Many wildlife lovers consider moose to have a special mystique. Adult moose are bigger than horses, and they seem fearless. But biologists don’t know much about many moose populations. A team of researchers is just beginning to learn about one herd of 4,000 moose in the Northwoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Many wildlife lovers consider moose to have a special mystique. Adult moose are bigger than
horses, and they seem fearless. But biologists don’t know much about many moose populations.
A team of researchers is just beginning to learn about one herd of 4,000 moose in the
northwoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Half a dozen big four-wheel-drive pickups are parked at a boat landing on MacDougal Lake. It’s
about 30 miles west of the Lake Superior shore, in the heart of the Superior National Forest in
Northeastern Minnesota. The forest is twice the size of Delaware.
It’s 25 degrees. At the edge of the frozen lake, men in conservation officer uniforms are standing
around a small fire. They’re waiting to hear from the helicopter. The crew on the helicopter is
shooting moose with a tranquilizer gun. They need to get up close to the animals to learn more
Scientists think more moose could be living in this area. Mike Shrage is a biologist with the
Fond du Lac band of Chippewa. He says they’d like to know why there aren’t more moose here.
There are several possible reasons.
“Wolves, bears, lack of habitat, hunting and other kinds of human-related mortality, automobile
Shrage is listening to a radio cradled in a canvas holster on his shoulder. He cocks his head to
catch every word.
“There’s three of them there.”
The helicopter crew has spotted some moose.
“Yeah, I think they’re bulls.”
“These are three bulls. It’s not uncommon this time of year, you’ll get small groups of them
hanging together for awhile. Little bachelor groups.”
Shrage says the helicopter crew will try to chase one of the moose into an open area, like a frozen
lake, where they can get an easy shot.
“And if it lays down right in the lake, then they can sit down on the ice next to it. It makes
everything a lot easier.”
“Yeah, he’s gonna hopefully drop in the spot where they can get right to him.”
“I think they must already have a dart in him and they’re just waiting for it to take effect.”
The helicopter drops off a crew member to stay with the moose, and comes back to the boat
landing to pick up a radio collar.
(sound of helicopter)
Counting moose is a challenge. A recent survey in this area showed a drop from 5,000 to 4,000
animals in one year. But researchers admit there could be a 25% margin of error in those figures.
That’s because it’s hard to find the moose in heavily wooded areas. The collaring project will
make counts more accurate.
Three biologists are gathered around the latest moose to be fitted with a collar. He’s a mature
bull. He’s lying on his side in the middle of a huge frozen swamp.
He’s blindfolded to make the process less stressful. He seems to snore, while the biologists poke
(sound of moose)
“Sounds pretty peaceful, doesn’t it? Pretty nice looking animal.”
They take blood samples to check on hormones and blood chemistry, and to look for disease.
They also pull a tooth to send to a lab. They can get an exact age by measuring the rings on the
Glenn Delgiudice takes notes on the animal’s fat reserves. That’s a good indication of its overall
Delgiudice even uses an ultrasound machine to measure the fat in the moose’s rear end.
“Rump fat is one of the main fat depots of these animals, and also one of the first to go. They
mobilize their fat depots generally in a sequence. So we measure the depth of the fat with
Another key indicator of the animal’s health is the condition of its hair. This moose has most of
its hair. They aren’t all so lucky. Some of them have scratched a lot their hair off.
“Rick yesterday saw a calf of one of our cows that was, ‘what’d you say Rick, only 25% hair?’ So
that one’s been rubbing and scratching for a long time. And, of course, when they’re doing that
rubbing and scratching and biting, they’re not foraging, and it can drain them over time.”
The collar has to fit just right. If it’s too loose, a moose can get a foot caught in it. If it’s too
tight, it can bind, especially in the fall mating season when the bulls’ necks get thicker.
“Yep, that looks good.”
Finally the moose is given an antidote to the tranquilizer, pain-killer, and sedative that have kept
him immobile for about half an hour.
“You know, you’ll see his ears twitch, and he’ll start to lift his head,” Delgiudice says. “The
moose are better at getting up than deer typically. They just get up, loosen up a little bit, and
then lope away.”
The moose struggles up, stands for a minute, and then saunters off toward the trees.
That’s moose number five for the day. The team is planning to track 60 moose for five years.
It’ll tell them what kills these moose and what’s keeping the population from growing.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill, in the Superior National Forest.