Moose studied for range and risk

Most people think of moose as integral players in the boreal forest ecosystem.

But it turns out plenty of them are living right alongside of one of the busiest highways in Saskatchewan.

A researcher from the University of Saskatchewan says it isn’t difficult to find moose living along a busy stretch of highway that connects the province’s two largest cities.

Ryan Brook, at the university’s agriculture college, said a rising moose population and a changing habitat are causes concern. Several thousand moose are now found south of the province’s northern forests.

Their southern migration has been welcomed by hunters, who have benefited from an increase in the number of tags issued for moose, but they are a nuisance. They damage farmers’ fences, feed on their crops and create an increased risk of collisions with rural drivers.

It’s enough of a concern that the province’s environment ministry and the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation are throwing their support behind a team of researchers who have initiated the Saskatchewan Farmland Moose Project. Their efforts will track the animals for two years within an area neighbouring Highway 11 between Regina and Saskatoon.

“We just don’t have any data to support or assess it. We just don’t know what the population of them is or where they go or what they eat,” said Brook.

For two days last week, Brook led a team of 12 that employed a helicopter and a small plane to spot, track and tag 17 adult female moose.

Joined by a professional wildlife capture crew and ministry biologists, Brook’s team eyed the animals from the sky and fired a net from above. Members on the ground blindfolded the animals, held them down and collected blood, hair and stool samples.

A tag was placed in each ear and a collar, complete with a GPS unit, was attached around their necks.

The technology embedded in the collars will send Brook hourly updates on where the animal moves.

He said the animals weren’t drugged or hurt, and the collars are designed to fall off after two years.

“Finding enough animals in that area was not a problem,” he said.

“There was certainly lots of female moose around there.”

Most of the animals were found within 10 kilometres of the highway, while some were tagged as far as 30 km away.

Brook said he would like to attach collars to as many as 25 moose this year, particularly problematic animals that are moved by wildlife officials.

The same exercise will be duplicated next year with male moose. The collars are easy to identify and hunters are asked not to kill the animals.

The information collected could contribute to a moose management strategy for the area, providing policy-makers with a better idea of what the animals are consuming, where they’re travelling and crossing roads and how officials could facilitate and impede their movement.

“That’s our job, as I see it anyway, is to provide good science and good information to help people make more enforced decisions,” said Brook.