Moose Tracks

You know a destination is remote when they don’t even bother with addresses anymore. As someone who still needs the acronym “Never Eat Soggy Waffles” to remember the cardinal directions, this should have been the first strike.

The fact that the area is nicknamed The Boundary Waters should have been the second. In reality the vast number of waterways and bogs that span the region of the Canada-United States border between Ontario and Minnesota inspired the name. As I drove north along U.S. 53, 33 minutes having passed since I had seen another car and ominous black storm clouds rolling in, it seemed like a constant reminder that my decision to drive 10 hours from Chicago tested the boundaries of good sense.

If you’re not willing to accept watching season four of “Man vs. Wild” as wilderness training—though you should because the “Alaska” episode pretty much encapsulated what I was up against—then my zero hiking experience and pathological fear of insects qualified as strike three. This made the fact that I arrived to find the Ash River Visitor Center closed and no park rangers in sight just a fun side note.

I should have turned back. Clearly I’m a city girl with no business being in the woods. But one look in the rearview mirror at the camouflage baseball cap and red North Face backpack—filled that morning with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Nalgene water bottles and a can of hornet spray to defend myself against wolves—sitting in the back seat of my dad’s Mazda Tribute convinced me that I had everything I needed to do what others suggested I probably shouldn’t. I was going to find a moose.

It was an odd quest, I get that, but at the outset it appeared that I was in the right place to complete it. Moose are part of the deer family, so they must also be found in woods and forest areas. There is no shortage of that in a national park ground. The fact that moose are herbivores that prefer birch and aspen trees narrows the search range, but those trees are abundant in the Ash River area of the park. Their hairy bodies thrive in colder climates. Highs in the mid-forties on May 18 fit that bill. Their long legs allow them to wade into bogs and rivers to cool off in the summer and snack on electrolyte-rich algae. The Kab-Ash trail at the northeast corner of the park winds around several bogs created by local beaver activity. On paper I couldn’t have picked a better spot.

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With that logic in mind, I pulled into one of the three parking spots long ago painted on the shoulder of the stretch of Ash River Road leading to the Kab-Ash trail entrance. I tucked my hair back into my camouflage cap, snapped a picture of the trail map and headed towards the forest. I brought my sister Kimberly along for both company and a diversion in case we ran into any bears. Calling upon the expertise she gained during those three days spent at Girl Scout Camp in the fourth grade, she broke a fallen birch tree branch over her knee to make a walking stick. That display was enough for me to relinquish authority and let her lead the way.

The first thing that struck me was the smell. The impending storm gave a heaviness to the air that was filled with the musky scent of things living. The tang of sap trickling down the bare spots of trees that had been stripped of their bark by nibbling moose and deer floated above the dank odor of the decomposing leaves that had been matted down to create a makeshift trail. The abundance of moisture from the surrounding bogs and waterways causes the plants to decay slowly. This increases the acidity of the soil and intensifies the air’s piquant after-scent. Somewhere in between lay the fresh scent of pine leaves protruding from moss covered branches. The combination was so intoxicating that I found myself stopping just to take in huge breaths.

I had skimmed a pamphlet on how to avoid bear attacks the night before while waiting for my walleye fillet sandwich at Grandma’s Saloon and Grill in Duluth. At the cherry red vinyl twin sized bed that doubled as the booth, I sat frantically committing such sage wisdom as, “if it’s black, fight back,” to memory while being stared down by an open-lipped moose head that looked as though the taxidermist had frozen him mid-burp. Thankfully, the information wasn’t all that trite. The description of the sounds of the region’s native black bear as a low, warbling grunt stuck in my mind as I strained my ears for the distinct noise while we moved through the trees. Nothing. The silence was deafening. Aside from two woodpeckers going to town on an aspen tree, the forest was still.

It remained that way for the next two hours. As we climbed over fallen branches and hiked up rocky inclines the loudest sound was my belabored breathing. Finally, Kimberly spotted the first sign of moose existence as the trail pinched in towards a bog: a series of hoof prints pressed into a patch of sphagnum moss that was growing out from the water’s edge. The frost had broken just a week before and the moose were already wading out into the water to get to the algae that had been trapped below the icy surface.

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We climbed to the top of a lookout point carved into a nearby hillside to get a survey view of the area. The scene was breathtaking: reeds protruding from the bog’s edge swayed in the breeze as Canada warblers swooped down to splash momentarily into the cool water. No sign of a moose. A beaver tugged at a log. No moose. Four does nibbled at the reeds. Still no moose.

10 minutes.

20 minutes.

45 minutes.

Where the hell were they?

An hour and a half.

In all fairness, I should have seen this coming.

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On February 6 the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced the cancellation of the upcoming fall moose-hunting season due to a “precipitous” decline in the state’s moose population. Since 2010 the population has declined 52 percent. The state currently estimates that there are only 2,760 moose within its boarders.

And nobody is saying why.

But Erika Butler, wildlife veterinarian with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, has a hunch. Since 2011 she has been leading a team charged with the study of adult moose mortality. Don’t scoff. It’s more exciting that it sounds. She and her team fly across the state in helicopters trying to locate moose herds. Once found, the sharp shooters of the group hit the moose with tranquilizer darts. From there it’s a mad dash to land the helicopter and fit the moose with a tracking collar that will monitor movements and alert the team at the moment of the animal’s death. If there’s time, they also stop and collect any hair, feces and tick samples they can before the effects of the dart wear off. “The mission is to collect as much information as possible to make an informed decision about where the department’s resources should go in order to maintain the integrity of the state’s ecosystem,” she says.

Her efforts thus far have yielded two possibilities: parasites or climate. For a little perspective, this is the human equivalent of saying cancer is caused by either lifestyle or genetics.

The threat of parasites is related to the recent increase in the white tailed deer population, which has been under the management of the state since 1858. The population has experienced fluctuations in that time due to a variety of causes including changing habitat, severe winters and hunting practices. The current policy, in place since 1971, allows for the harvest of one buck per year with a finite number of either sex permits issued. This ensures that there are enough females to further the population during the next mating season. The deer population rebounded and then stabilized as a result.

Unfortunately for moose, maintaining a vibrant deer population increases their risk of catching one of the many parasites—liver fluke and brain worm included—that deer carry. Steve Windels is a wildlife biologist at Voyageurs National Park. He is conducting park specific research into the decline of the moose population. Parasites, he says, must go through a maturation process that involves feeding off of different types of hosts. Liver fluke, for example, begins its life cycle in a snail and then moves on to a deer during the larva stage. At this point it impairs the deer’s bodily function by feeding off of the blood and nutrient supply in the liver, but it is not yet large enough to cause death. Once it reaches maturation it exits the deer’s body and is picked up by any moose that comes into contact with deer feces. The larger the deer population, the more likely the cross-contamination is to occur.

Climate change is less straightforward and more widely misunderstood. The public has a tendency to blame global warming for single instances of extreme weather when in reality the concept is based on trends in weather patterns established over decades of time, says Rao Kotamarthi, an atmospheric sciences and climate researcher at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois. Kotamarthi is currently working on climate models of the Midwest, which has shown a two-degree increase in average annual temperature since the turn of the century. He attributes this observation to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which traps heat and increases the earth’s temperature. And the damage is not easily undone. “Carbon is like dust in the air,” he says. “It doesn’t immediately settle. Instead it hangs around until the ocean and trees absorb it.” As a result, the region can expect to see milder winters and higher than average rainfall totals. While homes with heating and central air conditioning shield humans from the elements, moose are built to withstand specific environmental conditions and might face serious consequences as a result of the changing climate.

Larry Heaney isn’t worried. “It’s nothing they haven’t dealt with before,” he says.

In his office at the Field Museum, sparse except for a giant bookshelf filled with titles such as Mammals of North America, Heaney, the MacArthur Curator of Mammals, settles in to discuss the progress of the moose through North America. He plays with the white hairs above his lip as he establishes the timeline in his head. Like Kotamarthi, Heaney begins with climate change and the fact that 3 million years ago the earth’s carbon dioxide concentration increased dramatically. The warmer temperatures that resulted led to the maturation of boreal forests across North America, which, at that time extended as far south as Missouri. The moose population benefited immensely from the growth of new forest land. While their long legs make them considerably taller than other forest mammals, the moose’s neck is not designed to crane upwards, so it prefers to lean forward to graze. The growth of new forest lands meant that an abundance of plants at their early stages met this height requirement. The moose were well nourished and thrived.

Two geological periods threatened the moose’s survival by drastically changing the environment. When glaciers tore through the region during the Pleistocene Epoch approximately 12,000 years ago the boreal forest was flattened and the moose’s food supply was destroyed. The Little Ice Age in the 19th century was glacier-free, but its frigid temperatures shrunk the Midwest’s forests even further. Though the population initially dwindled during these periods, warmer temperatures brought the return of secondary plant growth that replenished the moose’s food supply at an optimal height. It was the arrival of loggers in the mid-1800’s that caused the moose population to make its last shift north. White pine, a favorite of the moose, was a trendy material in architecture at the time. Entire forests were cut down and shipped down the Mississippi River to be processed and sold in Chicago.

Taking a break from the office setting, we headed through the bowels of the museum into a specimen storage room. Heaney wanted to show me the consequence of the hobby that loggers and western settlers adopted as they moved into moose territory. After winding through a series of halls lined with offices, we ducked into a room that housed a single oversized white drafting table. At the back of the room was an inconspicuous tan door. Pulling a key from his pocket, Heaney unlocked the door and ushered me inside. I stumbled into a room the size of a bowling alley that was lined with shelves upon which sat the skeletons of thousands of big game animals, including moose. “These were donated by past museum board members,” says Heaney while holding up a nicely preserved moose jaw. “They would go on big game hunting trips and then write off the expenses by donating some of their kills to the museum’s collection.” Today the Field Museum’s collection of moose specimen is second only the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. Hunting expeditions were a leading cause of the moose population’s decline during the early 1900’s.

Scandinavian immigrants delivered the final blow with their settlement of the Minnesota and Wisconsin regions. In order to prepare the land for farming, they cleared the forests, again decimating the moose’s food supply. It is the secondary growth from that action that the moose are living off of today.

During each of these population fluctuations, the moose on the southern most border of the forest territory died off. “Moose don’t instinctively migrate north when their ecosystem is threatened,” Heaney says. “They die off and members of the northern-most populations thrive from reduced competition for resources.” This sequence has already occurred in western Minnesota where the moose population disappeared before researcher had the chance to study the downward trend. Heaney suspects that the growth of the trees above the moose’s reach along with increasing temperatures that challenge the moose’s ability to regulate its body temperature are the reasons for the decline in both regions of the state.

Unfortunately, not much has been done to intercede on the moose’s behalf. Leslie McInenly is the Big Game Program Leader at the Minnesota DNR. Her job is to develop rules and quotas to protect the vitality of Minnesota’s deer, elk and moose population. Translation: She deals with a lot of bureaucratic red tape. This includes the process of defining the moose as a protected species. Right now she is fighting to make moose a species of concern—the lowest level of government protection—which would allow the DNR to monitor the population through government funded observational studies. “It really means very little,” she says. “The decision is put to a public vote so it’s really about convincing the public that something needs to starting being done.” Basically, moose are on their own.

Even if moose were officially declared endangered and hunting was outlawed, humans can’t physically nurse the population back to health. “Your options are either to kill all the deer to eliminate parasites or cut down the forests so that the regrowth process starts again. That’s just not practical.”

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So where did that leave me? Ah yes, sitting on a hill in the rain eating a soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwich staring at a bog.

I gave up the waiting game when I felt the urge to pee and couldn’t remember what poison ivy looked like. Despite my best efforts—which included a last ditch chant of “here moose-y, moose-y, moose-y”—it didn’t look like I was going to find my moose. I had failed in my quest. So Kimberly and I gave a nod to the beaver and began our trek back to the car with heads hanging low.

We emerged from the trail two hours later to find heaps of poop, hoof prints and a scratch on the front of our car.

Well played, moose, well played.

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