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When moose fly

Scientists collar animals to help with population count

By Sam Cook

Duluth News Tribune

NORTH OF TWO HARBORS, Minn. -- The helicopter appeared from the northeast over ranks of spruce and birch. Its payload, about 900 pounds of moose, dangled in an orange sling below the chopper. The cow's big brown head hung from one end of the sling as if she were trying to get a better view of the landing pad.

The cow was delivered gingerly to a snow-covered gravel pit about 30 miles north of Two Harbors one Monday afternoon earlier this month. She was the first of 60 moose that biologists with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Lake Superior Chippewa bands and the U.S. Geological Survey hope to fit with radio-transmitter collars as part of a five-year study.

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The agencies hope the information they gain each week from radio-tracking 30 cows and 30 bulls for five years will help them better estimate the moose population in northeastern Minnesota. The population is reasonably healthy, biologists say, but not much is known about moose movements or mortality other than the hunting harvest.

No sooner had the cow been laid on the snow than a crew of biologists and other scientists descended upon her. The scene was reminiscent of an "E.R." episode, as each member of the team went to work.

Early in the 20-minute process, Glenn Del Giudice, a DNR wildlife researcher from Grand Rapids, injected drugs into the cow to calm and immobilize her. The cow, blindfolded and with her legs bound at the ankles, groaned intermittently as biologists performed their duties.

Someone extracted a vial of blood from the moose. Someone clamped new green ear tags -- No. 105 -- in each ear. Someone affixed the 2-pound radio collar around the cow's neck. Others took fecal samples, hair samples and various body measurements. Someone else used an ultrasound machine to measure fat on the cow's rump -- a sign of the animal's health.

Once the crew's work was done, the moose was given an injection to reverse the effects of the tranquilizing drug. She recovered about 45 minutes later, stumbled to her feet and walked calmly into the forest wearing her new necklace.

The cow had been "net-gunned" by a three-person crew from Helicopter Capture Services of Maryvale, Utah. After shooting a net from the helicopter to ensnare the moose, its legs were tied and it was transferred to a sling. The helicopter then transferred the moose about a mile to the site where biologists waited for it.

A bull moose netted earlier in the day died, apparently of cardiac arrest, after being netted and transferred to the examination site. The netting and slinging process had taken almost an hour, said Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and the bull died after it had been examined and collared.

The agencies had hoped to net and collar 60 moose in five days. Only three moose had been captured by Monday afternoon, including the bull that died.

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The study will cost $148,000 the first year and about $85,000 annually for the remaining four years, said Mark Lenarz, leader of the DNR's Forest Wildlife Populations and Research Group in Grand Rapids. The 1854 Authority, a natural resources arm of the Grand Portage and Bois Forte Chippewa bands, has contributed $40,000 toward first-year costs.

Netting wildlife from helicopters has been done before in Minnesota.

Moose have been captured that way in northwestern Minnesota, and last week, 36 deer and five gray wolves were net-gunned and fitted with radio collars at Camp Ripley near Little Falls, and near Grand Rapids.

None of those animals died as a result of the capture process, although one deer was euthanized because of unrelated injuries.

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