- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - With Minnesota’s moose population on the decline, conservation groups have teamed up with government agencies in hopes of helping the animals hang on by enhancing the habitat that’s critical to their survival.

Northeastern Minnesota’s moose population is down to around 3,450, about 60 percent lower than the estimated 8,840 in 2006. Scientists are still trying to understand why, but they suspect interplay among warmer temperatures, parasites, disease, and changing forest habitat. The state suspended moose hunting in 2013.

Aided by nearly $3 million in state money, the Minnesota Moose Habitat Collaborative is using prescribed burns, selective logging, brush-cutting and planting about 2.5 million trees, to provide better food and cover across 8,500 acres of Minnesota’s prime moose territory.

Officials don’t expect the project to reverse the decline by itself. But Chris Dunham, forest manager for The Nature Conservancy, said restoring high-quality moose habitat is one area where they have the power to make a difference.

The groups plan to hold several events in northeastern Minnesota on Wednesday to highlight the work already done and planned.

Thriving moose populations have tended to have large areas of disturbed forest where fires and logging would clear room for the new growth that moose need, said Ron Moen, a researcher at the University of Minnesota Duluth. But logging in the region has declined, he said, and while there have been some large recent forest fires in the area, they were concentrated in just a few places.

“What this project is doing is providing additional forage for the moose across their entire range,” Moen said.

The plan calls for prescribed fires on about 2,500 acres; selective timber harvest and reforestation on about 1,500 acres; clearing brush from about 1,500 acres to generate new growth of shrubs that moose browse; and then 3,000 acres that will be both cleared of brush and then restored through tree-planting. The aim is to put a more diverse mix of tree species of varied ages on the landscape.

Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said fires can produce good moose habitat as long as they’re not too severe. His data show high numbers of moose in some areas near the Gunflint Trail that burned in 2006 and 2007, he said. But hardly any moose have moved back into the area burned by a large, hot fire near Ely in 2011. He said it’s not clear yet whether that area just needs more time to regenerate or if the damage was too great.

The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association took the lead in organizing the initiative, partnering with federal, state, county and tribal agencies, UMD and The Nature Conservancy. The Legislature approved $2.96 million in Legacy Amendment sales tax funding for the project in 2012 and 2013.

“Moose and deer do overlap. They essentially are the granddaddy of the deer family. … It’s pretty hard not to pull for anything that can try to help moose,” said Craig Engwall, executive director of the deer hunters.

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