GRAND FORKS — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision this week to deny federal protection for moose in Minnesota and neighboring states was a welcome development for officials of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Had the service ruled to list moose in Minnesota for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, the once-in-a-lifetime moose hunting opportunity available for North Dakota residents would have been in jeopardy.

That’s because the petition requesting federal protection lumped moose in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and North Dakota under the same umbrella.

As John Myers of Forum News Service reported Tuesday, the Center for Biological Diversity and Honor the Earth had filed the petition requesting endangered protections for moose in July 2015. The Fish and Wildlife Service began its review in 2016, which ultimately led to Tuesday’s ruling, published in the Federal Register.

Moose populations in northwest Minnesota have all but disappeared and moose numbers in northeast Minnesota have declined from an estimated 8,840 in 2006 to just 2,700 in 2013, Myers reported. This year’s aerial survey pegged the northeast Minnesota population at 3,150, a minor improvement from the 2013 low but far below the 2006 estimate.

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Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

While the Department of Natural Resources hasn’t offered a moose season in northeast Minnesota in nearly a decade — and at least twice that long in northwest Minnesota — North Dakota in recent years has actually increased the number of moose licenses available.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department this year offered 474 moose licenses, down only five from last year’s record high of 479. Moose populations remain low in areas with more traditional habitat such as the Turtle Mountains, but the big animals are thriving in agricultural areas farther west, to the point where they’re problematic in some places.

An endangered listing would have limited the department’s ability to manage moose in North Dakota, said Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for the Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.

In its ruling, the Fish and Wildlife Service said there wasn’t sufficient evidence to consider Midwest moose as different from moose in other regions and Canada, Myers reported.

“We are pleased with the (Fish and Wildlife Service’s) decision on moose,” Williams said Wednesday. “We disagreed with the petition and worked with other states to help provide information to the USFWS to show this was not necessary. We are very supportive of this ruling.

“We have been issuing a record number of moose licenses, and a good harvest has been needed in many areas. This certainly had the potential to limit our best population management tools.”