Minnesota’s moose are in trouble. Numbers have declined by 50 percent in just the past six years, and now officials are considering scrapping this year’s hunting season.

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Minnesota’s moose are continuing to die off, and the situation is dire enough that state officials are thinking about scrapping the fall hunting season for only the second time in 40 years. Results of this winter’s aerial survey, released Thursday by the Department of Natural Resources, estimate that the moose population declined by 670 animals, or 14 percent, in the past year in the northeastern part of the state.

Last year, the DNR estimated there were 4,900 moose; this year, 4,230. In just six years – about half the lifespan of a moose in the wild – the population has been cut in half. In 2006, there were an estimated 8,840 moose. “We’re always losing some moose that are 12 to 15 years old,” said Mark Lenarz, leader of the DNR’s forest wildlife and populations research group. “But moose are dying at 5 to 7 years of age. They’re in their prime, and they shouldn’t be dying.” Hunters kill a fraction of the moose that die every year. As do wolves. And cars.

Scientists aren’t sure what’s killing moose, although diseases and parasites, along with warm winters like the current one, are suspected of playing a part. When temperatures rise above 23 in January, for example, moose have to work hard to stay cool, perhaps weakening their immune systems. DNR studies have shown a correlation between warm Januarys and low moose survival. “No, this was not a good winter if you’re a moose,” Lenarz said….”It’s both making a decision whether we will have a hunting season, and also if we have one, how many permits we should issue,” Lenarz said.

A decision will come within weeks. Last year, 105 moose hunting tags were issued, less than half the previous year. Moose hunting was banned in 1922 but returned in 1971 after the population flourished. In 1997, hunting ceased in the northwestern part of the state as that population crashed. Hunting in the northeastern part of the state was suspended in 2000 but resumed the following year. Last year, hunters killed 53 moose, all males.