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WDAY: The News Leader

Published October 27, 2013, 09:44 AM

The 'prairie moose phenomena' in North Dakota

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — There was a time not so many years ago when a moose sighting outside of the Turtle Mountain or Pembina Hills areas was rather uncommon.

By: BRIAN GEHRING, The Bismarck Tribune, WDAY

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — There was a time not so many years ago when a moose sighting outside of the Turtle Mountain or Pembina Hills areas was rather uncommon.

The young bull moose that has at least temporarily made Bismarck and Mandan home over the past couple of weeks has captured the public's attention.

That's because this part of the state is not considered "traditional" moose habitat.

Mostly moose are thought of as woodland creatures, evoking images of the huge animal chest-deep in a slough feeding on aquatic vegetation.

At a time when moose populations are declining in surrounding states like Minnesota, North Dakota's moose are doing quite well — and on the prairie, of all places, The Bismarck Tribune reported.

That said, parts of North Dakota are having the same issues with moose disappearing from their traditional ranges, said Bill Jensen, a big game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Two of the primary hunting units for the largest members of the deer family — M4 in the Turtle Mountains and M1-C around the Pembina Hills — are closed because of low numbers.

Jensen said it's suspected the reason for the decline is the same here as it is in northwestern Minnesota, a disease issue.

Jensen said moose are prone to brain worms, a parasite that is carried by, but not fatal to, deer.

While moose seem to be disappearing from their normal habitat, they seem to be finding the prairie and other open areas in the northwestern part of the state suitable.

Between 1993 and 2007, the moose population in the Pembina Hills went from 260 to 11.

During roughly the same period, the Game and Fish Department increased the number of moose licenses available in unit M10, the extreme northwest part of the state. Last year there were 69 moose tags issued in the unit. This year, the number is down to 50.

Jason Smith, a Game and Fish Department big game biologist in Jamestown, said the department is gearing up for a second study on moose in the state, the first being conducted from 2003-07.

Whereas the first study focused on traditional moose country, Smith said this one which will likely start next year will study the M10 area.

"All around us, moose are in decline," Smith said.

"In North Dakota, we don't have moose where we should have moose, and we have moose where we shouldn't have moose."

Smith calls it the "prairie moose phenomena." Smith said specific numbers of moose in the state aren't known, but population trends indicate the losses in the northern part of the state are being offset by the increases on the prairie.

In 2005-06, Jim Maskey, a professor of biology at the University of Mary, was a graduate student at the University of North Dakota working on a radio-collared study of moose in the Lonetree Wildlife Management Area near Harvey.

He will be working on the new study as well.

Maskey said the prairie moose are likely taking advantage of several factors that explain why their numbers are growing in non-traditional areas.

One, transitions from small grain crops to row crops like corn and sunflowers have given moose alternative food sources.

Still, he said moose are browsers and 70 percent of their diet comes from trees and shrubs.

Second, Maskey said, as tree and shelterbelt plantings on the prairie have matured in the past several decades, moose are using them for food and cover.

Wetland areas in the prairie also have been abundant, adding to the habitat moose are accustomed to finding in their historic range in North Dakota.

Third, he said, the brain worms, which are found in snails and slugs, aren't as common on the prairie as they are in forested areas, so the incidence of disease is lower.

Smith said the new study will focus on the northwest because that is where the highest density of moose are found.

He said the goal is to capture, radio collar and follow 40 animals in two specific blocks: from Sherwood to Portal to the Kenmare area and a second area along the Missouri River below Williston.

Smith said the two-year study will cost about $100,000 using a helicopter to trap and fit the moose with the $2,500 GPS collars.

Smith said the first study showed moose have about a 100-square-mile home range and on average the moose population density is about six per 100 square miles.

He said the density on the river bottom near Williston is considerably higher, but it's not known if those animals are transient or permanent.

The study will look at reproductive rates, which also may be linked to the decline of moose in the eastern part of the state, Maskey said.

Hunter success for moose has historically run around 90 percent, going back to the first season in 1977 when nine of 10 tags were filled.

Part of the success also can be attributed to good landowner-hunter relations because farmers, for the most part, are willing, and even help hunters bag a moose.

Moose can be very destructive as they wander through fields and oftentimes through fences. Smith said in the early days of moose hunting, farmers would often let hunters climb to the tops of grain bins and silos where they had a bird's-eye view of the landscape. Jensen said how far the moose ultimately will expand their range in North Dakota depends largely on habitat, but tolerance also plays a factor.

He said the Game and Fish Department is always interested in moose sightings, especially in areas where they are not normally found.

But Jensen cautioned people to be careful around the massive mammals.

Lone moose that are often sighted are young bulls that are pushed out of their territory by older bulls as the rut, or mating season, approaches.

In July or August, Jensen said these "bachelor bulls" might be seen in twos or threes as they wander looking for mates.

But as the rut gets closer, usually peaking in early September, the males will go out on their own and can become aggressive and unpredictable, especially if they feel threatened or cornered.

Motorists also should take heed. When vehicles hit a deer, they usually strike the deer in body. But because of a moose's long legs, the collision usually results in the moose rolling up over the hood and into the windshield.

While it's not known if moose have a long-term future as prairie residents, for the time being they seem to be doing just fine.

"Hopefully in a few years we'll know more," Maskey said.

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