BOZEMAN — The state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department plans to capture and put radio collars on up to 90 female moose as part of a long-term study of the animal's population, which has been declining since the mid-1990s.
Within the next few weeks, FWP biologist Nick DeCesare will start collaring cow moose in the Cabinet Mountains in the northwest, the Big Hole Valley in the southwest and along the Rocky Mountain Front.
He said he plans to collar about a dozen cows in each area this year, but hopes to increase that to about 30 in each region.
Biologists will track the animals' age, survival rates and pregnancies for 10 years while also monitoring their habitat to see if environmental changes affect their survival.
"Counting moose is harder than counting something like elk," said FWP Region 3 spokeswoman Andrea Jones.
"They don't roam in herds, and their brown hide is hard to see from the air. So we have to rely on other data."
Hunting data indicates the moose numbers have probably been decreasing since the mid-1990s, DeCesare said. Since then, FWP has incrementally reduced the number of moose hunting permits, while the number of moose killed continued to drop.
In 2001, FWP issued more than 640 tags statewide, and hunters shot 516 moose. By 2008, FWP issued about 570 tags, and 420 moose were killed. In 2011, FWP issued 387 tags.
Montana isn't the only state seeing a decline in moose populations. Biologists estimate fewer than 100 moose remain in northern Minnesota, and the hunting season there has been eliminated.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has identified climate change as a major contributor to moose mortality. Habitat loss, predators and parasites also are to blame.
Colorado, Michigan, Wyoming and some Canadian provinces also are studying similar population declines.
However, landowners on Montana's Front Range report seeing more moose than before.
"Hopefully we can find out what's going on there," DeCesare said. "It's not all gloom and doom."