Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Moose in Peril: a vanishing victim of climate change

With large antlers, long legs, and a notoriously grumpy disposition, the moose has been to some a symbol of the cold rugged regions of North America, and a classic cartoon figure to others. In either case, it is an icon of the wilderness. And it is vanishing.

According to scientists, the culprit behind this loss is climate change. In areas like upper Minnesota and Michigan, over the last 40 years temperatures have risen 12 degrees in the winter and 4 degrees in the summer. This has been sufficient enough to reduce the populations of moose by 50% or more. Says John Vucetich, a population biologist at Michigan Technological University, "The trends for the past 20 years are pretty clear, and if they keep up there won't be any moose in 50 years."

Whereas deer, bears, and wolves have better adapted to changing temperature by moving northward, the moose is more sedentary. They require shade, water, and cool weather. Climate change impacts these requirements and the moose is unable to obtain enough food to generate fat in the summer that carries it through the winter. All this stress affects the immune system, leaving the animal more susceptible to parasites. In short, they stay put and die.

The moose is not currently on the U.S. endangered species list and with the Bush administration proposing last minute regulations that will prohibit federal agencies from evaluating the effects of global warming in regards to animal species, it will be up to the incoming administration to clear that political stumbling block so that environmental decisions and policies can be fashioned based on scientific truth.

"I don't see the temperature change we're seeing as cyclical," says Rolf Peterson, a research professor at Michigan Tech. "The trend is definitely in one direction." But unfortunately, it may be too late for the moose in the lower 48 states. "There's not a lot of opportunity to turn this around," said Mark Lenarz, a wildlife specialist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Remember Bullwinkle once said to his cartoon pal, "Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat." Oh, if only he could.

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