Regional Drought Blamed For Moose Decline In Wyo.

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Wildlife outfitters in Wyoming are hurting because of the declining moose population. They depend on big game hunters for their livelihood. These businesses typically blame the reintroduction of wolves to the area as well as the states exploding grizzly bear population for the moose decline. But a decade-long drought in the region may be to blame.

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Big game hunting is big business in Wyoming. Almost nothing is off limits to hunters there, from bison to mountain lions to moose. But a dramatic drop in the state's moose population is hurting people who make a living from big game. Wyoming Public Radio's Tristan Ahtone reports the reasons for the decline are complicated.

TRISTAN AHTONE, BYLINE: When you walk into Fritz Meyer's home, the first thing you'll notice are the animals: bears, elk, big horn sheep, and just about any other beast worth mounting on a wall. Meyer is a wildlife outfitter, which means for a fee he'll take you out into the back country to bag any animal you have a license for. One of his major sources of income is moose hunts - or rather, he says it used to be.

FRITZ MEYER: I'd normally take, oh, at least five moose hunters probably. This year I've got one, and lucky to get that one.

AHTONE: And at $5,000 per guided moose hunt, his business has suffered. In northwest Wyoming, where Meyer lives and operates, there's been a drop for other outfitters too.

MEYER: My feeling here is that a lot of it is predators. It's really taken a big decline since the wolves have moved in here. But it's like a big pie and it all fits together.

MATT KAUFFMAN: Two or three years ago, we sat down with Game and Fish and started kind of looking statewide and realizing that most of the herds in the state were showing some evidence of decline.

AHTONE: That's Matt Kauffman, a zoologist at the University of Wyoming. Over the last decade, Kauffman says, the moose population has dropped by about 30 percent, which has had a big impact on the state's 300 outfitters who specialize in moose hunts.

KAUFFMAN: There are two things that Wyoming moose are experiencing that are truly regional, and that's the expansion of wolves and grizzlies and this 10-year drought that we've been in.

AHTONE: Kauffman says it's impossible to say what portion of moose losses comes from predators and what comes from drought. But he does say the 10-year drought leads to another possible factor: disease.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC SAW)

AHTONE: Today, game and fish wildlife biologist John Henningsen is using an electric saw on a moosehead to check for a parasite called elaeophora, or more colloquially, brain worm.

The brain worm can cause blindness and death in moose, and Henningsen says the leading theory for why the parasite is spreading is horseflies.

JOHN HENNINGSEN: Whether it's just by the number of horseflies that are alive or the length of the season that they're operating in. When we have hotter, drier conditions, horseflies actually do better.

AHTONE: And those increases in temperature have led scientists to look for reasons why. Bryan Shuman teaches geology and geophysics at the University of Wyoming. He says over the last 30 years, average temperatures in the state have risen up to three degrees and attributes it to this: greenhouse gases caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the clearing of forests.

BRYAN SHUMAN: I tried to put everything on the table, look at all the possible things - solar variability, ocean variability, natural cycles in the Earth's system. And what it came down to was that there was no way I could explain the most recent episode of more frequent, warm years without including greenhouses gases.

AHTONE: According to Shuman, when the average temperature in Wyoming goes up a degree, the average rainfall decreases by three inches, which has adverse effects on food and habitat for moose, and of course hunting outfitters like Fritz Meyer.

MEYER: It's the sportsmen and everybody that's taking the brunt of the rap on this, because there's just not the animals out there for them to harvest that there should be.

AHTONE: Meyer may not have the ability to prevent climate change himself or singlehandedly control the predator population, but he's adapting to the decline in moose by diversify his big game business, adding things like summer camping trips for families.

For NPR news, I'm Tristan Ahtone in Laramie.

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