(KMSP) - The iconic wildlife symbol of Minnesota, the moose, is in trouble, so much so that the federal government is now stepping in.
The serious decline in moose numbers began about a decade ago. For the first time in a long time, the words “threatened" and "endangered" are being used to describe the moose population in parts of the upper Midwest.
In 2012, there was still limited moose hunting in Minnesota, but now the estimated 4,000 remaining moose is less than half of what it was just ten years ago.
Kyle Edlund has a home up on the Gunflint Trail in the heart of moose country. He's been there for 40 years. He's no scientist, but he knows it's bad.
“Definitely through the last eight years you've seen the population decline,” said Edlund. “You used to be able to, in the winter time, when the moose on the Gunflint Trail would all collect on the trail to lick the salt off the roads, you could possibly see a dozen or more moose when you drove up the trail. Now if you see one, you're lucky."
While Edlund’s experience may be anecdotal, there is now plenty of scientific evidence to back up that drastic decline in moose numbers. It has wildlife biologists scratching their heads over what to do about it.
For the past three years, wildlife biologists have been studying them very closely. Through satellites and by recovering dead moose as soon as possible, they have been able to figure out exactly what's killing them. The problem is they cannot figure out why it's happening at such an alarming rate
It's that rate of decline that prompted a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to investigate whether the Northwestern Moose should now be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The declaration will be made based mostly on years of Minnesota DNR research. If the Northwestern Moose does get protected, moose hunting in Minnesota may never happen again.
It’s a move that would not surprise Minnesota DNR officials, who see moose die in forests time and time again. Rarely is there a simple answer to those deaths.
"The most recent mortality was actually last week and it was kind of the melting pot of what's wrong with moose,” said Lou Cornicelli, the Wildlife Research Manager with the Minnesota DNR. “It had everything from a very heavy load of winter tics, so it was extremely anemic. It had brain worm and it had 90 percent loss of its liver due to liver flukes, but it was killed by a wolf."
DNR officials say the wolf becomes a scapegoat for what ails the moose and deer populations. While wolves are a piece of the puzzle, the tiniest of organisms are what are falling the huge Northwoods beast.
“Like the animal we just talked about, if a wolf hadn't killed it, it was going to die of either brain worm, liver flukes or winter ticks,” said Cornicelli. “So, wolves on the landscape are not likely changing the trajectory of the moose over the long term."
The downward population spiral will be the determining factor on whether or not the moose becomes a highly protected species in Minnesota. Perhaps someday an answer will be found that salvages a Minnesota icon before it's lost.
“The moose is definately the symbol of the north,” said Edlund. “A giant majestic big bull moose - there's nothing better than seeing one of those out in the wild."
The task of pouring through all the research data on the Northwestern Moose will take months.
But if the moose is declared threatened or endangered, it does open the door for more funding and in turn more research in an effort to find the answer to stop the moose's rapid decline.