Moose are vanishing from some regions in British Columbia and the provincial government has launched a major new study to find out what's happening to them.
Moose population surveys in recent years indicate declines of as much as 70 per cent in some areas of B.C. where clear-cut logging has occurred, but in other areas the moose population has remained stable.
To find out why, the B.C. study will engage 11 wildlife biologists, one wildlife veterinarian and several other staff over its five-year duration.
High-tech radio collars will also track the movements of more than 200 moose, and when they die, an investigation will determine their cause of death, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations said in a statement Wednesday.
Jesse Zeman, a director with the B.C. Wildlife Federation, welcomed the research, saying moose are one of the most valued game animals in the province, with about 75,000 hunters applying annually for moose tags. Only about 10,000 of those hunters win the right to go after a moose, and about 6,000 will take an animal. In 1979 B.C. hunters were taking about 13,000 moose annually.
Mr. Zeman said hunters are hoping the government can find out what's causing the moose population to fall.
"For hunters, the number one concern is sustainability," he said.
For the past several years hunters have been reporting declines of moose in areas that have been extensively logged, in the wake of the pine-beetle epidemic, but he expects predators and other factors may also be to blame.
The B.C. project will use Global Positioning System technology to track moose in five regions from Fort St. James in the north, to Kamloops in the south.
The areas under study "were specifically chosen to ensure a range of landscapes are examined in terms of the age of forest cover and amount of pine-beetle infestation with associated salvage logging and road building," the government stated in its announcement.
In addition to logging impacts, the government project will also look at hunting pressure, predators, parasites, diseases and climate.
"Although the final results of the study will not be available for several years, wildlife biologists will be able to use preliminary information to help direct management of moose throughout the province," the government stated in its announcement.
Ronald Moen, a research associate at the University of Minnesota, said moose populations are in trouble widely beyond the borders of B.C.
"Moose at the southern edge of their range appear to be having some problem, and I think that's evident in all the research projects that are being started, or have already been started," he said.
"You see projects starting in New Hampshire, Maine, Minnesota, B.C. and Montana."
Dr. Moen said Minnesota researchers started looking at the moose decline in 2010, but initially focused on habitat problems. Last year they put collars on 110 animals and began to examine mortality causes. The radio collars, similar to the ones to be used in B.C., contain "mortality sensors" which send an alarm when the animal dies, allowing researchers to quickly get to the scene and determine the cause of death.
"With the newer technology that we now have in terms of collars, we are able to do a lot more, and learn quicker," he said. "You used to have to fly in a plane and find the animal. Now we're to the point where locations are being delivered to us and we can … get in within 24 hours of the animal's death."
Dr. Moen said research in Minnesota so far has not pointed to a single cause of the population decline.
"We're having varied causes of death," he said.
He said the B.C. study is large enough that it should provide some real clues.
"They are certainly going to get some answers," he said.