Forty cow moose in northwest North Dakota will be sporting some pricey new neckwear later this winter when the state Game and Fish Department and the University of Mary in Bismarck team up to fit the animals with GPS collars.
It's all about learning more about prairie moose and where they go, the habitat they prefer and the extent of their mortality. Northwest North Dakota isn't traditional habitat for the big animals, researchers say, but moose in recent years have been a common sight on the prairie.
"Right now, that western part of the state is really the stronghold of the moose population," said Jim Maskey, assistant professor of biology at the University of Mary who will be overseeing the fieldwork. "Those numbers in the west have increased in the past several years. It didn't even used to be open to (moose) hunting, and now it is."
The increase has coincided with a dramatic decline in moose populations in more traditional forested areas such as the Turtle Mountains and Pembina Hills, along with northwest and northeast Minnesota. The upcoming study won't answer the question of why prairie moose are faring better than their woodland counterparts, Maskey said, but there's plenty to learn about the animals in northwest North Dakota.
"It will be for the most part a pioneering study," said Jason Smith, big game biologist for the Game and Fish Department in Jamestown, N.D., who will be coordinating the project from the department's end. "It will be interesting to see what kind of results we have and how it differs from different areas in moose range."
Northwest North Dakota also lies at the epicenter of the state's oil boom.
"As far as traffic and possible impact by activity related to oil, that's one thing we'll be looking at," Smith said.
The total cost of the two-year study is about $300,000, and Game and Fish is funding the research with a grant to the university.
As part of the study, a crew of helicopter wranglers who specialize in wildlife capture will collar 20 cow moose along the Missouri River bottoms near Williston and 20 cow moose in a survey block near Kenmare, N.D., which features more open prairie and agricultural land.
Both study areas are in moose hunting unit M10; the Kenmare study block covers 1,496 square miles, and the Upper Missouri River survey area encompasses 65 square miles.
"What we have going on there, what Game and Fish has noticed, is quite a few moose wintering along the river and probably the highest densities we have right now anywhere in the state," Maskey said. "We don't know if they're staying at that density year-round, or if a lot of them are moving back out on the prairie after winter is over."
The high-tech collars, which cost about $2,200 each, will provide real-time locations on the moose and are programmed to send a text message if any of the cows stop moving or die.
That's similar to a study now underway in northeast Minnesota, where moose populations have declined to the point there won't be a hunting season this fall. The text alerts will help the researchers reach a dead moose faster, before the animal is too badly decayed to determine why it died.
"We're going to try to mirror a lot of the protocol (in the northeast Minnesota study) so we will have the ability to make some comparisons," Maskey said. "Because it seems our moose are doing a little better than they are over there."
Maskey, who earned his doctorate at UND, brings a wealth of moose research experience to the upcoming study. From 2004 through 2007, he oversaw the fieldwork portion of a collared moose study in north-central North Dakota as a UND graduate student.
"What we learned was that moose were really using the altered habitats on the prairie -- some of the things that have been created since Europeans settled -- but taking advantage of tree rows, woodlots and agricultural fields," Maskey said. "So, at certain times of the year, they were eating corn, sunflowers, things like that, but still relying heavily on woody browse in the woodlots."
The visibility of prairie moose can give people a skewed impression of their abundance. According to Smith, aerial surveys have shown the moose density in northwest North Dakota is about .06 per square mile -- six moose per 100 square miles -- while the Missouri River bottoms near Williston last winter had a density of .78 per square mile, the highest of anywhere in the state.
That number fluctuates depending on river conditions, but it's off the charts compared to other parts of the state, Smith said.
"You've got flats down there, willow bottoms and stuff moose really like, and there's no one down there," Smith said. "For the most part, they've got it pretty much to themselves."
Moose numbers in northeast North Dakota have fallen to about .02 per square mile, and the Game and Fish Department no longer offers a season in two once-popular hunting units -- M1-C and M4, basically the Pembina Hills and Turtle Mountains.
"Where we're supposed to have moose in the state, we have really low numbers in what is considered traditional habitat," Smith said. "Best numbers are in nontraditional habitat."
Smith, who also is a UND alumnus, said partnering with Maskey on the upcoming moose study was an obvious choice because of his previous work.
"Jim has done the only actual university-based (moose) research project in the state, so it only makes sense to collaborate with him," Smith said. "The only thing we're missing is a graduate student, but with these new collars and the ability for them to collect that data, all that's taken care of, and what it comes to at the end is going through and analyzing that data and figuring it out."
The timing also is good, Smith said, because it coincides with moose studies underway in Minnesota and Montana.
"It's always good when you can do that kind of thing and compare results and follow the same methodology," Smith said. "So, instead of a statewide view, you get a regional multistate view."
Smith said Game and Fish will fly its normal winter aerial big game surveys during the next few weeks to give the helicopter crew a better handle on finding cow moose to collar. If all goes according to plan, the animals will be online in late February or early March.
The study targets cow moose, Smith said, because females drive the population and tend to move around less than bulls.
It's all about providing hunting opportunities while at the same time ensuring enough moose to justify offering the once-in-a-lifetime licenses.
"It's a balancing act to make sure we try to keep licenses available because they're a very popular animal in the state," Smith said. "But at the same time monitor from year to year to see what's on the landscape and make sure we have a healthy population for those moose hunters."
Moose hunting success typically exceeds 90 percent, Smith said.
"We're a prairie state, and if you get a moose out in the open, it seems like the hardest part is drawing the tag," Smith said. "If people put in their time, they usually don't have any problem."
Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to email@example.com.