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Why are Minnesota’s moose dying? An app will rush examiners to scene

Some 150 moose will be equipped with GPS transmitters that can tell when they’ve stopped moving; 27 will also get “mortality implant transmitters” that sound an alarm when heartbeat ceases.

Since 2006, Minnesota moose numbers have fallen by about 50 percent.

Some years ago I had the weird good fortune to join an amateur forensic squad on Isle Royale, combing a little patch of woodland for a moose’s head.

It had been only a few days since the moose’s demise, and wolves had been at the carcass, but most of the large bones had already been recovered by the wildlife biologist Rolf Peterson. So had the stomach and contents, which Peterson told us, memorably, had weighed about 400 pounds.

The head and part of the neck, however, were proving elusive. So Peterson formed a search party from 20-some journalists who had come to the island with the aim of learning about his scholarship but without any expectation of actually participating in it. (Also, in some cases, without the best footwear for rough terrain in the soggy early spring.)

You might think that so many people, spread out in the exact place where the moose was known to have fallen, where the understory had yet to form much foliage, would have no problem locating something so big and relatively inedible as a moose’s head and neck.

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And you would be wrong. We came up empty.

Why are the moose dying?

I was reminded of our little escapade by the reports of the moose study being launched this month by Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources.

The best account, by John Myers of the Duluth News-Tribune, explains that about 150 moose will be fitted with $2,500 GPS collars and satphone transmitters that will notify DNR researchers when a moose hasn’t moved for about six hours – “about twice as long as a usual moose nap.” Precise location coordinates will be included.

For even quicker notification, 27 of these moose will be equipped with $900 “mortality implant transmitters” to monitor heartbeat. When the heart stops, a text message heads for DNR smartphones.

“We now have an app for that,” said Erika Butler, wildlife veterinarian for the DNR who is heading the research. “Speed is everything on this. We’ve already been practicing our responses.”

Moose are so big and retain heat so well that their organs begin to decompose after just 24 hours. And the longer it takes for crews to find the dead moose, the more likely predators and scavengers will find it first, eating away at key evidence.

It’s the first major study of its kind in North America, and scientists say that instant access to dead moose will allow them to figure out a question more important than when or where the moose are dying. Scientists want to know why.

Disease in a warming climate

Actually, as Myers explains, much is already known in a general way about why the moose population in northern Minnesota has plummeted since the 1960s – and at an accelerating pace in recent years.

Since 2006, moose numbers have fallen by about 50 percent, with nearly all of the surviving population of 4,200 or so in Cook, Lake and eastern St. Louis counties.

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Why? There’s continuing habitat loss. There are more predators (wolves) taking calves and more competitors (deer) taking food.

But at the moment, these factors seem less important than a complex interaction between disease and the least-understood element of all: a warming climate. The details of that interaction are what the DNR research is after, in hopes that some kind of mitigation measures can still be effective.

Here’s how the situation is described in the DNR moose research and management plan, adopted a year ago, slightly compressed and with emphasis added:

Over the last two decades, moose density declined dramatically in the northwest population, from at least 4,000 to fewer than 100 animals in the last survey. The northwest moose population is on the verge of extirpation. The precipitous decline in this population continued even after the cessation of hunting in 1997 and continuation of habitat improvement projects.

During a period of intensive research in the late 1990s, annual adult moose mortality was high (21%) and moose pregnancy and recruitment rates were very low. Mortality was attributed to poor nutritional condition and parasitism. These health-related issues were correlated with increased summer and winter temperatures in recent decades, in an area of forest edge where tree cover is relatively sparse.

Beginning in 2002, moose research and monitoring were intensified in northeast Minnesota through a cooperative effort by the DNR, tribal authorities, and federal researchers. Annual non-hunting mortality of adult moose in this population was found to be comparable to that of the northwest population during the 1990’s study.

Since the implementation of a helicopter survey [in 2004], there has been an apparent decline in the [northeastern] population; however, the decline was not statistically significant until 2011. Research has also identified inverse correlations between annual and seasonal survival and various temperature metrics which suggests a link between moose populations and a warming climate.        

I found other good coverage of Minnesota’s plummeting moose population in the Strib, the Los Angeles Times and at Minnesota Public Radio. But I admit I kept wishing to hear from the Strib’s Larry Oakes on the subject.

In memory of Larry Oakes

Larry died last Friday night in a struggle with depression, a fact his family has been generous in sharing with a world that still needs to know more about this breed of trouble, with its quiet persistence and unforeseeable swells.

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The obituaries have listed Larry’s awards and highest-profile stories, as they always do when a newspaperman or woman passes on, and many a more recent colleague has said beautiful, proud, true things about the man and his work. But I want to add a few words about his humility and courage.

When he came to work for me on the Strib’s state desk, in the Duluth bureau, he was about 28. He’d been at the paper for a few years, mostly covering cops, and at the Duluth paper for a year or two before that.

But he still felt like a kid, he told me, in a newsroom where graduate degrees weren’t uncommon, where big egos were the norm, where service in an outstate bureau had shaped the likes of Nick Coleman, Dan Oberdorfer and Roberta Walburn, where many reporters never seemed to write a piece that took less than two weeks.

Larry wasn’t sure he was up to the job, and he said so, and his candor made for some awkwardness because at this point we hadn’t yet offered it to him.

I assured him he would do just fine – his skills were solid, his enthusiasm for covering Duluth and the north was unquestioned, he could count on me for help as needed but I didn’t think he’d need much, etc.. etc.

I couldn’t really know these things, of course, and Larry’s face told me he knew at least some of it was sheer schmooze.

But we offered, and he accepted, and went on to prove me right on every point, day after day, year after year, in the job he said (and this was no schmooze) was the only one he ever wanted. Including the part about not needing much help.

His enthusiasm made him easy to manage, a joy to edit, and colleagues have remarked this week on Larry’s ability to sustain that energy through 30 years of general assignment, luck-of-the-draw reporting. I’ve been gone from the paper awhile, but this rings true.

Certainly his big, prize-winning projects proved in time that no assignment was over his head. But I never knew Larry to consider an assignment beneath his stature, either – and in my experience of newsrooms, that’s more noteworthy still.