The Way of the Buffalo: Dwindling Moose Population May Jeopardize Tribal Traditions

By KBJR News 1

May 3, 2012 Updated Jun 2, 2012 at 11:00 PM CST

(Northland's NewsCenter)---A historical and spiritual tribal tradition may be in jeopardy in Minnesota.

A dramatic and troubling decrease in the state's moose population has Northland tribes concerned about the loss of their treaty right to harvest moose in the future.

Tribal members are doing what they can to make sure their long time traditions don't go the way of buffalo hunting.

The first time Sonny Myers called a Moose he remembers feeling his heart pound. When the moose appeared out of the thick woods he was astonished at the magnificence of the creature.

"We were sitting around one frosty October morning up the Gunflint Trail there," Myers, Executive Director of the 1854 Treaty Authority said. "I actually tried calling and wasn't sure what to expect. Low and behold, I could hear this, I thought it was somebody clearing their throat on the other side of this clearing but it kept getting closer and closer and closer."

For many Native Americans the annual moose hunt is not only a treaty right it's a strong tradition. It's a time for family to come together over the hunt and to share a feast.

"There's more to it than my once and a lifetime trophy hunt," Myers said. "It's more a part of what our ancestors and what we continue to do until this day."

"It almost takes on a spiritual experience," Jeffrey Tibbetts, a Moose Hunter said. "Up in the wilderness area, it's really kind of a magical time."

But the magic is disappearing. The moose population has declined steadily over the last decade.

A 2012 aerial survey last winter used 49 sample plots to estimate that there are about 4,200 living moose in the state. The population declined 14 percent from last year.

The decline is causing some to question whether a moose hunt should continue.

"If this population continues to decline to a period where there is not a certain number of animals where we can take some, that's a significant issue to the band members because they will lose that potential food source," Myers said.

But moose experts say hunting is not the main reason for the dwindling population. They're conducting research to try to figure out what is.

Through satellite GPS monitoring and radio collared tracking projects they're trying to determine the type of climate and habitat moose are exposed to year-round and most specifically, at the time of death.

"Predation is occurring, primarily on the calves," Andrew Edwards, Resource Management Division Director of the 1854 Treaty Authority said. "The problem is we don't have a real good feel for what percentage of the calves are being taken by bears or wolves or predators like that as opposed to potentially dying from other causes."

"We lose some moose to winter tick every year," Mike Schrage, a Wildlife Biologist of the Fond du Lac Resource Management Division said. "We lose some moose to brain worm which is a parasite carried by white tail deer. We know they are exposed to a number of other diseases."

They're also looking at the impact of climate change on the moose population.

"We might not have any good idea yet on what a changing climate or temperature regime in this area might have for even nutritional quality of the forage," Edwards said.

Band members say they will continue to study moose habitat and habits while continuing their traditional hunt.

"You know it's the family that really passes on that knowledge of here's what we do and here's how we do it,"Myers said.

Though the population continues to decline overall there were more calves born this year giving rise to the potential of a resurgence in Northland moose.

Jennifer Walch
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