Feb 18 7:00 PM

The high-tech detective hunt to save Minnesota's moose

Minnesota officials are on a moose hunt. They’ve collared 150 of the animals with GPS devices. Many will get implants to log their vitals too. It’s a $1.6 million effort, the largest study of its kind in the world, and all to hopefully prevent an icon of Minnesota’s northern wilderness from becoming a myth.  

“If we continue at this trajectory, we’ll be out of moose in 2025,” biologist Michelle Carstensen told America Tonight.

In this part of the U.S., moose are rapidly moving from endangered to near extinction. The moose population stands at 4,350, according to the most recent survey. It’s a significant uptick from last year – which officials peg to better survey conditions – but less than half of the estimated 8,840 moose in 2006. And the mortality rate is twice what it has been in the past.

Catching a moose

After the moose population appeared to plummet by one-third in 2012, hunting was banned. The only moose-chasers prowling these woods now are from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which with increasing urgency, is trying to figure out what’s going on.

Moose don’t travel in herds though, so finding them can be difficult in the best conditions.

After shooting the moose with a tranquilizer, Carstensen, the leader of the research project, and her team take blood samples. They fit the moose with a $2,500 GPS collar to track its movements. This year, the team collared 30 moose in just over five days in northeastern Minnesota.

“So, as long as it’s moving on a x-y-z plane, it is in live mode,” she said. “But if it’s motionless for a six-hour period, it goes into mortality mode. And it’s able to transmit that message to our smartphones.”

With the GPS, researchers can see how the moose moves in the days and hours before it’s death. With an additional implant, they can see the temperature and heart beat of the creature as its life slipped away.

The aim is to get to the moose within 24 hours of its death, and bring it to a certified pathologist at the University of Minnesota. The carcass is then in the best condition for a necropsy.

This is certainly much easier with the new equipment – with older technology it could take more than a week to find the dead moose. But it’s still a feat. The 1,000-pound animal can die anywhere, and with such dense coats of fur, their bodies decompose quickly.

With moose populations across the continent declining, scientists are eyeing Minnesota’s state-of-the-art research and hoping it can solve the moose mystery before it’s too late.

“It’s very important to try and figure out what we can do to try and keep the species going along,” said Trent Brown, a “gunner” on Carstensen’s team, who leaps out of a helicopter in waist-deep snow, collaring moose five times his size. “We’re just doing a small part here.”

The suspects

Seth Green
Seth Moore suspects that parasites transmitted from deer are having the most adverse effect on the moose population.
America Tonight

Several factors are behind the staggering population drop, and many could be linked to climate change.

Some moose show serious neurological symptoms, according to Seth Moore, a biologist for the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, a Native-American tribe near the Canadian border. He’s been working with the state, using the same GPS collars on tribal land.

“The things that are affecting moose are parasites that are transmitted from deer,” he explained, pointing out that deer numbers increase in warmer temperatures. Winter ticks also affect moose, he added, and spike with early snow melt.

Warmer temperatures could also be causing heat stress, or affecting the immune systems of the cold-weather animals.

“That’s how they’ve evolved – to have a coat like to survive harsh winters,” said Carstensen. “Yet, if they’re all of a sudden having a little bit of a warmer winter, they can’t really dissipate that heat effectively.”

But Carstensen said there’s no clear answer in the data. There are the brain worms and live flukes, which have thrived in Minnesota. And there’s a healthy wolf population too. In the first year of the study, the mortality rate of the moose was 21 percent for adults and 74 percent for calves, raising even more questions. Research like this takes years to reach conclusions, officials emphasize, to ensure that results aren’t compromised by weather or behavior.

“Our challenge is: Do we have enough time before there aren’t moose left in Minnesota to answer the questions?” she said.

The 'magical' moose

A moose being collared by a research team
America Tonight

Moose have been roaming the wild landscape for centuries. They dot the signs of bars and restaurants in northeastern Minnesota. Each year, in honor of moose mating season, the residents of the city of Grand Marais, Minn., gather for the Moose Madness Family Festival, collecting Moose Bucks, posing with Murray the Moose and wearing “I Saw a Moose in Grand Marais” T-shirts.

“An encounter with a moose is usually thought to be pretty magical, and folks that have those encounters talk about it for years to come,” Carstensen said.

Photographer Nace Hagemann lives in the heart of moose country and sells his photos of the big beasts online and to local gift shops. Ten years ago, he’d see them ambling down the road. Now, he spends hours hiking every morning in the hope of spotting one.

“They’re like a horse,” said Hagerman, who said that moose these days are also mysteriously letting him get closer. “You can watch their ears and see. Sometimes, it’s maybe 100 feet, and sometimes, I’ve probably been within 20 feet at some points.”

For researchers hoping to cut down on the moose mortality rate, Minnesota’s moose have taken on another mystical quality – serving as an omen for how global warming might affect the earth’s animal life over the coming decades.

“I mean, moose are kind of a keystone species, right?” Carstensen said. “We know that with an animal like this if there’s climate change-related impacts, you know it would be showing up first in animals like moose in Minnesota.”

More from America Tonight

Related

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter