On Jan. 20, 1985, separate convoys carrying men and equipment set out from Michigan on a mission to reach the 3,000-square-mile Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada.
Over the next two weeks, this team of wildlife biologists and veterinarians from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, working with a team of Canadian specialists from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, would locate, capture, transport and release a number of wild moose to form the nucleus of a new population in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
It was an unprecedented, historic operation. The wind chill at times approached 100 degrees below zero. Utilizing helicopters, tranquilizing dart guns and slings, some moose were air-lifted as far as 14 miles from the capture area to base camp.
At base camp, each animal was subjected to thorough medical testing and was fitted with a sophisticated radio collar, before being lifted into a shipping crate and placed onto a transport truck for the non-stop 600-mile overnight journey back to Michigan.
The remarkable effort was called “moose lift.” A total of 29 moose (10 bulls, 19 cows), ranging in size from 750 to 1,250 pounds, survived the arduous journey.
Crowds assembled each day at the release site north of Lake Michigamme in Marquette County. Despite temperatures well below zero, a welcoming committee of U.P. residents always showed up to greet the new “American” citizens.
As we mark the 20th anniversary of the first moose lift, the most common question that arises is, “How are the moose doing now?”.
“The department’s goal was to produce a self-sustaining population of free-ranging moose, and we have that,” said Dean Beyer, wildlife research biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Since the first moose lift in 1985, and a similar effort two years later when another 30 moose were released in the same area, the DNR has closely monitored the reintroduced moose population.
“At first, the size and growth of the herd was determined through a simple process–similar to balancing a checkbook,” Beyer said. “Because all moose were radio-collared, biologists could monitor each animal and tell when it died, and they could follow cows to record any births. The population could be tracked simply by adding the number of calves born and subtracting the number of animals that died.”
As the population grew, the new animals in the herd did not have radio collars.
“Over time, maintaining an adequate sample of radio-collared animals for the population would not be feasible,” Beyer said.
So in 1996 and 1997, the DNR conducted aerial surveys, which are the most common method of estimating moose numbers. Unfortunately, the population estimates from the aerial surveys were lower than estimates from the population model.
“At that point we knew we needed to conduct a more intensive study of the reintroduced population,” Beyer said. “And we also wanted to determine a more accurate picture of what’s reasonable growth for this population.”
With the help of the Michigan Involvement Committee of Safari Club International, which also provided the single largest financial contribution to the first moose lift, the DNR began a more intensive study of the reintroduced population in 1999, in cooperation with Michigan State University.
“Our research team is developing a technique to estimate the size of the population by estimating the probability of seeing moose from an airplane given the group size; behavior, whether the animal is standing or bedded; and the amount of canopy cover,” Beyer said.
When the moose were reintroduced into the western Upper Peninsula, biologists hoped the population would grow to 1,000 animals by the year 2000. Although that objective was not reached, results of the current study indicate the population is growing, on average, between five and ten percent each year. The research also has shown that poaching, moose/car accidents, brainworm and wolves are not major factors influencing the moose population at this time.
According to Beyer, the herd ranges over approximately 1,800 square miles in Marquette, Baraga and Iron counties. Moose also are found in several parts of the eastern U.P., most notably around the Tahquamenon River.
“Moose in this region have not been studied in detail,” he said.
Although records from the early explorers show that moose were common throughout Michigan, by the late 1800s moose numbers were very low. Moose soon disappeared from the Lower Peninsula and only a small number survived in the U.P., perhaps supplemented by animals coming in from Minnesota and Canada.
Thanks to the vision and hard work of many DNR biologists a generation ago, moose are once again establishing themselves as a premiere Michigan mammal.
Several U.P. communities, in fact, now vie over the self-proclaimed title, “Moose Capital of Michigan.” Mascots, motels, restaurants, candy and even ice cream are named after the mighty moose. Its image is common on billboards, television, artwork and printed materials. But most importantly, moose are alive and well, and rambling about in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula once more.