History of Moose in Michigan

aerial photo of two mooseMoose are native to Michigan and occurred throughout all except the southwestern Lower Peninsula prior to European settlement. Moose disappeared from the Lower Peninsula in the 1890s, and only a few scattered individuals remained in the Upper Peninsula.

The interaction of several factors probably caused the decline of moose in Michigan. Extensive logging during the early 20th century eliminated millions of acres of moose habitat. Loggers, miners and other settlers also took these large animals for food. Another factor thought to have contributed to the decline of the population was brainworm (Parelaphostrongylus tenuis), a nematode carried by white-tailed deer. Although the brainworm has little effect on white-tailed deer, it can cause a fatal neurological disease in moose. As the Michigan deer population expanded rapidly in the more open and brushy habitat created by the logging and forest fires that followed European settlement, the incidence of brainworm in the moose population likely increased.

The state's first attempt to reintroduce moose in the Upper Peninsula mainland occurred from 1934 to 1937, when biologists trapped and transported 71 moose from Isle Royale to the mainland. Most of these moose were released in Keweenaw, Marquette and Schoolcraft counties. Of the remaining moose, officials sent two to the Detroit Zoo and six to the Cusino Wildlife Experimental Station for study of basic moose biology. These studies revealed information on the dates of the rutting season, gestation period, rate of growth from birth to maturity, types of food eaten and food preferences, and antler development. At the time of capture, the Isle Royale moose population was very high and moose had depleted the forage on the island. As a result, moose brought to the mainland were in poor physical condition, and some developed serious infections after release. Many of the introduced moose died from what was described at the time as "circling disease," most likely caused by the brainworm parasite. Although citizens reported observing moose across the Upper Peninsula in 1941, poaching continued as a threat to the population. The poor condition of the translocated moose, combined with poaching and high deer numbers, contributed to the failure of this initial attempt to reintroduce moose on the mainland.

During the 1950s and 1960s, citizens occasionally observed moose in the Upper Peninsula, primarily in the eastern counties. In the 1970s, biologists recognized changes in the Upper Peninsula that were promising for moose. Most notable was a decline in deer numbers in the northern portions of the Upper Peninsula.

In the mid-1980s, the DNR translocated 59 moose from Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada and released them in Marquette County. The goal of the moose reintroduction was to produce a self-sustaining population of free-ranging moose in the Upper Peninsula.

All of these moose were fitted with mortality-sensing radio collars to help monitor the outcome of the reintroduction. The translocated moose population increased through the late 1980s and early 1990s in spite of a few losses each year to brainworm and several other natural causes, including falls off cliffs, fights during the rut and complications while giving birth. Calf production and survival through the first year of life were very good, confirming that the habitat was suitable. Poaching losses were virtually nonexistent, perhaps because the citizens of the Upper Peninsula were involved with the project and had adopted the new moose population as their own.

Moose are currently found in two areas of the Upper Peninsula: the reintroduced population in Marquette, Baraga and Iron counties, and a smaller remnant population in the eastern UP, found primarily in Alger, Schoolcraft, Luce and Chippewa counties.

During the most recent moose population survey in January 2011, the DNR counted an estimated 433 animals in the western Upper Peninsula. No formal survey of the eastern U.P. moose population is conducted, but local biologists estimate there are about 100 animals, based on field observations and reports from the general public.