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Wolf numbers up, moose falling

ST. PAUL - Minnesota's wolf population is thriving, while the number of moose in the state has dropped, Department of Natural Resources officials said Thursday.

There is no clear indication why the state's moose herds are shrinking, said DNR Deputy Director Ed Boggess, but an aerial survey indicated a 2,000-moose drop between 2006 and 2007.

January survey estimates place moose totals at about 6,500 in northeastern Minnesota, where the vast majority live; about 80 live elsewhere.

"We're concerned about it," Boggess said, noting that the decline represents one of the highest natural mortality rates in the country.

One thing department officials know is that the slip isn't attributable to hunting, Boggess told a Senate environment and natural resources committee. He said 208 moose were harvested last year by hunters in Minnesota.

But since disease and parasites are more prevalent in moose studied, Boggess said, a theory has emerged that the decline may be related to heat stress. Moose feed less when it's hot out, he said, and become more susceptible to those problems without food.

If that's the case, Boggess said, the possibility exists that the decline may be a byproduct of global warming.

"Yes, there could be a connection there," he said.

Meanwhile, another DNR official told senators that wolves in the state are flourishing, having been removed from the federal endangered species list in March.

"We're glad that it finally happened," said Mike DonCarlos, wildlife research and policy manager for the DNR.

A new wolf management plan has been implemented and describes rules of engagement for humans and wolves.

Under the plan, people in northeastern Minnesota are only allowed to shoot a wolf if they feel they must defend a human life. In the rest of the state, only farmers may shoot wolves - if wolves are threatening livestock.

Deer numbers in the state have provided wolves a "good, solid prey base," DonCarlos, said.

However, other factors will control the wolf population.

"They're not going to increase exponentially," DonCarlos said.

A 2003-04 report showed about 3,000 wolves in the state. The state will survey the number of wolves again this fall.

Boggess said the department was not requesting more money from the Legislature for moose research.

"We're still in the discussion phases as to what to do next," he said.

Also at the meeting, DNR Fire Management Section Manager Olin Phillips updated senators on the Gunflint Trail fire. It should be at least 80 percent contained today, Phillips said, and could be completely snuffed out by the end of next week with enough rainfall.

The fire has cost the state about $17 million, he added.