Helicopter, nets used for moose research

Moose migration problematic | Hunters happy, farmers not so much as moose wander Highway 11

Moose have traditionally been associated more with boreal forest than prairie farmland.

However, a researcher from the University of Saskatchewan says it isn’t difficult to find the animals alongside a busy stretch of highway that cuts through central Saskatchewan, connecting the province’s two largest cities.

Ryan Brook, who works in the university’s agriculture college, said an increasing moose population with a changing habitat is cause for 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 also 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 closely 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 informed decisions,” said Brook.