MARQUETTE - Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials said weather conditions have improved in recent days, allowing biologists to complete Upper Peninsula moose population surveys.
Last week, DNR officials said the survey might have to be postponed until next year. The aerial survey is conducted from fixed-wing aircraft every other January. Survey crews fly over prime moose range in Baraga, Iron and Marquette counties and count moose sighted on the ground - which in typical winter conditions stand out in contrast to the white snow.
"For much of January, most of the survey area did not have sufficient snow cover to allow us to effectively spot moose from the air," said DNR wildlife biologist Bill Scullon. "Once we did get some snow, the air temperatures and wind speeds were too extreme to allow for safe operation of our aircraft."
Biologists were hoping for more moderate weather take advantage of the recent snowfall before the survey period ends.
"We've got some weather problems this winter, but it looks as though we're going to get everything collected that we need to have collected and we will present that information to the Natural Resources Commission," DNR Wildlife Division Chief Russ Mason said this week.
When the aerial moose survey was first designed in 1997 as a method of monitoring the state's moose population, the month of January was chosen as the most desirable survey period, as survey trials found it to be the most successful time of year to sight moose from the air.
"I haven't looked at any preliminary numbers," Mason said. "I'm right now just thrilled to pieces that we're actually going to be able to fly it and get it done without cold or lack of snow shutting us down."
With the information gathered, the NRC could contemplate a limited moose, hunt based on the September 2011 Moose Hunting Advisory Council recommendations, which included that a hunting season could be held only in years following a moose population survey.
"Where we left the recommendations of the advisory panel was that the commission had the opportunity - they could choose not to consider a hunt - but they will have the opportunity to consider a hunt, based on the information that we provide," Mason said. "We'll see where this goes."
The council also recommended a lottery system with no more than 10 bull moose licenses issued initially and hunting only in the core moose area in the western Upper Peninsula. State officials would also have to work out an agreement with Native American tribes with the hunting area covered by an 1842 treaty.
"We haven't pushed that one particularly hard," Mason said. "It's clear that there are differences of opinion at least that seemed to be true. The tribal representative to the advisory panel was in favor - at least one of them was - in favor of a hunt. The other was, not so much. They wanted more science."
Mason said if the NRC did decide to move forward with a moose hunt state officials would have to "talk very carefully to the tribes and make sure that we are trying to address all of their concerns."
"It's important. As it turns out, they are resource managers, they have a deep connection to the resource," Mason said. "And we may not always agree, or even take their advice, but we need to understand their perspective very carefully and consider it."
The data from the moose survey could also be helpful in learning more about Michigan moose herds. In January 2011, moose populations in the U.P. were estimated at 433 animals, a slight increase of the 420 found two years earlier.
In Minnesota, moose populations have declined almost 50 percent in the past six years, prompting a $1.2 million study under way this winter. The Minnesota DNR will attach GPS tracking collars to 75 cow and 25 bull moose and implant devices in the digestive tracts of 27 of the moose, which will send a text message to researchers when a moose dies.
"The decline in the northeast Minnesota moose population is exhibiting the same pattern of decline that we observed in the northwest," said Lou Cornicelli, DNR wildlife research manager. "We're losing about 20 percent of adult moose annually and know from previous studies that predation and hunting are not the primary causes of adult moose mortality. The decline is particularly troubling because more often than not, we can't determine the primary cause of death."
Mason said Minnesota's moose problems were the subject of a long discussion DNR officials had with the advisory council.
"We are right on the fringe of moose range. And if you believe in climate change, then that fringe is going to continue to move north," Mason said. "Having said that, it isn't quite clear what's happening in Minnesota because populations, for example in the Dakotas, are going up. So it's not clear - there's no cut-and-dried explanation to this one way or another."
There are different mysteries associated with Michigan's moose populations.
"The only thing we can say about Michigan moose really is that for reasons that aren't clearly understood, their overall sort of calving rate is low, although survival of calves is very high," Mason said. "I don't know what that means. It's a conundrum for us."
Mason said in the future, biologists want to look at the impacts of a variety of factors that have changed since moose were fitted with radio collars, the effect of wolves being one of them.
"We were able to say that back when we had collars on our animals, wolves didn't have an impact on moose. But we haven't had collars on for 10 years. And we've got a whole lot more wolves now than we did before," Mason said. "Might they be having an impact now? I don't know the answer to that question. Our data are insufficiently current. So we might just want to be taking a look at some of those things. Because it is conceivable, especially in a stressed population, or populations on a fringe, that predators can have more appreciable impact than they would have in other kinds of situations."
Mason said he doesn't think that's what is happening in Minnesota.
"Nobody knows what's going on there," Mason said. "It's creeping everybody out something fierce."