Like a lot of us who were born and raised in Minnesota, I can remember the first time I ever saw a moose like it was yesterday.
I was about 10 years old and summer camping with the Girl Scouts in the Boundary Waters. At dusk I wandered down to the lake by myself and there they were — a moose mom and calf feeding at the edge of the lake, big mouthfuls of wet weeds dripping into the water.
But those kinds of magical moments are in real danger of disappearing forever in Minnesota, a disturbing reflection of the quickly declining health of the natural ecosystems we all depend on.
As a biologist who loves our state’s expansive natural areas, I spend my share of time in the great outdoors Minnesota has long been known for. But it’s been more than 10 years since I’ve even caught a glimpse of a moose in the wild.
A nearly 60% drop in a decade
Despite countless family camping trips up north, my kids – ages 8 and 9 – have never seen one, a sad fact that reflects a nearly 60 percent drop in the state moose population over the last decade.
That’s why the conservation group I work for filed a petition last week asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to award Endangered Species Act protection to the Midwestern subspecies of moose that’s found only in increasingly fragmented populations in Minnesota, North Dakota, Michigan and Wisconsin.
This issue is pressing: In just 10 years’ time, moose numbers in Minnesota have dropped from nearly 9,000 to as few as 3,500.
Biggest threats come from climate change
The causes of the dramatic decline are many, from unchecked habitat destruction caused by mining and logging industries, to overharvesting. But scientists agree that the greatest threats – threats that could virtually eliminate moose from Minnesota within five years – all stem from the same source: climate change.
Moose have thick, insulating fur that allows them to survive freezing temperatures. But in a warming climate, that same trait suddenly puts moose at increased risk of overheating, which leads to malnutrition and lowers their immune systems. At the same time fast-warming temperatures are causing the northern boreal forests of aspen, spruce and birch to shift further north. Minnesota is losing the food sources and habitats that moose require.
The warming environment is also allowing more ticks and pathogens to thrive. As a result, the subspecies of moose known to this area for thousands of years is now is now being threatened by a number of parasites and diseases. We’ve seen an explosion in the winter tick population resulting in high moose mortality rates. It’s not unusual to find moose with literally of thousands of ticks on them.
But it’s not the forces of climate change, alone, that threaten moose. Habitat destruction from planned mining, economic development, and forestry practices also threaten our moose. A 2006 study examined impacts to known wildlife corridors for sensitive species in northeast Minnesota. It found that six of the 12 known wildlife corridors in the Mesabi Iron Range will likely become isolated, fragmented, or lost completely, and almost 9,000 acres of habitat will likely be destroyed.
Needed: habitat protections, research …
Listing moose under the Endangered Species Act would provide additional habitat protections necessary to help moose weather our warming world. It would also bring additional federal dollars to moose research and highlight the cost of failing to address emissions of greenhouse gases.
The good news is that even when it comes to the difficult task of wrestling with the forces of climate change, there is a clear upside: The fact that scientists agree that climate change is largely a human-caused problem suggests that it’s a problem we can also fix.
If we’re willing.
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