Montana Moose Hunter Success Is Good for Science

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North American moose (Alces alces) season is upon us again, and thanks to the Hunter Legacy Fund, SCI Foundation will support the 4th year of the Montana Moose Project.  This 10-year study began in 2013 and was designed by Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks (MFWP) to be the most cost-effective means to investigate the observed decline of moose populations.  This goal would be achieved while examining the current status of moose, improving the approaches currently in place for monitoring vital rates, limiting factors, and methods, and ultimately maximizing hunter harvest opportunity.

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Moose hunters in Montana are crucial to this project.  Not only are they responsive 90% of the time to phone surveys, and successful at least 73% of the time while hunting, survey data helps ground truth data collected from aerial counts.  Each year since 2012, moose hunters in Western Montana have been contacted by MFWP over the phone and asked a series of questions in order to determine the Catch-Per-Unit-Effort (CPUE).  This data is then compared to data gathered from aerial surveys over the same land area in order to determine if moose are in fact declining as hypothesized.

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Preliminary results in 2017 have revealed a stable to increasing population in two study areas, and potentially a declining population in a third.  Largely driven by adult female survival rates, this trend was measured studying radio-collared cows.  In February of this year, the MFWP worked with Quicksilver Air and local landowners to conduct the final captures and increase the sample of collared moose.  As of August 1st, 2017, there are currently 81 female moose being monitored in three areas: the Cabinet Mountains, Big Hole Valley, and Rocky Mountain Front.  Survival rates are higher in the Cabinet-Fisher and Rocky Mountain fronts, while a slight decrease in survival was observed in the Big Hole Valley.

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Pregnancy rates, although taken from a small sample size, show that moose within our study area are below the national average of 84.2%.  Montana moose have an average adult pregnancy rate of 81.4% without much variation across the study area.  The rates at which calves are born and survive in Big Hole Valley are 89% and 87% in the Rocky Mountain Front, while only 73% in the Cabinet-Fisher.  Although calf survival is lower in the Cabinet-Fisher area, moose cow survival rates are relatively high. Based on modifications to the hunter survey, researchers have estimated the approximate peak birthdate of calves to be May 25th with a range of roughly May 13th – June 12th.

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Those hunters fortunate enough to be one of the 1.4% who draw a state moose license are extremely important to this project.  Valuable information about moose nutrition, disease rates, and the rutting season has been gathered by those Montanans willing to participate by submitting blood samples from the moose they’ve harvested, measuring rump fat levels, and sharing what days they choose to hunt.  Participation is entirely voluntary, and Montana moose hunters continue to donate their valuable time and effort to gathering data.  This effort is rewarded by the fact that their success rates are higher than the national average, meaning hunter success increases the reliability of the research.  Despite the number of moose permits issued declining by 53% between 1992 and 2012, moose observation data is also gathered from deer and elk hunters at check stations.

Moose hunting in the West remains stable, with 2,263 permits issued in 6 range states in 2015.  Hunting opportunities have increased in 27% of the western range, continuing the history of reopening moose seasons out West and the successful North American model of wildlife conservation.

One of the great results of this collaborative effort has been the publication of a manuscript summarizing the status and management of moose in Montana as well as an annual Report published each September.

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Visit the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website to learn more about this moose project.  For more project updates and SCI Foundation news, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, like and subscribe to us on YouTube, or visit our website.

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