While bison, wolves and elk dominate Montana’s wildlife spotlight, another antlered icon may be slipping away.

After more than a decade of dwindling hunting success, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks will conduct a long-term study of the moose population, including possible threats.

Within the next few weeks, FWP biologist Nick DeCesare will start capturing and collaring female moose in three different areas of the state: the Cabinet Mountains in the northwest, the Big Hole Valley in the southwest and along the northern Rocky Mountain Front.

Logging created much of the habitat for moose in the Cabinet Mountains, but now trees are filling in. The Big Hole Valley has more riparian areas and swamplands while the Front is drier and colder.

DeCesare said he plans on collaring a dozen cows in each area this year, but he hopes to increase that to about 30 per region.

Biologists will track the animals for at least 10 years and record their ages, survival rates and pregnancies, along with the survival rates of their calves. Scientists will also monitor crucial details of each habitat, such as weather and vegetation characteristics, to see how environmental changes affect moose survival.

“Moose can live for a long time, so we had to commit to doing it for a while to get a good sample size,” DeCesare said. “Based upon what’s going on in other parts of the country, we have assumptions of what might be affecting them. But we may have our own combination of factors.”

FWP hasn’t conducted much research on moose since the 1960s, when it did some initial studies in southwest Montana. Since then, biologists have relied mainly upon reports from hunters.

“Counting moose is harder than counting something like elk,” said FWP Region 3 spokeswoman Andrea Jones. “They don’t roam in herds, and their brown hide is hard to see from the air. So we have to rely on other data.”

The hunting data shows that moose numbers have probably been decreasing since the mid-1990s, DeCesare said. That’s when the number of moose permits peaked.

Since then, FWP has incrementally reduced the number of permits, but the number of moose killed has continued to drop.

In 2001, FWP issued more than 640 tags statewide, and hunters shot 516 moose, according to FWP records. By 2008, FWP issued 70 fewer tags, but hunters were able to take only about 420 moose. In 2011, FWP issued 387 tags.

Montana’s mysterious moose decline isn’t unique.

Northern Minnesota is losing its moose at an alarming rate. Moose in the northwestern corner of Minnesota have almost disappeared — biologists estimate fewer than 100 still remain — and the hunting season there has been eliminated. Populations in the northeastern part of the state are decreasing by about 20 percent each year, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The Minnesota DNR has identified climate change as a major contributor to moose mortality. During the winter, moose suffer heat stress at temperatures above 20 degrees, and winters have been slowly warming.

Human-caused habitat loss, predators and parasites also take their toll, and parasite populations also increase with milder temperatures.

Minnesota is launching a $1.2 million research project this month to find solutions. In the meantime, biologists are considering seeking endangered species protection for moose in the state.

Colorado, Michigan, Wyoming and some Canadian provinces are also studying the problem.

One glimmer of hope is flickering on Montana’s Front Range. DeCesare said landowners in that area are reporting seeing more moose than before.

“Hopefully we can find out what’s going on there,” DeCesare said. “It’s not all gloom-and-doom.”

Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or llundquist@dailychronicle.com.

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