Some Minnesota hunters' long waits to bag a moose will get longer after BWCA fireDave Orrick, Pioneer Press, 9/28/11
In the long term, the Pagami Creek fire still burning east of Ely, Minn., should improve moose habitat, clearing the bramble to make way for saplings and berries that the animals love to munch on.
But for now, the forest fire is proving problematic for moose hunters, many of whom have been unable to access the territory they are permitted to hunt starting Saturday. The situation has led the state Department of Natural Resources to offer refunds for the cost of permits.
Those permits, for what is often known as "the hunt of a lifetime," are a coveted commodity that hunters wait years to come by. Some 6,000 hunters entered a state lottery for moose-hunt permits this year; only 105 were issued.
With Minnesota's moose population shrinking, the days of moose hunts in the state might be numbered, and a fire that scatters the quarry and changes the landscape isn't what hunters hoped for.
"It's a game-changer," said Steve Merchant, wildlife program manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. "If you went up on a trip or scouted an area and thought you had a pattern figured out, those moose are somewhere else now."
The roughly 90,000-acre fire is primarily confined to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and only 12 of the 30 moose-hunting zones are affected. Of those, one zone remained inaccessible Wednesday.
But moose hunting in and around the Superior National Forest is as much about the effort as the hunt itself. Bull moose cover large ranges over remote terrain, and hunting parties will often venture deep into the backcountry, tracking an animal before the season starts.
Officials significantly eased up on closures this week, but Merchant said he wasn't sure hunters would think they had enough time to scout their areas.
If you shoot a moose in the backcountry, you must field dress an animal weighing more than 1,000 pounds and then transport it miles by foot and canoe - all before the meat spoils.
It's a task that can yield an epic hunting tale and that moose hunters dream about - it's also becoming rarer each year. Wildlife officials are steadily reducing the number of hunting permits amid the declining moose population. The population stands at 5,000, but it's unclear whether the Pagami Creek fire (http://www.pagamicreekfire.com
) has killed significant numbers of moose, which are counted during the winter.
The reason for the drop in moose numbers isn't fully understood. According to rules proposed by the DNR, if certain population markers don't improve over the next two years, 2013 will be the last year moose hunting is allowed in Minnesota, at least until the population turns around.
The DNR is offering hunters with permits in zones affected by the fire the chance to receive a refund by calling 651-259-5220 before Saturday's opener. The plan is to give those hunters permits for next season.