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Minnesota Tribes Collaborate to Save State’s Disappearing Moose Population

Tribes are proving integral to studying the causes of moose decline in Minnesota.

Tribal rights to natural resources in the Great Lakes states have been the subject of much attention. In 1999, the United States Supreme Court affirmed lower court rulings in favor of the Ojibwe of Minnesota and Wisconsin, which retained treaty rights in Minnesota’s 1837 Treaty ceded territory (Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa). This nine-year legal battle followed on the heels of 17 years of treaty litigation in Wisconsin (See generally Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians v. Wisconsin). To say these times were tense is an understatement. Not only were hateful racial epithets such as “timber nigger” and “save a walleye, spear an Indian” yelled at tribal members exercising their treaty rights on Wisconsin lakes, but also rocks were thrown, objects were fired from slingshots, and tribal spearing boats were buzzed by larger watercraft piloted by non-tribal protesters.

Despite this unrest, the results were ultimately positive. In addition to successfully asserting their pre-existing ownership rights to natural resources in the ceded territories, significant conservation opportunities came out of this conflict. A natural byproduct of this success was the growth of tribal resource management capacity within the tribes. In addition, both the 1854 Treaty Authority based in Duluth, Minnesota and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission based in Odanah, Wisconsin were created. These intertribal, co-management agencies extended robust tribal natural resource management capacity to public lands in the off-reservation ceded territories in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

The growth in tribal resource management capacity occurred simultaneously with a mysterious decline in Minnesota’s moose population. This decline caught the attention of the entire population of the state of Minnesota. It is undeniable that the moose is a revered creature in this state. Many communities and entrepreneurs use images of moose as trademark and advertising tools to promote or sell their area or business. For tribal communities, specifically, moose hunting is a significant part of the tribal hunting heritage, and moose meat is a very important food staple.

The decline in the moose population began in the late 1980s, when the population in northwestern Minnesota began to dwindle, then crash, dropping from more than 4,000 animals to fewer than 100. This left the northeastern portion of the state as the last stronghold for moose. Much of northeastern Minnesota is located within the 1854 Ceded Territory, where the Bois Forte, Grand Portage and Fond du Lac Bands of Chippewa along with the 1854 Treaty Authority and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission are actively involved in natural resource management. According to Sonny Myers, executive director of the 1854 Treaty Authority, “the annual subsistence moose hunt has been one of the prime ways for band members to secure food for the family. Hence, the 1854 Treaty Authority has been integrally involved in every aspect of moose management and research in the 1854 Treaty Area for decades. Recent declines in the moose population have only increased the need to understand what may be causing the decline.”

Due to the importance of moose to band members in Minnesota, the 1854 Treaty Authority collaborates with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe in all aspects of an annual moose survey. According to Andy Edwards, director of the 1854 Treaty Authority’s Resource Management Division, coordination includes pre-survey planning and design, financial support to offset survey costs, serving as a permanent member of the flight crew, and interpretation of survey results. Unfortunately, after the virtual disappearance of moose in northwestern Minnesota, these annual surveys indicate that the moose population in northeastern Minnesota is likewise declining dramatically. Specifically, estimates are that the moose population in northeast Minnesota declined by almost 50% over the past decade (8,000+ to 4,500 animals).

RELATED: Minnesota Moose Deaths Still Confound Scientists

Recognizing that this important species might disappear from the landscape, the Minnesota state legislature passed legislation in 2008 directing the DNR to develop a Management and Research Plan for moose. In turn, the DNR created a Moose Advisory Committee (MAC) consisting of 18 experts, including a strong contingent of tribal resource managers. The MAC made a number of recommendations, an important one being that management for high quality moose habitat would be increasingly important for maintaining a moose population in the state.

An organic outgrowth of this process was the Minnesota Moose Habitat Collaborative. The Collaborative consisted of a subset of the MAC, including The 1854 Treaty Authority, the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe, The Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, The Nature Conservancy, the University of Minnesota Natural Resources Research Institute, the United States Forest Service, three counties, the DNR, and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. Northeastern Minnesota is well known as a fertile field for collaborative habitat management therefore the development of the Moose Habitat Collaborative was a natural progression.

The new participants in this collaborative, however, were the tribes. For years, state, private, county, and federal land managers have convened to develop a landscape vision and management plan for the seven million acres of forestland in the northeastern corner of the state. This was usually conducted under the auspices of the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, a state agency with a directive to promote long-term sustainable management of Minnesota’s forests through collaboration and planning.

Such a comprehensive planning and management process is necessary in northeastern Minnesota due to the size and checkerboard nature of the various ownerships that cover this portion of the state. The vast public holdings in this region include the Superior National Forest, which encompasses the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area; Voyageurs National Park; large state and county holdings, and three reservations—Fond du Lac, Grand Portage and Bois Forte. Over sixty percent of these seven million acres is public land, fragmented only by the ownership boundaries of the various units of government. Without coordination, resource management is at best difficult, and at worst, inadequate to address landscape scale issues such as wildfire, invasive species, climate change…., and the potential extirpation of a wide ranging species such as the moose.

As one would expect, in Minnesota there is tribal consultation with the federal agencies consistent with the trust relationship, and there is also consultation with the state of Minnesota on natural resource issues as directed by case law and executive order. In addition there has been piecemeal tribal project work done with the DNR, and to a lesser extent the counties. However, the tribes were historically missing from the larger collaborative forest landscape planning and implementation conversation. The specter of the declining moose population and the resulting tribal involvement in the MAC process, however, changed the equation due to the fact that the expertise of the tribes on moose biology and habitat needs made them indispensable in the effort to understand and address this issue.

Mike Schrage, the wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, along with biologists from the University of Minnesota Natural Resources Research Institute, the 1854 Treaty Authority and the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, led the newly formed collaborative through a process designed to identify moose habitat improvement projects and the locations where they should be implemented. Schrage noted that, “Due to the importance of moose, both culturally and for subsistence, tribal natural resource staff had a unique knowledge of where good moose numbers and good moose habitat coincided.”

All of this planning and vetting of priorities ultimately led to a funding request to Minnesota’s Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. The Council reviews and recommends conservation projects to the Minnesota legislature to be funded by the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, which pools and distributes revenues generated from a constitutionally imposed sales tax increase.

The outcome was remarkable with over $3 million in public funding awarded by the Council to enhance moose habitat while also improving the adaptability of Minnesota’s north woods to climate change. While Fond du Lac, Grand Portage and 1854 shared tribal wisdom in driving the process of project selection, other stakeholders including The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service, the Counties, and the DNR are implementing the bulk of the on the ground projects that will enhance approximately 9000 acres of moose habitat on county, state and federal lands in the 1854 Ceded Territory and on the Grand Portage Reservation.

Not to be lost is the key role the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association played as the grant applicant and fiscal agent for the project. Historically, sportsmen’s groups such as the Deer Hunters Association have been in opposition to the tribes on issues involving natural resources and associated harvesting and gathering rights. However, by all accounts, this was never a point of dispute during the development or implementation phases of the Collaborative. The biggest disagreements occurred over which projects would most effectively restore and enhance the habitat necessary to support this declining species. To this point, Mark Johnson, the former executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, and current executive director of the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council stated, “While I am very proud of the entire effort, what I am most proud of was the united focus on collaboration and shared learning.” Current Minnesota Deer Hunters Association director Craig Engwall agreed with Johnson, and went a step further, stating, “The Deer Hunters Association is excited by the prospect of partnering with Minnesota’s tribes on similar habitat management efforts in the future.”

Given the history of litigation and conflict over tribal hunting, gathering, and fishing rights in the state and regionally, one could assume that there would be residual animosity holding a collective like this back from working together effectively on a habitat management issue. However, because tribal resource managers played leadership roles in driving project selection and prioritization, and because the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association served as grantee and fiscal agent, the result here tells a new story.

Though the Minnesota Moose Habitat Collaborative has and will continue to meet its objectives of enhancing moose habitat, the process the Collaborative that members engaged in was perhaps as valuable as the on-the-ground outcomes. There was clearly an educational value to this undertaking in which non-tribal participants gained a better understanding of treaty rights and tribal resource management in the ceded territories through the lens of practicality rather than rhetoric. This effort was also an opportunity for tribal resource managers to earn the respect of other land managers based on their expertise and experience. Looking back on what he characterized as a “good process,” Mike Schrage expressed that he expects benefits will accrue in other places and with other opportunities because of the relationships that were forged. Schrage noted, “You can’t put a value on relationships like this.”

These developing relationships very well could come into play again, and soon, as the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe begin to explore opportunities for the potential reintroduction of elk in the 1854 ceded territory and the Minnesota portion of the 1837 ceded territory. This would be complementary to existing elk restoration efforts approximately 100 miles to the east in Wisconsin, where approximately 160 elk roam, mostly on Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest land.

Elk, a species that was once abundant in Minnesota and other portions of the Upper Midwest, were pushed out of the region by unregulated hunting and habitat loss in the late 1800s. According to Schrage, the Ojibwe once had a history with elk as much as with deer, moose and caribou. And, unlike moose and caribou, elk are more likely to thrive in the warming climates we are now facing. Thanks to partnerships forged and respect earned by tribal resource managers through their role in the Minnesota Moose Habitat Collaborative, the path may be better marked for elk to return to this portion of their homeland—stay tuned.

Douglas Thompson is a Duluth, MN based attorney focused on assisting with natural resource and environmental issues in Indian Country.