Take a walk through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and you may find yourself encountering one member of a limited population of Alces alces. An awkward looking animal with gray or reddish brown fur, it has a broad muzzle, humped shoulders, and a flap of skin hanging from the neck called the “bell”. The large head, small behind, and long, skinny legs make this animal look almost comical.
Of course this animal is the moose, which can be found in the Western U.P. in Marquette, Baraga and northern Iron counties and also in the Eastern U.P. in localized areas near Luce, Schoolcraft, and Chippewa counties. This two-part series will talk about moose in the Eastern and Western U.P. and why their range may be slowly migrating north of Michigan.
Moose used to populate the whole of Michigan, until the early 1900s when European settlers extirpated them from the Lower Peninsula and greatly reduced the population in the Upper Peninsula. They are now more difficult to find, but still remain in specific areas of the U.P. MNA’s Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge is in the eastern UP in Luce County. The refuge earned its name when MNA member Rick Baetsen spotted the first moose on the property during a visit in 2001. He had been wandering around the property, hoping to take a photo of a moose amidst the pretty fall colors. On his last day in the area, Baetsen came across the moose he’d been searching for standing along the edge of a two-track trail. The experience was amazing, he said, because the moose seemed to cooperate 100 percent, making his photos perfect.
“I thought to myself that the light wasn’t the best,” Baetsen said, “and it would be nice if the moose started walking—and then the moose walked toward the maple trees! Then I thought it would be a better photo if he stopped–and he stopped! I took four or five more pictures and then I wanted him to turn his head and look at me. I no sooner had the thought when he tilted his head in my direction! I have seen moose many times, in Canada, in Alaska, in the Upper Peninsula and up close on Isle Royale, but the neatest natural moment I’ve had was with that bull moose on the refuge.”
Baetsen said he has probably had about 50 or 60 moose sightings in the Eastern U.P. over the years, and he estimates around 85 percent of those were in Luce and Chippewa counties near MNA’s refuge. His sightings of moose peaked around the 1999 or 2000, he said, when he was seeing eight or nine moose a year. Unfortunately, Baetsen hasn’t seen many moose recently, mostly just their tracks or droppings.
“It’s probably been eight or nine years since I’ve seen a moose on the refuge,” Baetsen said. “Friends of mine and I used to share stories of moose sightings, but recently we’ve been sharing stories of moose tracks.”
The small population in the Eastern U.P. is a mix of native and naturalized animals. The actual number of Eastern U.P. moose is unknown because there have been no studies done, although some experts estimate at around 100 animals, according to Dean Beyer, wildlife research biologist for the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (DNRE).
Moose in the Eastern U.P., such as those on MNA’s refuge, may have come from three different sources, Minzey said. Some of the population may be remnants of the earlier and larger moose population before the European settlers. Other moose may have traveled to the Eastern U.P. on their own accord from Canada, across the St. Mary’s River. Some moose may also have come from a group of moose relocated by the Michigan Department of Conservation in northwestern Schoolcraft County in the 1930s.
Those relocated moose originated from Isle Royale, which by that time was suffering from overpopulation. The relocation of 32 animals was an attempt at reducing the island’s numbers and replenishing the mainland U.P.’s population. It was not very successful however, probably because too few animals were transplanted, said Wildlife Biologist Terry McFadden for the DNRE.
There is a higher population of moose in the Western U.P. that has been more thoroughly studied by the DNRE. Look for the second installment of this moose series to learn more about the rest of the moose in the U.P.!
- Kurta, Allen. MAMMALS of the Great Lakes Region. University of Michigan, 1995.