It’s always a treat to see a moose in North Dakota, but I am not seeing nearly as many as I did a few years ago in the Turtle Mountains.

Moose are native to the state. Vernon Bailey in his “A Biological Survey of North Dakota” from 1926 noted they were native to the Turtle Mountains, Pembina Hills, the area along the Red River and its tributaries, and perhaps the Devils Lake area.  But they were apparently extirpated from the state during settlement.  However, they came back to the northeastern part of the state, presumably from Minnesota in the 1950’s.  The moose population increased and dispersed, so that by 1977 North Dakota held its first moose season which enabled ten North Dakota residents a once in a lifetime opportunity to harvest a moose.

The traditional hunting areas for moose were mainly the Turtle Mountains and Pembina Hills, but things have changed.  Now, with 7 hunting units covering roughly the northern half and eastern third of the state, there were 111 moose tags available during the last two years, but the Turtle Mountains and Pembina Hills units are closed.

Statewide, the moose population appears to be stable, but for some reason the populations in the Turtle Mountains and Pembina Hills are declining.  Something similar may be occurring in Minnesota moose as well.

The cause of the decline has generated considerable speculation, ranging from climate change, to parasites, to moose discovering sunflowers.  But biologists are not quite sure why the population is declining, and it may be a combination of factors.  But it is increasingly looking like a brainworm contracted from deer is a major factor.  The brainworm alternates between a deer and snail or slug host.  It causes no apparent damage to whitetail deer, but is often fatal to other ungulates such as moose and elk.  If a moose, for example, inadvertently consumes an infected snail or slug (while feeding on aquatic plants or perhaps other forages) the larvae travels to the brain where it disrupts and or destroys brain cells.  Symptoms of infection in moose may include circling, apparent deafness and/or blindness, listlessness/weakness, emaciation, and paralysis, and it is usually fatal.

There will continue to be considerable speculation as to what is happening to the moose, But whatever the cause, let’s hope biologists can identify the cause and that the moose population can bounce back.  The Turtle Mountain aspen forest and Pembina Hills just are not the same without bulwinkle!

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.


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