Moose in Washington appear to be bucking the decline that's plaguing the animals in Idaho and across most Western states, a Washington Fish and Wildlife Department biologist says.
Rich Harris, Washington's special species manager, says annual aerial surveys and hunter success rates indicate moose numbers are at least holding steady while moose continue to expand their range westward.
Idaho, however, is reporting declines in moose, primarily in the Panhandle and northcentral region where wolf packs have been revived.
Dave Koehler, Idaho Fish and Game Department wildlife biologist in Lewiston, said while predators are part of the problem, they may not be the most important factor.
Citing moose studies in other states, he said habitat changes, parasites and warmer temperatures related to climate changes are believed to be major drivers of the decline.
"I'm not saying wolves are not having an impact on moose recruitment, but it's not as simple as saying they are the problem," he said.
Biologists across other northern-tier states also are looking into moose declines:
- Montana, where moose have been declining since the mid-1990s and moose hunting permits have been reduced, has launched a 10-year moose study on the health, reproduction rate and habitat of moose.
- Wyoming has documented serious declines of Shiras moose in the northwestern portion of the state during the past 30 years.
- Idaho Panhandle herds are in obvious decline in some areas, such as the east side of Unit 1, said Jim Hayden, Fish and Game's regional wildlife manager in Coeur d'Alene.
"None except units 2 and 3 appear to be increasing anymore," he said.
Moose moved into Washington from Idaho. A 1970s survey indicated about 60 were in the northeast region, enough to allow three permits for Washington's first moose hunting season in 1977.
The moose population is in the thousands now. Harris refused to guess at a more precise number. Washington will offer 140 moose permits this year.
A moose permit is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in Washington through a lottery drawing.
"Poring over our index data with the district biologists, we're not seeing anything other than continued increase thus far," Harris said.
"But there's room for subtle things to be happening that we're not aware of."
Wolves, for example, could be having significant impacts in small areas, he said. Hunter harvest continues to be around 135 moose a year, with success rates running 92 percent to 97 percent.
Idaho is issuing 859 moose permits statewide. Idaho relies heavily on hunting success rates in monitoring its moose population.
F&G is offering 695 bull tags this year, down from 814 in 2010. Antlerless tags have been reduced from 197 to 164 in that period.
The permits are prized; hunters have about a 15 percent chance of drawing one. An Idaho hunter can take one bull moose and one cow moose in a lifetime.
The biggest decreases in permits have been in the Clearwater region, where 262 moose permits were offered in 2004, but only 98 are offered this year.
"It's been a fairly precipitous drop and it's been fairly steady over the last 10 years or so," Koehler said.
Fish and Game doesn't have hard data on moose numbers. It relies on the success of hunters and anecdotal field sightings to gauge the health of the moose population.
When hunter success rates dipped below 75 percent, the agency reduced permits in some areas.
"In the Panhandle, we've had emergency closures for cow moose hunting except along the Washington border, and reduced bull moose permit numbers in Hunt 1-3 and Hunt 1-4 in particular," Hayden said.
"Success rates there in the 40 percent to 50 percent range instead of the usual 85 percent or so.
"It's not all bad news," he added, noting that permits likely will increase in units 8 and 8A, where hunter success rates have been near 100 percent for more than a decade.
"Other areas we're still watching, but data are few with moose; just not enough money to monitor outside of harvest."