Minnesota Moose Habitat Collaborative enters fourth phase of forest enhancement

[anvplayer video=”5138875″ station=”998130″]

Moose in Minnesota went through a steep decline that peaked in 2011 and remain at risk long term, despite current population stability.

According to a 2022 population survey, the Minnesota moose population is relatively steady with an estimated 4,700 moose. This is the highest estimated number of moose since 2011, but it is still 47% lower than the population’s peak in 2006. 

To help the plight of the moose, the Minnesota Moose Habitat Collaborative has been improving thousands of acres of moose habitat since 2012. 

“Moose are facing many troubles in northern Minnesota, as well as most of their range in the lower 48, everything from disease to climate stressors, loss of habitat, land use conversion,” said Regional Forest Conservation Director for the Ruffed Grouse and American Woodcock Society Jon Steigerwaldt. “However, we know from working with ruffed grouse and other species that if we can manage diverse, healthy ecosystems and focus on managing that part that we have the most control over, we can give moose and other species a fighting chance on the landscape. If we give them all those benefits of a healthy habitat, we can have a more healthy moose population that can better withstand the multitude of stressors that they’re facing, just like many other wildlife.”

The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association collaborates with partners including Superior National Forest at the federal level and the Minnesota DNR, Division of Forestry, and Division of Fish and Wildlife at the state level. Cook, Lake, and St. Louis Counties are included as well as the 1854 Treaty Authority and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. UMD, the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI), and The Nature Conservancy are also partners. 

“This project is really designed around restoring browse for moose. We need to restore it to make sure that they’ve got enough stuff to eat that it’s short enough where they can get to it,” said Nature Conservancy MN Resilience Forestry Manager Chris Dunham. “And then it’s also important that they have mixed conifers that are shaded in this warming climate so that they can be out foraging in places where they’ve got some shade and protection.”

The Ruffed Grouse Society now leads the collaborative. 

“This project itself is working to really diversify, enhance and create healthy forest ecosystems in northern Minnesota,” said Steigerwaldt. “By benefiting moose as our focal species, we can benefit our focal species like Ruffed Grouse, American woodcock, as well as a multitude of other forest dwelling wildlife, like everything from whippoorwill to spruce grouse and many, many more.”

The work is funded by the Outdoor Heritage Fund and reviewed by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council

“I think the council really looked at the scope of the project, not just the plight of the moose and the reducing numbers of moose that were happening, but looked at the overall ecology and the overall health of the forest in this area of the state,” said Lessard-Sams Outdoor Council Executive Director Mark Johnson. “By helping the moose, they felt that, okay, it’s not just helping the moose, but improving this habitat is also improving the habitat for our other game and non-game species. The Neotropical migratory songbirds, the grouse, the deer, everything else. So it’s a really encompassing habitat enhancement project because it’s doing great work.”

The first phase of the project used $914,100 to improve 2,049 acres of moose habitat. The second phase cost $1,996,400 and improved 5,164 acres. Phase 3 cost $1,920,000 and improved 11,466 acres.

With thousands of acres of moose habitat improved so far, the collaborative was recently authorized to receive $1,909,000 from the Outdoor Heritage Fund for phase four of the project. Johnson is excited to see all of the partners involved working together for a common goal. 

“That scope of expertise and interest and passion is something that the council just couldn’t turn down. It was a win-win for everybody to see this come to fruition,” said Johnson. “They’re working on pieces of this wonderful forest and trying to put the pieces back in that are missing. It’s just a work of passion that’s going through stages and it’s pretty neat to be part of it.”

Phase four will enhance 8,800 acres of foraging habitats and moose cover. 

“Those are the places they go to hide from predators or to make sure that they’ve got some shade and warm things. So this project is really looking at affecting those types of habitat, enhancing their habitat on the ground,” explained Dunham. “We’ll do things like increasing the amount of vigorously growing brush on a site by using bulldozers to clear the whole other decadent brush that gets out of reach.”

Controlled burns will also help enhance the habitat. 

“Fire is an amazing tool for habitat restoration in northern Minnesota,” said Dunham. “What brought these iconic conifers and other species to our land? And so we want to restore it with fire, but we have to do that very carefully.”

Representatives from several of the partnering organizations met on Wednesday, September 28, for a tour of moose habitat that is being enhanced. 

“It is something that benefits moose tremendously by making their habitat more pristine. It gives them a chance to survive the other challenges they have,” said Johnson. “But the number of Ruffed Grouse and the number of songbirds, the number of all these other wildlife that participate in that habitat and live in that habitat is incredible. And to see it all come to life through projects like this, it’s something that is going to leave a legacy for Minnesota.”