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Moose in field

Moose May Warrant Future Protection

Authors and Contributors
Ron Wilson

In late March, resident hunters applied for a record 202 moose licenses in North Dakota. In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the subspecies of moose found in North Dakota and three other states could eventually warrant federal protection.

Jeb Williams, North Dakota Game and Fish Department wildlife division chief, said news of possible federal protection of North Dakota’s moose population is puzzling to people, considering the state has a stable to increasing population.

“North Dakota is included in the petition because we have the same subspecies of moose as those other states,” Williams said of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. “It’s confusing to a lot of people because we feel that we are in one of the better situations. We don’t have a large moose population in North Dakota, but we don’t believe the species warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act.”

Williams said the finding opens a full status review by the USFWS to determine whether moose could be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

“Hopefully the next step in the process will shed some light on North Dakota’s moose population and show that we are in a better situation than the other states where moose are struggling,” he said.

Department officials said the recent finding simply initiates a review of moose in the Upper Midwest, and it will not affect any current state regulations in the foreseeable future.

Historical Look

Moose were rare to nonexistent in the state by the early 1900s. These animals, the largest of the deer family, began to move back into North Dakota and sightings were more frequent in the late 1950s and 1960s.

By the late 1960s, a small resident population was established in the Pembina Hills and sightings grew more common as moose dispersed to the south and west.

“By the early 1970s, moose were so common in the Pembina Hills that the Department stopped recording sightings in this area; however, moose sightings elsewhere in the state were still quite rare,” according to North Dakota OUTDOORS, 1991.

Jason Smith, Game and Fish Department big game biologist in Jamestown, said the moose population in North Dakota benefitted from a range expansion of moose from northwest Minnesota in the 1970s.

As the moose population prospered in the Pembina Hills at that time, animals started showing up more frequently in the Turtle Mountains, another area that had traditionally supported moose populations before the turn of the century.

“By the mid-1970s, the moose population had grown to the extent that they were no longer the curiosities they once had been,” according to North Dakota OUTDOORS, 1991. “The Pembina Hills, the area of greatest moose concentration, was small when it came to supporting a large population of moose. Without controls, moose began to cause problems for local landowners.”

North Dakota held its first moose season in 1977 with 10 licenses available to hunters. The season has run uninterrupted since then.

Smith said North Dakota is the only state named in the petition that currently has a moose hunting season. One hundred or more once-in-a-lifetime moose licenses have been made available to hunters every year, beginning in 1985.

Moose Today

Today the state’s highest moose densities are found in the northwest, while numbers in what was once considered traditional moose habitat in the Turtle Mountains and Pembina Hills, remain low. Overall, the statewide population is stable to increasing.

Smith said Department moose survey numbers in the Pembina Hills peaked in 1995 at 260-plus animals.

“The last time we were able to do a count in that area was 2014 and we counted two moose,” he said. “We haven’t had a moose hunting season in that part of the state (unit M1C) since 2005. The moose in that area are not recovering.”

Changing habitat and disease – brain worm and liver fluke – are the likely reasons, Smith said, that moose numbers have fallen in the northeastern part of the state.

“We don’t see the logging like we once did in that area, which means you don’t have the new growth of trees and clear cuts that the moose like,” Smith said.

Smith said moose in the northwest are in a portion of North Dakota where brain worm is uncommon. And liver fluke has never been documented in that part of the state.

The Game and Fish Department continues to monitor moose in all parts of the state that die from causes other than hunting, to determine any effects of disease and to gain a better understanding of why they died.

Moreover, data analysis is underway on a three-year moose research study in the Kenmare area and the Missouri River bottoms southeast of Williston. The research focuses on annual survival, cause-specific mortality, reproduction rates, annual and seasonal movements and home range use, as well as seasonal habitat selection.

“The value of this research is a great thing as it will have direct management implications on moose in North Dakota,” Williams said. “The research is valuable in that it shows our moose population is stable and increasing. We can show the USFWS this with the research.”

Smith said the take-home from the research in the study area is high adult survival, high pregnancy rates, good recruitment and calf production, which lead to an increasing population.

“We look at this as a process, an opportunity to provide the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the information they are looking for,” Williams said. “We are confident that in the end that they will find that North Dakota’s moose population is in pretty good shape.”

Making the List

The following includes threatened and endangered species known to exist currently or previously in North Dakota and recently petitioned species known to exist in North Dakota.

  • Federally Listed Species
  • Whooping crane, bird, endangered.
  • Least tern, bird, endangered.
  • Black-footed ferret, mammal, endangered.
  • Gray wolf, mammal, endangered.
  • Pallid sturgeon, fish, endangered.
  • Powershiek skipperling, insect, endangered.
  • Piping plover, bird, threatened.
  • Red knot (rufa), bird, threatened.
  • Northern long-eared bat, mammal, threatened.
  • Dakota skipper, insect, threatened.
  • Western prairie fringed orchid, plant, threatened.

Recently Petitioned Species

  • Monarch butterfly, insect, 2014 (year of petition).
  • Regal fritillary, insect, 2013.
  • Rusty patched bumble bee, insect, 2013.
  • Western bumble bee, insect, 2015.
  • Yellow-banded bumble bee, insect, 2015.
  • Prairie gray fox, mammal, 2012.
  • Plains spotted skunk, mammal, 2012.
  • Moose, mammal, 2015.

(Source: Sandra Johnson, North Dakota Game and Fish Department conservation biologist.)

Petition Process

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a status review for the U.S. population of northwestern moose as a result of a 90-day finding on a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity and Honor the Earth.

The USFWS published a notice of the finding in the Federal Register on June 3, 2016. The notice initiated a 60-day information request period, which closes on August 2, 2016.

Before making a finding on whether listing the U.S. population of northwestern moose is warranted, the USFWS must gather and analyze available information, including new information received during the open information request process.

USFWS officials said they do not have a project date for completing the status assessment. For the past five years, the USFWS has carried out its listing program priorities according to a multi-district litigation settlement.

With the work from that settlement ending in 2016, the USFWS is preparing its next 5- to 7-year listing work plan. The agency currently has about 500 petitioned species awaiting 12-month findings.

(Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)