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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Time to discourage deer feeding in moose country

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 3/12/16

n the past week, three conversations have helped me put the situation with our region’s moose population into better context.

In the first case, I talked with a well-known ecologist (from a …

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Time to discourage deer feeding in moose country


n the past week, three conversations have helped me put the situation with our region’s moose population into better context.

In the first case, I talked with a well-known ecologist (from a Minnesota university) who has studied moose and other boreal forest wildlife during his career. He agreed to speak on the subject without attribution. As with most ecologists, he sees habitat as the driving factor behind changes in wildlife populations. Barring some kind of catastrophic disease, he believes most wildlife can sustain itself as long as it has sufficient adequate habitat. So, if a wildlife population is in decline, change in habitat is usually the first area he examines.

Up here, when we talk about habitat, it’s really a question of that state of our forests. As I’ve written previously, we saw a major conversion of the forests of the region from predominantly mature and over-mature in the early 1980s to predominantly young forest by the end of the early 2000s. That was the result of the big spike in timber harvesting we saw beginning in the late 1980s.

As with any significant change in habitat across a large landscape, this one had consequences, including increases in ungulate populations, including both moose and deer.

Ecologists like to talk about carrying capacity, and that’s a function of many factors, but habitat is clearly a big part of the equation. Provide an abundance of good habitat and most wildlife will do just fine. We’ve seen that in the case of some of the large burns that have occurred over the past 10 years in our region, where moose numbers remain high. With the Pagami Creek burn finally starting to recover, moose numbers are growing as well.

This suggests that moose can still thrive in our region, when they have quality habitat. Of course, in nature, nothing is static. Old forests may be replaced by young forests, but those young trees eventually grow bigger and as that happens, it affects the quality of habitat. Our ecologist said he’s already seen that trend across a large area of northeastern Minnesota. Those young stands of aspen that sprouted up in the wake of logging in the 1990s may have provided excellent habitat for several years, but timber harvesting has slowed significantly in the primary moose range since the wood industry downturn hit in the mid-2000s.

Those stands of young aspen that used to provide abundant browse are now 15-20 years old and all of those nutritious buds are sitting at the tops of those trees, 25 feet in the air, well above the reach of moose or deer. These days, these stands provide little browse and virtually no beneficial cover. A 20-year-old aspen stand might as well be desert scrub for all the benefit it offers to a northern Minnesota ungulate.

With millions of acres of forestland in our region now in this category, however, it raises the obvious question. Has the land’s carrying capacity for moose and deer been diminished in the past decade? Barring some other major factor, an ecologist would say a declining moose population is evidence of exactly that.

But wouldn’t the same trend be affecting whitetail deer populations as well as moose? I would say yes, except for one other interesting factor that is, artificially, increasing the carrying capacity of the landscape for deer, without providing similar benefit to moose— and that is recreational deer feeding.

Which leads me to my next two conversations. The first was with a local feed dealer, who told me that recreational deer feeding constituted maybe three-to-five percent of his feed business 25 years ago. Today, it’s 35 percent. And some of his customers feed as much as a ton of deer feed every month, individually affecting the survival of dozens of deer. Now multiply that by all the people feeding deer throughout the region.

And I talked with Shawn Perich, an astute observer of the natural world over in Cook County, who said the amount of deer feeding spiked there as well after the severe winters in the mid-1990s. We’ve seen the same thing along the Fernberg corridor, where deer congegrate in large numbers in the winter to take advantage of the many people feeding deer. In each case, the feeding sustains deer in regions where winters and declining habitat quality would otherwise reduce their numbers.

Artificially maintaining higher deer numbers has numerous effects on moose. Deer are carriers of parasites, like liver flukes, brainworm, and ticks, which weaken or kill moose. Where we find high deer numbers, moose eventually disappear, and the research is pointing to health impacts as part of the cause.

Keeping deer numbers artificially high also sustain more wolves on the landscape, and that limits the reproductive capacity of moose. Research points to wolf predation as the leading cause of moose calf mortality, and it’s a significant factor with adult moose as well.

Moose in our region face the double-whammy of high deer numbers, which spread disease, combined with the greatest density of timber wolves found anywhere in North America. Combine these factors with a changing forest that is arguably eroding the quality of moose habitat, and you have a situation that would be stressing just about any wildlife species.

So what’s the answer? I don’t think a ban on deer feeding is in the cards, and I don’t like bans in any case. But there’s justification for an educational campaign to warn the public about the hazards of deer feeding, which are many.

Deer feeding not only kills moose, it creates a public safety hazard for people, as well. Deer frequently cross highways to get to feeding areas, and they get hit by cars as they do so, causing millions of dollars in property damage and personal injury. They spread parasites, like ticks (including those that carry Lyme disease), in areas where they congregate. They cause damage to vegetable and ornamental gardens when the winter feeding troughs are no longer filled in the spring.

We spend millions educating the public about invasive species, and that’s an important issue because the survival of native aquatic species is at risk. But the survival of our native moose is also at risk.

Education can be incredibly effective, since most people want to do the right thing. Many folks who feed deer assume they are doing a good thing, and most greatly enjoy the chance to observe deer up close. But once you make the connection between deer feeding and the disappearance of moose, I suspect many will choose not to feed. If so, our moose will have a fighting chance.


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Something I don't know,I wonder how prevalent brain worm is throughout the northeastern part of the state. Gunflint less than Fernberg area?

Also I know elk can get the brainworm,for now elk should not be reintroduced into the northeastern part of the state and we don't need a study on the plan. Put the money into more moose study and deer relationship etc.

Sunday, March 13, 2016