Minnesota's annual moose hunt is underway -- even though the animal is all but gone from northwest Minnesota, and the herd is in decline in the northeast. Even some moose hunters wonder why the state allows the animals to be hunted at all.
Among them is Jason Murphy, of Zimmerman, Minn., who recently killed a bull moose in the Superior National Forest.
As a biologist ran a tape measure over the massive black corpse of the moose, which was strapped to a trailer at a business north of Finland where hunters register their kill, Murphy couldn't help but admire his trophy.
The antlers measured more than 40 inches from end to end. Murphy figured the bull was about four years old.
"Size of a small horse," he said.
Murphy and his father-in-law were among 213 parties licensed in the state's moose hunt. Last year, hunters killed 103 moose.
Two Native American hunts are also held, each taking far fewer animals.
But hunters account for only of a small portion of moose deaths. The size of Minnesota's moose herd is in a steady decline, largely because of disease and a changing climate. At 5,500 animals, it's about half the size it was 25 years ago.
Proud as Murphy is of this moose, he wonders if the hunt should be allowed.
"The numbers are declining, and it is kind of surprising that they even still do have a season," he said.
A few miles away, on the banks of the boulder-strewn Temperance River, Robert Larson recalls watching moose from his house in the forest nearby.
"I don't see them anymore. I used to see them quite frequently," he said. "So far this year I've only seen one moose. And living in the Superior National Forest, you'd think you'd see more than one moose in 10 months."
Combined, the state and Native American hunts are expected to take more than 100 animals this year. But Larson thinks that might be too many.
"Why do we have a moose hunt if there aren't any moose hanging around?"
"Why do we have a moose hunt if there aren't any moose hanging around?" he asked. "I'd kind of like to know why they're still letting people harvest the moose if the numbers are still going down."
It's an argument Lou Cornicelli has heard before.
Cornicelli, big game program coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources, said there is no biological reason to stop the state's limited moose hunt. Hunters take only about 2 percent of the herd, and that's too small to have a material impact on the overall population, he said.
He's working on a final draft of a new moose management plan, intended to help moose survive in the state. But ultimately, it may be a losing fight.
High death rates among moose put the animal's continued existence in Minnesota in doubt, said Mark Lenarz, a moose expert for the DNR, and a biologist based in Grand Rapids, Mich. On average, 21 percent of the northeast moose population dies each year from non-hunting causes.
"It's really difficult to say how long the moose population will exist, but with mortality rates that high the population is going to continue to decline," Lenarz said.
Most moose die from parasite infestation and disease, things Lenarz said they might have survived if it weren't getting so warm in their habitat.
Lenarz said Minnesota's moose are at the southern edge of their ideal weather range -- physically stressed and less able to survive.
"They don't really do well in warmer weather," he said. "We believe that as temperatures warm up we're going to see shift in the distribution of moose, farther north into Ontario," he said.
But Lenarz said that shift has to progress much farther before it makes sense to call off the hunt.
"Certainly if there's 50 moose, or 500 moose in the population, it's probably time to stop moose hunting," he said.
Minnesota's moose management plan will set targets that would stop the annual hunt, such as when the population of bulls falls a certain percentage behind cows.
The plan stresses the need for more research, as well as new efforts to prevent deer -- which carry a brain parasite fatal to moose -- from overpopulating moose territory.
Meanwhile, 213 licensed moose hunting parties have until Sunday night to claim the state's biggest game animal -- before the climate does.
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