As tribal and environmental authorities race against time to determine why moose are dying by the thousands in Minnesota, Governor Mark Dayton has pulled state support from the initiative—claiming that the moose deaths are being caused by the research.
He did so without consulting either tribes or environmental and moose experts, say the people who have been involved in the three-year-long study. Failure to find an answer, they said, will make the vanishing species’ hold in the state even more precarious.
“What is happening to moose is a reflection of what has happened to tribal people in the U.S. historically,” said Seth Moore, director of biology and environment for the Grand Portage Band. “It is the gradual loss of a species and a culture, both of whom have occupied the country through history, and we have a responsibility to attempt to make reparations to prevent its loss.”
The decline in Minnesota’s moose population has been nothing short of tragic. The animal has virtually disappeared from northwestern Minnesota, which once held several thousand of them. Results of recent aerial surveys indicate that the population has plummeted in the northeastern portion of Minnesota from almost 9,000 in 2006 to as few as 3, 450 animals today—an almost 60 percent drop.
Blaming some of this loss on researchers’ recent practice of radio collaring moose, Dayton handed down Executive Order 15-10 in the spring, ending Minnesota Department of Natural Resources involvement in a major research initiative designed to help understand why Minnesota’s moose population is disappearing. The ban essentially terminates the regional study—only in its third year—which had recently received negative publicity due to the death of a number of the subject animals.
“Their methods of collaring are causing too many of the moose deaths they seek to prevent,” Dayton said in a statement, referring to the researchers. “Thus, I will not authorize those collaring practices to continue in Minnesota.”
In early July, Norman Deschampe, chairman of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, wrote to Dayton requesting that he reconsider. Deschampe asserted that, though the ban does not affect the band’s ability to continue its own research, the governor’s executive order would stymie regional collaborative efforts to understand and address the causes behind the decline in Minnesota’s moose across the broader landscape.
“The Minnesota moose collaring program is critical in helping us understand the reasons for the decline of this species over a larger region,” said Moore. “It is naïve to believe that doing nothing will benefit this species.”
There is much at stake for the tribes of northern Minnesota, given the key role that moose have traditionally played in their lives.
“Moose are the primary subsistence species for our community,” said Grand Portage member and Trust Lands Administrator Tony Swader. “Because of the long history of dependence on moose for sustenance, it has immeasurable cultural value. To simply watch this species disappear while doing nothing would be a blow.”
The loss of research support is having a profound impact on the Minnesota moose research community. A science-driven moose research collaborative comprising tribal interests, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Zoo, the Minnesota Natural Resources Research Institute and Voyageurs National Park have been working together in recent years to determine the best approach to take toward moose management decisions.
“This collaborative dialogue led to a consensus that radio collaring moose was the only way to methodically understand and solve this problem,” said Moore.
“If we are going to effectively implement new management practices that might benefit moose, we need to understand why this species is declining,” said Tiffany Wolf, a veterinarian and wildlife epidemiologist with the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Already we have learned quite a bit, but the complexity of studying a wild species and understanding all of the processes that can influence its survival requires long-term research, more than the three years we currently have.”
Though they have come up with clues, the reason for the decline remains elusive.
“There is no one smoking gun here,” Wolf told Indian Country Today Media Network. “For example, we are finding that the majority of moose calves are killed by predators, while a major contributor to adult mortality is brainworm, a parasite transmitted by deer. We might be able to address these two issues head-on through direct management of predator and deer populations. However, we are also seeing some complex changes in calf health in our study that may reflect overall moose population health issues that we do not understand. We need to get a handle on how all of these things interrelate with each other, and with adjustments to wildlife and forest management. I feel it would be irresponsible not to move forward with more research that would help us, collectively, make the smartest management decisions possible.”
The moose range in northern Minnesota is vast, comprised of millions of acres of forest, overlaid with a complex, checkerboard pattern of private, county, state, tribal and federal ownerships.
“Without collaboration of all interests, research on a species like moose is nearly impossible,” said Moore. “Also, although Governor Dayton’s ban on state research does not affect research activities by the Grand Portage Band, or work within the 220,000 acres of Voyageurs National Park, it effectively precludes state research permits from being issued on the millions of acres of other county, state and federal lands found in Minnesota’s moose range.”
There is also an efficiency of scale realized through collaboration.
“We have benefited greatly from this collaboration,” said Steve Windels, wildlife biologist for Voyageurs National Park. “Working with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and others has allowed us to pool resources and expertise to more effectively study this issue. We would not now know nearly as much about this issue if we had been working in isolation rather than in this open, collaborative environment which we have enjoyed, and we all need to continue working together on this issue if we hope to ensure moose are around in the future.”
In a blow to state-tribal relations, Dayton’s move seems to directly contradict an edict he himself handed down in 2013 with Executive Order 13-10, which required Minnesota’s executive branch leaders to consult with Minnesota tribes on important issues. Now, tribal leaders said, he is holding himself exempt from his own rule.
“I am so disappointed we were not consulted by the governor before his decision,” said Grand Portage Council Member and elder John Morrin. “We were excited the governor issued that executive order a few years ago requiring his staff to consult with us, but we need to have him lead by example and consult with us himself because this is a very important issue for us, and we fully expect to be included in any dialogue on this every step of the way going forward.”
Deschampe shared Morrin’s sentiment.
“The Grand Portage Band values the history of collaboration with the State of Minnesota and others in attempting to address the decline of moose,” he said. “In the spirit of collaboration, we need Governor Dayton to reconsider his unilateral decision to halt state involvement in this research. The cultural value of this to our people, and the state of Minnesota in general is too important for its fate to be determined by one person.”
Despite all this, tribes are still hoping to find a way forward. Leaders would like to know more about Dayton’s reasoning.
“My feeling is if the governor has concerns about the technical aspects of the moose research in Minnesota, the appropriate way to address these would be with an expert panel of outside specialists that could review the issue and make recommendations,” said Rolf Peterson, a research professor in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science at Michigan Technological University, and a world-renowned wolf and moose researcher.
“There is a large body of information available on techniques to immobilize moose for research purposes,” said Peterson. “The purpose of research, of course, is to figure out causes of the excessively high moose mortality, and it is not possible to accomplish this without following marked individuals. Anytime a wild animal is handled for any reason, there is a small probability of handling mortality—that is simply a given.”
Douglas Thompson is a Duluth, Minnesota–based attorney focused on assisting with natural resource and environmental issues in Indian Country.