Dayton orders DNR to stop collaring moose

Collared moose
A successfully collared cow moose turned back toward the capture crew before ambling off into the thicket to be reunited with her calf.
Courtesy the Minnesota DNR 2014

Updated 6:15 p.m. | Posted 9:53 a.m.

Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday ordered state natural resources officials to stop the practice of radio collaring moose in Minnesota and to stop issuing new permits for moose radio collaring.

Dayton in a statement said he was concerned collaring has led to the deaths of some adult moose and put "calves in danger of abandonment by their mothers."

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The state Department of Natural Resources has been using GPS tracking collars on adult and calf moose since 2013 as part of a $1.2 million study to learn more about why the moose population continues to fall in Minnesota.

The DNR's 2015 moose survey put the moose population at 3,450, compared to 4,350 in 2014 and 2,760 in 2013. The number of moose is down roughly 60 percent from 2006.

Currently, more than 70 percent of young moose do not survive their first winter in Minnesota, according to the governor's office. And about 20 percent of the moose calves that have been collared by the DNR as part of the research have been abandoned by their mothers.

Last year, the DNR thought it had solved the problem of collared calves being abandoned. Researchers said they had found a way to place GPS collars on newborns that didn't seem to lead to mothers leaving them behind.

Lead researcher Glenn DelGiudice told MPR News last spring that researchers were now approaching the calves in teams of two, rather than up to four people. And instead of collecting measurements and other data from the calves, which can take around four minutes, they were simply slipping the research collar on in a process that took only a few seconds.

Initial reports looked positive. "We think we can do this very successfully with very minimal abandonment," DelGiudice said then.

On Tuesday, however, Dayton said while he respected DNR officials for their efforts, he'd concluded their methods were causing too many deaths.

"I'm not an expert, but I've seen the pictures of these poor little calves looking bedraggled and then the study that [was] forced upon them last year said the No. 1 predator for small moose are wolves and No. 2 is the trauma from having these collars put on them," Dayton told reporters.

"You can study, you can study, you can study and that information is good. But when you're damaging the breed that you're trying to study it's just not right," he added. "I think we made a step in the right direction on the preservation of the moose population."

Dayton's order calls on the DNR to stop collaring immediately and indefinitely.

DNR biologists leading the moose study were not made available for comment. Commissioner Tom Landwehr says they were disappointed with the governor's decision. But he says he supports it.

"The governor doesn't ask his commissioners to always be in agreement with him, but I would offer that we do agree with the governor on this one," he said. "It was time to pull the plug on this project."

Researchers will continue to study the 99 adult moose that still have collars, he added.

But the calf study will end, since researchers won't be able to collar more calves this spring.

Researchers are starting to get a clearer picture of the complex mix of factors killing Minnesota's moose.

So far wolves have killed more than half the collared moose - although many of those moose killed were already sick. The other deaths were health related, caused by brainworm, winter ticks or other factors.

Moose calves were killed primarily by predators, both wolves and bears.

The collars have also let researchers track where moose move in the forest and how they're responding to warmer temperatures, said Ron Moen, a University of Minnesota Duluth biologist who will no longer be allowed to collar moose.

That information can be used to help create more of the habitat moose need to survive, he added.

Scientists with the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa are also studying moose habitat.

Band biologist Seth Moore says the band has collars on 35 moose on and near the reservation. And they intend to collar 10 to 15 calves next month.

He says unless he hears otherwise from band leadership, the governor's order won't change his plans.

"My intention at this point is to continue doing what we're doing, we're doing good science, and that science is going to steer how we manage moose populations to benefit them," he said. "I feel really good about that."

Moore said they have not had any mothers abandon calves and that they're post-capture mortality rate for adult moose is less than 2 percent.

No one likes to lose a moose during research. But Moore said what scientists are learning could help them ensure that the animal remains an iconic part of Minnesota.

Not everyone was sanguine about the news that collaring would end.

"I'm really disappointed," said Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

"This is a blow to figuring out what's going on with our moose herd, and proposing solutions of what to do about it," he said.

"We were getting answers on causes of mortality that we never had before," he said. "Now, the ability to get that information and to start thinking about what solutions might be possible, it's going to get much harder now."

MPR News reporter Elizabeth Dunbar contributed to this report.