2010-02-03 / Sports

Michigan moose — made for winter


Photo courtesy DAVID KENYON, MICHIGAN DNRE Michigan’s moose population is adapting to climate change and more closely mimics Minnesota’s moose population. Photo courtesy DAVID KENYON, MICHIGAN DNRE Michigan’s moose population is adapting to climate change and more closely mimics Minnesota’s moose population. UPPER PENINSULA -- Winter can be severe in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with deep snow and bone-chilling temperatures. But one of Michigan’s woodland denizens is built exactly for that situation—the moose.

"Moose are built for the cold," said Dean Beyer, a Department of Natural Resources and Environment wildlife research biologist who studies the creatures. "You almost can't stress out moose with cold temperatures. A large animal like a moose has relatively less surface area than a smaller animal. That makes it easier for them to maintain their core temperature. They have long legs, which helps them negotiate through deep snow, and heavy coats to withstand cold temperatures."

Moose are native to Michigan and, before European settlement, probably lived all across the state with the possible exception of the southwestern corner. Early settlers harvested moose for sustenance and populations declined. They were eliminated from the Lower Peninsula by the 1880s and in 1889 were given full protection by the state. There hasn't been legal moose hunting in Michigan since then.

"We really don't know if moose were ever completely extirpated from the U.P.," Beyer said. "It's possible that a small population remained. Or they could have been eliminated at one point in time—or several points or time— but came back from animals that found their way over here from Canada."

In the 1930s, wildlife biologists became more interested in moose because of overpopulation on Isle Royale, which was being proposed as a national park. That did not occur until the 1940s. Moose had arrived on the island in the early 1900s and really took off. By the 1930s there were noticeable browse lines on the balsam firs and visitors found moose that had died of starvation.

The Michigan Department of Conservation proposed a hunt to thin the Isle Royale moose population, but the idea did not fly. So biologists decided to try a trap-and-transfer program. From 1934 to 1937, 71 moose were trapped and transferred from Isle Royale to the mainland.

Two went to the Detroit zoo, six went to a wildlife research facility at Cusino, and the remaining animals were released in three Keweenaw, Marquette and Schoolcraft counties.

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, occasional moose were spotted in the eastern U.P. At that time, biologists noticed changes in the Upper Peninsula habitat that showed promise for moose, including a reduction of deer numbers in the deep-snow regions. (Deer carry brain worm, a parasite that can be fatal to moose.) Michigan wildlife biologist Ralph Bailey became interested in re-establishing moose in the Upper Peninsula. The idea kicked around for nearly a decade until wildlife officials decided to act.

The state brought in moose biologists from Canada to identify areas where they thought moose would flourish. Marquette, Baraga and northern Iron counties seemed to fit the bill. In the eastern U.P., there were small pockets of moose habitat, but they were separated by poor habitat. Biologists chose the western U.P. for reintroduction, guessing the U.P. could support about 1,000 moose.

Wildlife managers identified Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario as place with similar habitat to the U.P. and worked with Canadian wildlife officials to capture and move some moose to the U.P. They planned to capture 30 moose over a two-year period for relocation to Michigan.

Using helicopters and tranquilizing darts, biologists were wildly successful: In 1985, 29 moose -- 19 cows and 10 bulls -- were released in the western U.P. The following spring those cows produced 21 calves. Things were looking good.

But there were a few hiccups. One of the bulls - nicknamed Gulliver, for this travels - took off and set up housekeeping north of Newberry. Three bulls died, leaving just six bulls to breed the cows. The following spring, 14 cows produced 10 calves.

"That wasn't the reproductive output they were looking for," Beyer said. So in 1987, Michigan brought in an additional 15 bulls and 15 cows from Ontario.

Those 59 animals formed the core of today’s western Upper Peninsula moose population, which is estimated at around 420 animals.

The same physiology that makes moose able to maintain their core temperature in cold weather makes its harder for them to cool off in warm weather, Beyer said. Warm weather gives moose problems.

"They’re a big animal," Beyer said. "They have to take in a lot of food. In summer, they're going to seek shade and stay out of the sun, which might limit the amount of time they can spend foraging. If you limit the amount of time they have to forage, it's going to have an effect on them.

"Even in the winter they seek shade when temperatures get above 23 degrees Fahrenheit," Beyer continued. "If you go out on what we’d consider a nice winter day - upper 20s, sunshine - moose would not be out in the open. You’d find them under conifer cover to stay out of that sunshine."

Michigan’s moose population is currently growing.

"It’s doing OK, when you compare it with the moose population in Minnesota, where there are some indications that the population is in decline," Beyer said. "The general thought from the folks in Minnesota is that climate change - increasing temperatures - is bothering moose.

Climate change prediction models suggest that by the end of this century, winters in the U.P. will be more like current winters southern Michigan and summers will be more like current conditions in Missouri.

"If that happens, we'll probably lose moose. Michigan is really at the southern edge of moose range. If things warm up the southern edge of moose range is likely to move northward."

Whether the Upper Peninsula continues to provide the proper climate for moose in the face of climate change remains to be seen. But for the time being, they were doing splendidly in the northern Upper Peninsula, because moose are built for winter.

Courtesy Michigan DNRE, Outreach

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