By Dave Orrick, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published February 10 2013
Scientists launch major effort to monitor Minnesota moose
Prepare to be stupefied by a heavy dose of drugs, as spindly humans, aptly named “muggers,” poke and prod you.
They’ll stick a needle in your jugular, pry a tooth from your mouth, rip fur from your hide, pierce your ears with a gaudy tag and slap a fashion-ignorant collar on your neck before sending you on your not-so-merry way.
But understand, dear moose, icon of the northwoods: It’s because we love you.
We’re trying to save you.
Such could be the admonishment of a team of researchers who headed into this northern forest this winter and embarked on the most ambitious effort Minnesota has yet undertaken to answer a basic question:
What’s killing our moose?
The moose population in northeastern Minnesota has fallen so sharply that state officials last week canceled this year’s hunt. It was down to an estimated 2,760 moose in the most recent aerial survey.
If the dying continues, alces alces could be all but gone from Minnesota in a decade. No one knows if anything can be done, but there’s a “we have to try” theme that underpins the $1.6 million effort, $1 million of which comes from state lottery proceeds.
Researchers suspect calves are dying at a higher rate than usual, but the most troubling trend is adult moose in their prime dropping dead. The moose are dying faster – up to 25 percent a year – than they can be replaced. Moose have all but vanished from the northwestern part of the state, where they once roamed.
Compare that with the fact that moose are expanding in similar latitudes elsewhere – namely Maine and a swath of North Dakota – and experts are facing a mystery.
There appears to be a correlation with the warming climate – specifically, hotter summers – but that’s not a cause of death, and it’s not killing moose in North Dakota or Maine.
Hunters and wolves have been ruled out as primary causes; hunters kill a fraction of the dying moose, and numerous intact moose carcasses have been found with no evidence of wolf scavenging, much less attacking and killing.
Parasites are on the short list of suspects, but there’s only one way to be sure: Examine the dead animals. In the $1.6 million endeavor, researchers are hoping to examine as many as 150 dead moose over the next five to seven years.
Turns out, that’s not so simple.
Moose are so big, their fur such an effective insulator, that they retain heat, which leads to rapid decomposition of their organs, even in the chill of a northern Minnesota winter. Researchers rarely get to moose soon enough after they die to do a meaningful animal autopsy, called a necropsy.
What they need is something akin to a 911 service to notify them when a moose dies, or even shortly before, and get to that moose fast – within 24 hours, if not sooner.
The solution is to affix GPS collars to the animals – 100 adults now and 50 newborns in the spring – that will track their movements.
Each collar has a transmitter that will alert researchers if the animal hasn’t moved in six hours, a likely sign it’s dead. In 27 of the animals, researchers will insert an implant down the animal’s throat. The implant, which is too heavy to be passed through the gut, will monitor vital signs, including temperature and heartbeat, and alert researchers as soon as a heart stops beating. Then researchers need to hustle to the animal and transport the carcass, which could weigh up to 1,500 pounds to a lab, or do the necropsy in the field.
Just getting the moose collared isn’t so simple, either.
Research “team” is an understatement; it’s more like an aerial assault with support from ground forces and overseas intelligence.
An airplane from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which is leading the project, searches for moose and radios locations to a helicopter operated by Quicksilver Air Inc. an Alaska-based company that specializes in capturing wild animals in the backcountry. The chopper touches down, ditching two of its four-man crew, as well as one of the aircraft’s doors. Now it’s light enough to maneuver for the chase.
“She’s running now – she knows what a helicopter is,” chopper pilot Quentin Slade relayed over the radio.
“That’s OK, there’s two other cows there, so you can go for them,” responded pilot Tom Buker.
Somewhere behind the trees, Slade slid the chopper as close to the animal as possible – perhaps 15 feet – so Quicksilver gunner Trent Brown, hanging out the open doorway and standing on the aircraft’s skid, could take dead aim with his single-shot “32-gauge special,” the dart-gunner’s long gun of choice for big game. (It looks like a break-action .410 shotgun.) He fired the dart into the moose’s posterior.
That’s a big target, but the feathered dart flies slowly, and with rotors pumping downdrafts and the chopper moving, it’s never easy, he told me later.
“Sometimes I miss,” he said. “That’s a pain because I have to reload, and I have to be careful.” There’s enough opiates and muscle relaxants in each round to kill a man. Not exactly a .410 rabbit gun. It takes a few minutes for the drugs to drop a moose into a mellow stupor.
The next step is to retrieve the other two crew members, called “muggers,” and the door. Then get to the animal and get to work. They have 30 minutes to complete a litany of tasks, including affixing the GPS collar.
After several days of practice, the crew has it down to 15 minutes, said Erika Butler, a DNR veterinarian and one of the project leaders. Butler has been planning the project for more than a year and, like many involved, said getting boots on the frozen ground has been exciting, despite a nasty cold snap that sent temperatures to 22 below when they started.
“It was cold, but I was so excited I didn’t notice. I didn’t even wear gloves, and I wasn’t cold,” she said. “Working with the animals is the best part of my job.”
The chopper then hustles back to a clearing near a road, where samples they’ve collected are handed off to workers in a remote field lab owned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From the outside, it looks like a trailer RV, but inside it’s all lab, except for a pizza toaster that kicks out sustenance for the lab crew. Blood is spun, slides are smeared and samples are labeled, and data is entered into a computer. The samples are sent to various sites around the country for analysis.
Via computer, team members can punch up the location of any moose, its movements plotted on aerial photographs. They’re also working out bugs. The first set of implants all reported their host moose were dead right away. It was an anticipated glitch. The Minnesota team is working with software engineers in Germany to adjust the implants’ sensitivity. (Yes, you can reprogram a mini computer inside the gut of a moose in Minnesota from a cubicle in Germany.)
Once all the moose have been collared, researchers will monitor the animals, and the learning already has begun. For example, the team has been shocked by how many moose they’ve seen walking in circles – a sign of sickness, perhaps from parasites that can attack the animals’ brains or eyes. Quicksilver workers who have collared more than 1,000 moose said they never had seen so many circling moose in a herd.
But mostly, when the collaring is done, researchers will wait for the moose to die.
“It’s weird,” Butler said. “As a scientist, you kind of want to see the moose dying because that’s the only way to figure out why they’re dying. But the only reason we’re here is because too many are dying, and we hate that.”