Goodbye Barney and Friends

It was with great sorrow that I read the March MPR (Minnesota Public Radio) article about moose becoming extinct in Minnesota.

The first article I ever wrote in my long and somewhat haphazard career as a freelance writer was about a moose. It was published in 1981 in the East West Journal, a now defunct underground newspaper, and detailed the wanderings of a moose fondly known as Barney.

Moose are not that smart to begin with, and their appearance – humped shoulders, oversized head, spindly legs – makes them seem even more ridiculous. If not for their placid dispositions, their similarity to cows when grazing, and their almost mystical ability to disappear a la David Blaine, they would be downright scary. One thousand pounds is nothing to giggle at.

Barney, the subject of my article and a typical moose, typically addled by the brain parasite affecting his sense of decorum and direction, traveled south until he reached the Anoka/Washington County line, just north of the Twin Cities. In the late 70s, this area was already fairly well populated. Barney took to visiting vegetable gardens and public parks, munching on melons and marigolds with equal relish, and becoming a local celebrity. In fact, before the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources rounded him up and deported him back "up North," a group of local schoolchildren voted him their mascot.

I followed Barney’s wanderings, making a few friends in the DNR and learning more than I will ever need to know about moose brainworm, or Parelaphostrongylus tenuis, a parasitic roundworm carried by white-tailed deer. Although deer are carriers, they are unaffected by the parasite, but it is lethal to moose, where central nervous system collapse inevitably leads to death.

Barney was in the early stages of the infestation. In later stages, moose will become paralyzed in one or more legs, walk in circles, stumble, and either permit humans to come very close (because they are paralyzed) or charge at humans who aren’t an apparent threat. In their native habitat and in perfect health, moose are both reclusive and elusive. Barney was neither, and continued to migrate south with the assistance of humans, eluding several attempts by the DNR to corral him and return him to his home. Eventually he was captured, but not before making a wealth of friends along his path, myself included.

I became so enamored of Barney, I bought a lithograph of a moose by local wildlife artist Wayne Meineke, called "Winter’s White Sun." When the picture perished in a house fire several years later, I got another copy – this time Meineke’s own remarqued version. I still have it, and whenever I look at it I remember Barney, a lovable if slightly addled moose who, along with wolves and loons, represents the best that Northern Minnesota has to offer; a wilderness as yet unspoiled by humans.

Moose are vanishing from Northern Minnesota as a result of global warming. They thrive in the cold, and will – like the magnificent boreal forests of Lake of the Woods and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area – ease into Canada if warming continues, with the animals moving out faster than the trees. In a decade, moose populations – once numbered at 1,000 and now at 100 – will stand at zero. By the middle of the century, the boreal forest will likely be temperate forest.

A similar migration has already occurred with other boreal inhabitants like the lynx, now considered extinct in Minnesota. The only exception appears to be wolves, who are still recovering from near extinction as a result of hunting, and still appear, like wraiths from mist, on various trails in the BWCA if the traveler or tourist has enough sense to leave behind loud colors and equally loud Walkmans and other electronic living aids.

Goodbye, Barney and friends. I’d move too if I didn’t already realize that the final move made necessary by our profligacy – from earth to space – is as improbable as it is pointless. The change has to start in our backyard or we, as a species, will ultimately be as lost as the moose.

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