Moose restoration in Michigan yields success, disappointment

Posted: Friday, April 22, 2005

MICHIGAMME, Mich. — Known only as Moose No. 173, she wandered for years in the swamplands and forests of Michigan's far north before dropping dead at the foot of a black spruce tree and disappearing over the next week beneath a blanket of snow.

Yet even in death, she has a final scientific mission to perform. Guided to the spot by the radio collar around 173's neck, researchers are performing a necropsy to determine the cause of death and gather other information about the unfortunate cow.

''Heart's enlarged — probably from stress,'' says wildlife biologist Dean Beyer of the state Department of Natural Resources, his elbow-length plastic gloves awash in blood. ''Liver flukes,'' he announces a bit later, discovering the nasty parasites as he dissects the organ.

The task is gruesome. But documenting such detail is important as scientists work to restore a thriving moose population in the Upper Peninsula, where they once were abundant but had all but disappeared by the early 20th century.

Two decades ago, the DNR trucked dozens of moose to the area from Canada in a bold attempt to jump-start the restoration. The agency now describes the herd as established and growing — probably at an annual rate of 5 to 10 percent. They range mostly over a 1,800-square-mile swath of Marquette, Baraga and Iron counties, although a few have wandered farther.

''I would say they're doing pretty well,'' Beyer said. ''Overall, they appear to be healthy. We have mortality rates that are comparable to other areas throughout the species range. The one area where they seem to be a little off is in reproduction. That starts with the pregnancy rate, which is a bit lower than the North American average.''

But a mystery endures: Just how many moose are there?

Estimates reached 400 to 450 in the late 1990s until an aerial survey turned up only 120, prompting a reassessment of counting methods. These days, biologists are reluctant to speculate. The DNR acknowledges, however, its original goal of 1,000 by the turn of the century was far too optimistic.

The agency is wrapping up a six-year study designed to produce a reliable means of conducting a moose census. Another objective: learning more about population dynamics — births, deaths, dispersal — so scientists can decide whether anything can be done to boost the numbers. That means examining dead animals, when they can be found, to determine what killed them.

Many deaths are bad luck, Beyer says — falling through ice, getting stuck in a mud pit, colliding with a car. Poaching and wolf attacks, while rare, also are easy to detect. Other cases are tougher.

Number 173, for example, suffered not only from heart problems and liver parasites, but an ovarian cyst and a bacterial infection between her ribs and chest muscles. Another possibility: brainworm, a mortal enemy and leading cause of the moose's decline in this part of the country.

Unable to make a diagnosis, Beyer and his team will send 173's vital organs and head to Lansing for laboratory analysis.

Meanwhile, research technicians Todd Felkey and Bill Alguire strap on snowshoes and head to another section of forest in pursuit of living moose. They carry an antenna that picks up pulsating beeps emitted by radio collars, which 49 animals presently wear.

The men tread softly, the wind is still, the woods hushed. Even a distant twig snap can cause a sharp-eared moose to bolt.

Finally, there they are — two moose, about 100 yards ahead, just visible through the trees. Their pursuers freeze, but too late: The moose already are on the run and disappear over a slight ridge.

Felkey and Alguire comb their tracks for fecal pellets, which could help determine whether the collared cow is pregnant. They find some, but can't tell from which moose they came. ''We'll probably have to come back and track her again,'' Felkey says with a sigh.

Such are the frustrations of moose monitoring, a task that government and university scientists have undertaken since the first 31 animals arrived in western Marquette County in early 1985.

There was no guarantee the Canadian moose would take to their new surroundings, even though conditions in the remote western Upper Peninsula had improved greatly since the late 1800s, when clearcut logging, hunting, wolf predation and brainworm left the moose virtually extinct there.

But the DNR risked it, working in subzero temperatures to move the animals by helicopter and later shipping crates for the 600-mile journey from Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park to their new home in the woods north of Lake Michigamme.

Two died from bad reactions to the drugs, but the other 29 survived and began producing offspring. A second ''moose lift'' brought an additional 30 animals in 1987.

Today the moose is a symbol of regional pride. Restaurants, motels and even an ice cream flavor are named for the lumbering beast. People are fiercely protective of the animals. Road signs in Michigamme proclaim the village is ''where the moose run loose.''

''I'm very satisfied with the way things have gone,'' said Rob Aho, a DNR biologist. ''If I regret anything, it's that we don't have as many moose as we thought. But you have to be patient.''

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