The number of moose permits issued in the past five years in Montana has reached lows not seen since the 1950s, spurred by concerns that the gangly creatures’ populations are plummeting.

Those concerns have prompted a 10-year study of moose in Montana, in which state scientists hope to learn more about impacts to them in the Treasure State.

This year, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks offered 368 moose licenses for sale. While the total of available licenses is up from 347 last year, that number is down from 594 issued in 2006 and well below the high of 836 moose licenses issued in 1962. The average number of licenses available each year between 1963 and 2012 was 652.

“We offered 50 percent fewer licenses between 1995 and 2011,” said Ron Aasheim, FWP spokesman. “We had 22,706 applicants for moose licenses in 2011, but issued only 387 licenses. We’re embarking on a long-term study to see what’s happening and why we have reduced numbers.”

In 2013, 21,567 people applied for moose licenses.

Not surprisingly, the harvest rate also has dropped dramatically in recent years, with only 274 moose taken by hunters in 2012 compared to about 500 in 2006.

Yet wildlife managers aren’t sure whether fewer hunters in the field is directly proportional to the drop in harvest numbers, or if something else — like perhaps fewer moose overall — is the culprit. State officials haven’t scientifically tracked moose populations over time; instead, the agency has relied on reports from biologists or hunters when deciding on how many licenses to offer.

That’s why FWP launched the 10-year study last spring, hoping to obtain actual data to either corroborate or dispel anecdotal information. Wildlife managers also hope to learn more about what’s going on with the moose population and why it may be declining.

“The number of permits being offered reflects what the biologists are hearing — how many hunters are filling their tags and how many people report seeing them,” said Nick DeCesare, the Missoula-based lead biologist on the study. “There’s not a lot of data, but it’s their best judgment. To see these numbers drop in half in the mid-’90s is probably indicative that something’s going on.”

It’s not just in Montana, either. Minnesota used to have two distinct moose populations, and now is close to only having one. An aerial survey of moose in northeastern Minnesota earlier this year showed a 52 percent drop in population since 2010, which prompted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to completely call off the 2013 moose hunting season and refuse to consider future seasons unless the population rebounds.

In various regions of British Columbia, populations have declined anywhere from 20 to 70 percent in recent years.

Oddly enough, in North Dakota fewer moose are being found in their traditional ranges, yet their numbers are increasing in areas where they typically don’t reside, like in northwestern prairies of the state. According to a report in the Bismark Tribune, the population losses in the traditional ranges are being offset by what are known as the “prairie moose.” North Dakota is getting ready to embark upon a second study on moose in the state; the first was conducted between 2003 and 2007.

In Montana, DeCesare and co-worker Jesse Newby in Kalispell are focusing their research primarily in three regions of Montana, including the Rocky Mountain Front, the Cabinet Mountains and the Big Hole area, to monitor adult female survival, pregnancy and calf-survival rates.

So far they’ve captured and collared 12 moose in each of the three areas, and have taken blood, fecal, hair and teeth samples for analysis. They’re also monitoring the number of ticks on the moose, and use a portable ultrasound machine to measure the layer of rump fat.

“About one-third of our animals have no fat on their rump; that was in the winter, so that’s a pretty big deal, and whether or not that’s a problem is a question for the study,” DeCesare said. “Are lean animals dying, not giving birth to calves or could they just be leaner this year and are doing fine next year?”

They hope to eventually collar 30 moose in each of the three study areas. DeCesare did note that three of the collared moose already have died; one was killed by a wolf and the other two were in poor health.

“Having such a small sample to start with, then having three die, is a big deal,” DeCesare said. “It shows that this early in the study, one animal dying here or there can change the perspective of what’s going on.”

The study also calls for sampling moose from across the state for genetics and parasites.

They’ll also try to establish the impact of predators — black and grizzly bears, wolves and mountain lions, as well as humans — on the moose. They’re looking at whether climate change may allow parasites like ticks to become better established. They’ll also consider whether older forests, like in the Cabinet Mountains, are negatively impacting moose, which like to forage on young plants.

“It’s probably not just one of these; they interact and there’s a whole host of things we have yet to figure out,” DeCesare said. “So much of what we are trying to learn hangs on things that happen over a long period of time, like survival of adult females.

“We have a little bit of information to start with, but it’s a little daunting as well as exciting. Hopefully we’ll learn a lot about moose and set us up for keeping better track of them in the future.”

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com. Follow Eve on Twitter @IR_EveByron.

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