MINNEAPOLIS – A moose was suffering from an open wound where its tail should have been. Wildlife managers concluded it was the result of a wolf attack and left it alone. But officials intervened on behalf of a baby eagle with a broken wing whose nest was the subject of a video feed watched by tens of thousands of people around the world.
These cases in Minnesota highlight a dilemma that's common across the country: when to intervene on behalf of wounded wildlife and when to let nature take its course.
"It depends on the circumstances in each case, and often it depends on how man has affected the situation," said Doug Inkley, a senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation.
Inkley and other wildlife biologists have a strong preference for deferring to nature's wisdom, though he said intervention can be warranted with endangered species -- because every animal is needed to maintain genetic diversity -- or when humans caused the problem.
Yellowstone National Park spokeswoman Amy Bartlett said park officials rarely intervene. The only case she could recall was a grizzly bear struck by a car several years ago. They tried to save it because of its protected status, but it died, she said.
Officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced a hands-off policy when they went live with an EagleCam from a nest in the Twin Cities this spring. The feed attracted a huge online audience as three eaglets hatched, but it soon became apparent that one chick was struggling.
Upset eagle-watchers demanded action with a flurry of posts on the Nongame Wildlife Program's Facebook page and even phone calls to the governor's office. Officials relented and plucked the eaglet from its nest.
"Social media had a big impact on our decision-making process," conceded Lori Naumann, the program's spokeswoman. "... My phone blew up. My email blew up.
"It started with a little bit of concern and then it just grew into almost violence. I had to delete a few posts and block some people from our page," she said.
The eaglet was taken to The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, where veterinarians determined that it had a broken wing and a systemic infection. It had no chance of surviving in the wild or living pain-free in captivity, so they euthanized it.Over 90 percent of the birds the center has treated were injured via "some interaction with the human-altered landscape," executive director Dr. Julia Ponder said, noting that treatment decisions depend on the bird's prognosis for returning to the wild.
One of the center's successes is the mother on the EagleCam. DNR biologists recently got a good look at a band on her leg, which showed she was treated at the center in 2010 for a foot abscess and intestinal parasites.
Naumann acknowledged DNR officials are worried about the precedent they might have set with its chick.
The moose proved luckier.
Residents on the Gunflint Trail in northeastern Minnesota spotted the female in distress a few weeks ago. Mark Ceminsky was able to get within five to six feet and took a few photographs. He said the moose was sore, tired and its wound was infected. He later saw she was also pregnant.
"When she first got attacked it was really bad. You could totally see it. I was really concerned for her," Ceminsky said.
He called DNR conservation officer Darin Fagerman, who checked out the moose. Fagerman said it seemed alert and strong enough to stand its ground, so DNR officials decided to do nothing.
Ceminsky, an experienced woodsman, said that proved to be the right call: The moose is doing well and its wound is healing nicely.
Best of all, he said, he saw the tracks of a baby moose next to the mother's a few days ago.