, a research professor at Michigan Technical Institute and co-principal of the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Project, which began in 1958 and is the longest-running predator-prey study in the world.
“Adult moose. too? Wow,” said Peterson upon being read Dayton’s order in a phone interview. “That’s very surprising. Because of this research, Minnesota was the leader in moose research in the entire country. The fact that it would come from the governor suggests it’s not science-based.”
The total ban on new radio collars will affect other research, Peterson said, including work out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth tracking moose in and around Voyageurs National Park and parts of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, both tracts of wilderness along the Canadian border.
That work follows the movements of adult moose to determine which habitat is important to them at various times of year. Peterson said that information is needed because climate change, combined with the decline of timber harvest, has raised the possibility that moose no longer have the habitat they need to survive in today’s climate.
More than $2 million in Legacy Amendment tax proceeds has been awarded to the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and other groups to improve moose habitat, and Peterson said there’s no substitute for radio collars to understand the importance of, say, deep-forest conifer swamps for moose to stay cool during summer heat waves.
“Radio-collaring is the only way,” he said, adding that mortality from human handling is a reality of wildlife research. “You just ask yourself whether it’s worth the risk of losing a few animals to find out information that might save a lot more.”
UMD researchers couldn’t be reached for comment, but Landwehr said he believes Dayton’s prohibition on new collars would apply.
It would probably not apply, Landwehr said, to tribal research on American Indian lands. The Grand Portage and Fond du Lac bands of Lake Superior Chippewa have both been involved in radio-collaring projects.
But Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist with the Fond du Lac band, said the bands have always worked alongside DNR researchers.
“Pretty much all the moose research in the state has involved all the agencies cooperating in one way or another, and without that, it’s going to be a lot harder to this work,” Schrage said. “I think it’s a mistake on the governor’s part. People are wanting to know what’s going on with the moose, and with this research, we’re getting answers that we never had before, and that’s being taken away.”
He said early data suggests poor health and wolves are major factors in the population decline, but more data is needed to confirm that.
Landwehr said valuable moose research can continue with existing collared animals.
“There are almost 100 adults out there with radio collars on them,” he said. “We’re still going to get a huge amount of data in those animals. Suspending new radio collaring on moose — both calf and adults — will eliminate the risk of unintended losses of individual moose.”
He said the DNR is “committed to using all the information from this study to advance the understanding of the decline and look for potential solutions.”
Schrage said he doesn’t buy that argument.
“Nobody working on moose research now in the state of Minnesota feels good about any of this,” he said. “We all work very hard to try to minimize capture-related mortality. It doesn’t help our research, and it just really sucks for the researchers when it happens.
“But if you step back for a minute from the loss of an individual animal and look at it analytically, there are thousands of moose out there, and the number handled by researchers is not going to impact the population. But the answers are going to help us. And let’s say we do learn enough from these existing animals and we present a management solution, how will we know if it’s working if we can’t collar new animals?”