Out of the woods: In North Dakota, moose are taking to the prairie

Roger Johnson recalls showing a picture of a moose standing in a North Dakota sunflower field to some of his Canadian counterparts several years back, during a meeting of wildlife biologists.

"Most of the Canadian moose biologists couldn't believe it," said Johnson, big game supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake.

Moose, after all, were creatures of the big woods, regal animals most commonly seen with water lilies or other aquatic plants draped over their antlers or hanging from their mouths.

They certainly weren't prairie dwellers.

Well, someone apparently forgot to tell the moose.

At a time when moose are disappearing from the landscape in northwestern Minnesota and "traditional" forest habitat in the Pembina Hills of northeastern North Dakota, moose are thriving on the prairie. From Grand Forks west to Minot and beyond, moose are finding North Dakota's open country to their liking.

Why that is, Johnson says, is hard to say for sure. Especially when moose in traditional areas are disappearing. The population in the Pembina Hills, for example, has declined from 260 in 1993 to 11 during the Game and Fish Department's most recent survey this past winter, Johnson says.

Ticks and other parasites, and the diseases they cause, likely are behind that decline.

At the same time, Game and Fish has upped the number of moose licenses it's offering this year in some prairie areas. In Unit M10 north and west of Minot, Game and Fish this year is offering 40 permits where only 10 were available just a couple of years ago.

The increase in prairie moose has helped offset the dramatic losses in the Pembina Hills. As a result, the number of available moose licenses has held steady at about 130 in recent years.

"Outside of basically our Pembina Hills area, we feel our moose population is doing fine," Johnson said.

Changing farm practices that now favor row crops such as corn and sunflowers over traditional small grains could be part of the reason moose are moving to the prairies, Johnson says. Moose find the row crops to their liking. The Conservation Reserve Program, a federal initiative that pays farmers to take marginal land out of production and create wildlife habitat in its place, also could be a factor.

Most likely, Johnson says, it's a combination of things.

"I think everybody likes to put animals into nice, neat categories," Johnson said. "I think what you see is animals are continually changing and adapting, too, to different situations.

"I don't know which ones of these are factors as far as the moose are concerned, but the change in the agricultural scene is certainly significant."

Tough to measure

While reports of moose sightings now are commonplace across the prairie, Johnson says it's difficult to get a handle on the extent of the population. The moose aren't confined to specific areas like they are in traditional forested habitat.

That makes sampling the population during winter aerial surveys a challenge, Johnson says.

"Going west, (moose) numbers appear to be going up, but out on all of this prairie, we don't have a very good survey because you have to fly so much of it," Johnson said. "You don't know where to fly. That's the biggest trouble."

Perhaps the best indication of prairie moose populations is a 1,200-square-mile block near Cando, N.D., which Game and Fish flies as part of its annual winter deer survey.

In 1987, Johnson said, survey crews counted 16 moose. That number had grown to 66 by 1997 and 117 by 2004, only to dip to 56 more recently.

"I think there's room for a lot of variability out there, just because when you think of 1,200 square miles, this density is really low," Johnson said. "I think, for moose to survive out there, they have to cover a lot of area."

A study of radio-collared moose conducted by UND graduate student Jim Maskey in 2005 and 2006 indicated animals in a research area near Lonetree WMA likely covered a home range of 100 square miles. The study also found that prairie habitat has fewer terrestrial slugs and aquatic snails, which transmit brain worm and liver flukes.

As a result, disease is less common among prairie moose.

"It's hard to speculate what the potential is in those places," Johnson said, "because if you looked at it, you certainly wouldn't say it was moose habitat."

Most likely, Johnson says, sunflowers and corn are a large part of the diet in prairie moose. Meanwhile, the patchwork of sloughs that is the hallmark of the Prairie Pothole Region provides just enough woody cover for both food and shelter.

"These sloughs and marshes, there's quite a bit of browse in some of those areas," Johnson said. "Any kind of woody stems can be food material."

Canadian biologists who once might have been surprised to see a picture of a moose in a North Dakota sunflower field now are witnessing the same trend north of the border.

"We certainly do find them out in the farmland these days," said Dan Chranowski, Western Region wildlife manager for Manitoba Conservation in Brandon, Man. "In the southwest and west part of our province, which is adjoining North Dakota and Saskatchewan, we're finding more moose out there."

Chranowski says moose in prairie Manitoba likely have moved in from either Riding Mountain National Park or Turtle Mountain Provincial Park, both of which are nearby and adjacent to more open country.

Landowners don't seem to mind, Chranowski says, and sightings always are topics of conversation in local coffee shops.

"We quite often get calls from local farmers who don't expect to see moose in their grain field," Chranowski said. "They're pretty much a benign animal on the landscape. They seem to find some nice secure spot with some good browse, and I know we probably have moose now calving out on the farmland area."

The province hasn't surveyed moose populations in open farmland, Chranowski says, but instead samples adjacent forest areas.

"What we have found over the last 10 years is more moose outside the major forest area on the fringe, where the forest moves out into farmland, those strings of drainages and valleys," he said.

In response to the population increase, Manitoba also has expanded hunting opportunities in the prairie country, Chranowski says.

"Hunters appreciate that," he said. "We haven't had a lot of pressure, and they seem to be sustaining."

The long-term question, of course, is whether moose are here to stay as a fixture on the prairie. If global warming is part of the reason populations are declining in northwest Minnesota - and, by association, the Pembina Hills - as researchers have speculated, Johnson of Game and Fish wonders why the trend isn't holding true on the prairie.

"If we said all of the moose population was going down from east to west along the Canadian border, I guess it would be a little more plausible," Johnson said. "Of course, the disease aspect could be changing because of weather conditions, and maybe it's more subtle.

"The bottom line is, we don't have any handle on it."

What is known - at least for now - is that moose on the prairie are doing well, and for hunters and wildlife watchers, it's a trend to enjoy.

"I guess long-term, you question whether they can continue to survive out there" on the prairie, Johnson said. "But we might as well take advantage of them when they are there. It's certainly kind of a unique hunting opportunity."