The Idaho Fish and Game commission voted last week to drastically reduce the number of available moose tags for the 2019-20 seasons.
Climate change, reduced forage and predation are blamed for the large ungulates’ decline, Idaho Department of Fish and Game regional wildlife biologist Kara Campbell said.
“We felt like we needed to be conservative,” she said. “We’ve also been getting a lot of information from hunters out in the field that they are not seeing what they used to see.”
There will be 634 moose tags available each year in 2019-20. That’s a reduction of 109 antlered tags and 62 antlerless tags from 2018-19, according to an IDFG news release. The Panhandle saw the largest reduction in tags. In 2019-20, there will be 194 tags for the region compared to 290 issued in 2017-18.
Under the new rule, antlerless hunts are no more in the Panhandle and Clearwater regions. The management decision was recommended by IDFG staff and the IDFG commission voted on the reduction at their Jan. 24 meeting.
Moose tags are a once-in-a-lifetime draw for hunters in Idaho. In the past, drawing a tag more or less insured a successful hunt with an 80 or 90 percent success rate in most Panhandle units. Those numbers have dropped to anywhere between 50 and 70 percent in recent years prompting the reduction.
“We want to provide high-quality opportunity,” Campbell said. “Across their range in the U.S. they are seeing declines.”
Most of the information Campbell and IDFG biologists have about Panhandle moose comes from hunter observations and reports. That anecdotal evidence indicates a decline in the population. The reason for this is three-fold, she said.
First, warmer winters and drier summers have boosted parasite populations. Ticks are particularly bad for moose, Campbell said.
“Moose are known as not that good of groomers. Just the way they’re set up, it’s hard for them to groom themselves,” Campbell said. “When we get these warmer winters, we don’t see tick die off like we normally see.”
Moose in Minnesota have been observed with as many as 70,000 winter ticks living on them. This higher tick burden can drive the moose to constantly rub in an effort to remove the parasites. Biologist in Minnesota also documented some moose with only 10 percent of their fur left after constantly rubbing up against trees.
Bart George, a wildlife biologist for the Kalispel Tribe, said he’s “personally sat and glassed moose and watched them constantly worrying with ticks and moving and rolling.”
“They’re just busy fighting these ticks and those are useful calories,” he said. “What we need is a week of subzero temperatures or something to kill those ticks. We just don’t get that very regularly anymore.”
Moose are also adapted to cold snowy conditions. Warmer weather stresses the large animals making them more susceptible to disease and predation.
Fire suppression and reduced logging has also limited the summer forage for moose. Moose, and other ungulates such as deer and elk, flock to newly burned or cut areas of forest looking for sweet and tinder new growth.
For instance, moose populations rebounded in Idaho and Montana roughly 50 years after the massive 1910 wildfires. That’s no coincidence, George said.
“They’re going to follow the harvest schedule and the fire schedule,” he said.
In 20 years, he guesses, “we’re going to see really nice browse conditions” in areas burned in recent wildfires.
Finally, predation from wolves and cougars has had an effect, although Campbell isn’t sure to what extent.
“There are predators in North Idaho,” she said. “There are definitely quite a few wolves and quite a few mountain lions.”
It’s true wolves have had some impact, George said, but the moose decline can’t be blamed on the predatory canines. He points to places like Minnesota, which never expatriated wolves, yet is still seeing a drastic decline in its moose populations.
“Wolves are such an easy culprit right now because they are the new predator on the block,” he said.
IDFG will continue to monitor the moose population. When the state sets new hunting rules and seasons in two years, biologists will reevaluate the number of tags to issue.
Unfortunately, the extent of the problem isn’t clear.
“We don’t have a ton of information up here, besides just looking at past success rates in the area,” Campbell said.
Moose are notoriously hard to study. That’s why IDFG used anecdotal data, such as hunter reports, in lieu of more definitive population data, said Chip Corsi IDFG’s regional manager in Coeur d’Alene.
“Those are metrics that we use in the absence of absolute population data,” he said.
IDFG looked at hunter success, hunter effort and the size of antlers. Essentially, fewer hunters killed a moose and those that did spent longer in the field.
Newly deployed trail cameras may give the agency more data on moose and other animals. Plus Idaho has collaborated with Washington and Montana wildlife managers, Corsi said. Both states are conducting large moose population studies.
For decades, moose in the region were doing better than their brethren in other U.S. states. Regional populations have started to decline, matching trends in other states.
Minnesota’s population, for instance, is down as much as 70 percent. Between 2006 and 2012, the number of moose in Minnesota dropped from 8,840 to 4,230.
Human-caused climate change is increasingly seen as the main culprit behind population crashes such as Minnesota’s.
As for Idaho, George said the reduction in tags is to be expected.
“That has to happen,” he said. “It’s just part of the deal.”