Federal wildlife officials have denied a request to grant endangered species protection to Minnesota's beleaguered moose population.
In 2015, two environmental groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and Honor the Earth, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place a subspecies of moose found in Minnesota, North Dakota and Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, known as the northwestern moose, on the endangered species list.
Moose have all but disappeared from northwestern Minnesota in the past three decades. In the northeastern part of the state, they numbered nearly 9,000 in 2006. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, in its latest annual survey earlier this year, estimated only 3,150 animals in the Arrowhead region.
“They're facing threats of climate change, habitat destruction, and disease, and we know that the Endangered Species Act is the best way to ensure that animals can get back on the path to recovery,” said Collette Adkins, a Minneapolis-based attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
In a brief notification published in the Federal Register Tuesday, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the population of northwestern moose did not qualify for endangered species protection because it was not “discrete” from the moose population in Canada, and therefore didn’t meet the criteria for a “distinct population segment” under the federal law.
The moose population has also declined in the Canadian province of Ontario in recent years, but their population there is still robust, with an estimate around 90,000 animals.
The Fish and Wildlife Service did not find differences between moose in the Upper Midwest and Canada based on antler size or reproductive behavior, or differences in habitat management or conservation status.
Spokesperson Georgia Parham said because of that finding, the federal agency didn’t take the next step and consider whether the moose warranted protection because of habitat loss, disease, predation, or other manmade factors included in the Endangered Species Act.
Adkins, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said she’s “perplexed” by that reasoning. She said the agency has deemed the Canada lynx a threatened species under the same law, even though the wildcat is prominent in Canada.
“We're going to be taking a close look with our team of lawyers at what the Fish and Wildlife Service did, and trying to see if we should bring a lawsuit or not,” she said.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which designated moose as a species of special concern in 2013, did not take a position on the petition. Rather, “we supported them making a good sound decision and provided as much information as we could,” said Bridget Henning-Randa, endangered species consultant for the DNR.
While moose numbers in Minnesota have stabilized in recent years, researchers are concerned that factors including parasitic infections and climate change threaten the long term survival of moose in the state.
A landmark mortality study launched by the DNR, in which researchers outfit moose with GPS collars so they could quickly determine the cause of death, found that parasites like brain worm and winter ticks, infections and wolves were responsible for the majority of adult moose deaths. Wolves and bears killed large numbers of moose calves.
Correction (Sept. 16, 2020): The DNR’s designation of the moose population was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.