In many parts of Canada, numbers of these ungainly and beloved animals are dropping fast — while in a few regions there is an unhealthy overabundance. Experts cannot even agree what’s happening, let alone what to do about it. Brian Banks investigates
“GHOST MOOSE” IS A TERM THAT conjures up images of zombies and TV shows like “The Walking Dead.” But in the scary scene that’s playing out in the woods in much of Canada and the northern United States, it is neither fiction nor fantasy.
Instead, picture a real life-and-death drama in which a tiny parasite, called the winter tick, latches onto the skin of unsuspecting moose in late fall. Then, periodically over the winter, these ticks — sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands on a single animal — extract their “blood meals.”
The tormented hosts rub their bodies against trees and branches for relief and, in the process, wear off their familiar outer dark-brown coats to reveal light-coloured guard hair beneath. Come spring, they emerge from the woods as pallid “ghost moose” — if they, or their young calves, survive at all.
This disturbing scenario has become increasingly common in the past 10 to 20 years. Worse still, it is only one element in a bigger trend that has seen moose populations tumble over significant parts of the iconic animal’s North American range — declining by 20, 40, even 50 per cent or more. “In some jurisdictions, it’s been a collapse,” says Dave Pearce, manager of forest conservation at CPAWS Wildlands League in Toronto.
Besides ticks, the list of known and suspected factors includes other pests and parasites, over-hunting, excessive predation, climate change, habitat destruction, poaching, roadkill and more. But here’s the thing: while the potential causes are known, experts are still hard-pressed to say which are to blame for specific declines in specific areas. And to confound matters, a couple of regions in Canada have a growing number of moose. “We’re not really sure what all is contributing,” says Dan Bulloch, manager of wildlife program services in Manitoba’s department of sustainable development. “We also don’t know how different it is geographically.”
Thomas Millette, a geographer and wildlife aerial imaging specialist at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts who is currently studying moose with the Nova Scotia government, describes the situation as “a firing squad of threats. When you add them all up, it’s a big driver of reducing population.”
Alarm bells are ringing. From coast to coast in Canada, wildlife planners, biologists, conservation groups, Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous hunters and outfitters are engaged in various steps to better understand and address the issue. In Manitoba, for example, starting in 2011, the province imposed “conservation closures,” banning hunting in afflicted areas. Ontario set up its Moose Project in 2014, aimed at creating management actions to help alleviate pressure on the moose. Last year, British Columbia accepted 21 recommendations in a moose recovery strategy report and invested $1.2 million in new moose management measures. And right now in mainland Nova Scotia, where hunting has been banned for decades and the native, eastern moose has been listed as an endangered species since 2003, the Department of Natural Resources is gathering population data to update a decade-old provincial moose recovery strategy.
It should be said, not everyone thinks the overall situation is a crisis. Gerry Redmond, a retired New Brunswick government biologist in Fredericton, notes that “populations of animals are dynamic. Some ups and downs are natural.”
Indeed, moose populations are stable in some locations; and in a few areas, such as New Brunswick and southern Saskatchewan, they appear to be growing. Then there is the situation in Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island, where moose are so plentiful that the problem isn’t decline but overpopulation — a situation biologists and wildlife planners call “hyperabundance.”
What’s different about these cases, however, is that the conditions are specific to the place, and the underlying drivers are simpler and better understood, compared with the vexing circumstances where moose are in decline.
IN TRYING TO APPRECIATE THE COMPLEXITY of the moose story in Canada, a few basics are in order. Moose (Alces alces), the largest member of the deer family, are found in every province and territory, except Prince Edward Island.
They live in both the boreal and temporal mixed forests, but thrive in cold winters and risk heat stress anytime summer temperatures go much above 15 C. The name “moose” comes from an Algonquin word that means “twig eater” — and, in fact, the animal’s diet consists of twigs, buds, bark and leaves, as well as water lilies and other aquatic plants. Recent estimates put the total population in Canada at more than 600,000. There are two main subspecies, the northwestern moose and the eastern moose, with traditional ranges dividing the country around Lake Superior; a third mountain subspecies can also be found in southern British Columbia and Alberta, and the territories share a fourth subspecies with Alaska.
The moose on Cape Breton Island are the one exception — they are the northwestern subspecies, descendants from 18 moose that were imported to the province by Parks Canada in the 1940s, after the original population was wiped out by hunting in the 1800s. The moose in Newfoundland also descended from a handful of imports — four eastern moose brought from New Brunswick in 1904, whose offspring now total an estimated 115,000 animals.
In both these locations, the animal’s “import status” largely explains its current hyperabundance. Newfoundland, which had no native moose, also has no wolves or other non-human predators and offers an abundance of good habitat. Conditions are similar in Cape Breton: the larger western imports have, for the most part, been protected from hunters within Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Historically, the same over-exploitation by European settlers that originally extirpated moose from Cape Breton Island also took a heavy toll on the animals in much of eastern Canada. In fact, the story of the eastern moose for much of the last century was one of recovery.
That rebound was shortest-lived in mainland Nova Scotia, however, because of the province’s relatively small size and pressures from resource development and urban expansion. By the time the province listed the moose as an endangered species in 2003, the population numbered between 1,000 and 1,200 animals. “We’re taking over their habitat, we’re changing their habitat, we’re fragmenting their habitat, and it just doesn’t work for them,” says Karen Beazley, a professor at Dalhousie University’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies in Halifax and co-author of a report on moose in Nova Scotia that was the basis of the province’s first moose recovery strategy in 2007.
Unfortunately, a decade later, there are signs neither that strategy nor the moose’s endangered species status is turning the tide. According to Randy Milton, a wildlife manager with the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources, preliminary results from an aerial population sampling survey conducted this past winter by specialist Millette point to further declines. More surveying is needed next winter before Milton can make any firm estimates, but he admits he’s worried that the already low moose numbers are “dramatically reduced.”
Next door, in Quebec, the areas of biggest concern are in the south and west. There, over the past decade, the winter tick (Dermacentor albipictus) has become nearly ubiquitous. One study in 2014 found 93 per cent of all moose studied south of the St. Lawrence River had tick infestations. The south is also where moose numbers have fallen the most in recent years, although the province’s overall population total (estimated at 110,000 in 2010) is still considered robust.
Further west, in Ontario, the moose population didn’t hit its latest peak until around 2004, according to Patrick Hubert, wildlife biologist and policy adviser at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Since then, the estimated number of animals has fallen between 20 and 25 per cent, to a total of about 92,000 moose. “We have some concerns,” says Hubert. “There are things we need to do to ensure that we maintain a healthy population.”
One area of particular worry is the places in Ontario where moose numbers are in decline. The drop is greatest in the north and west — “traditional moose ranges,” says Hubert — while they’re holding steady in central and southern Ontario.
To date, Ontario’s Moose Project has led to only modest changes in the timing and duration of the hunting season, both for adult moose and calves. A related proposal to expand wolf trapping and hunting to cut down on their impact on moose was shelved after a major public protest.
Rather than advocating for predator control, Dave Pearce of the Wildlands League says Ontario should eliminate calf hunting. “We’re not anti-hunting, we’re not pro-hunting. But in a situation like this, with the population in decline and very, very loose restrictions on the calf harvest, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense,” says Pearce. According to Mark Ryckman, chief biologist of the Ontario Federation of Hunters and Anglers, in an interview with CBC Radio, “the vast majority of hunters have no desire to harvest a calf.” The federation’s stance is that before declaring an all-out ban on hunting calves, the province should allow more time to determine if the 50 per cent reduction in the calf harvest instituted in 2015 has had any effect.
Both Pearce and Hubert also say there are signs that many of the other emerging threats to the moose are taking their toll. While the winter tick is more widespread in places to the south, like Minnesota, Michigan and parts of New England, there is evidence that it is emerging further north. In all cases, it’s thought climate change might be to blame. Cold winters and late snow cover have traditionally controlled the tick numbers; as those conditions diminish, ticks can stick around. Another disease, called brainworm (Parelaphostrongylus tenuis) — a parasite carried by white-tailed deer that is far deadlier to moose than deer, attacking their central nervous system — is a problem wherever the two animals overlap. And with the deer population in Ontario growing and moving farther north, brainworm is following. Compounding the threat are other human-made factors, particularly expanded logging-road access. “We know that roads provide access not only for hunters, but they also improve the foraging ability of some predators,” says Hubert. But any talk of closing or limiting access to these roads “is controversial when it comes up.”
In Manitoba, while the focus shifts entirely to the northwestern moose, the challenges are little changed. The province has a smaller moose population than Ontario — fewer than 30,000, according to wildlife manager Dan Bulloch — but it has a huge variety of challenges and responses. “We’ve got declining populations from The Pas south,” says Bulloch. “We started to notice it in the last decade.” As noted above, the province began closing wildlife management areas to hunting in 2011 — in two of its traditionally most productive moose areas, the Duck and Porcupine mountains — and has added several more since. One small closure, at Turtle Mountain, on the North Dakota border, is in an area that went from having no moose before the 1970s, then a big influx, followed by a steep decline.
In tandem with the closures, the province also allowed for limited expansion of wolf hunting and deer culls. “We did that as a short-term venture when we did the first few closures,” says Bulloch. “The idea there is to give the moose a chance to kick-start recovery. It’s not something we want to do over a long period of time.”
From a management standpoint, Manitoba has successfully broached the issue of including its resident First Nations and Metis populations in its hunting bans — even though those groups’ treaty rights to hunt moose are under provincial jurisdiction in only a limited way. “We talked to our constitutional people and basically the message was we can take actions if we can justify it but we have to go through a consultation process, which we did, and it seems to have worked out well,” says Bulloch. Part of the challenge here is the difference in hunting cultures between north and south. For many in the North, where food costs can be double what they are in southern Canada, the health of the moose population is ultimately a food security issue.
Managing this dynamic will be an important hurdle in every province if stricter action is needed to arrest the moose’s population decline. Right now, in much of the country, there is tension between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups and between southern and northern hunters when it comes to who is more responsible for the moose’s decline.
Bulloch says that before any areas currently closed to hunting might be reopened, there must be “discussions with all the user groups — First Nations, Metis and the licenced hunting community.”
He also notes that while over-hunting has been a factor in undercutting moose numbers, it’s not the only one. “If you look at the southeast part of the province, we’re north of Minnesota and adjacent to Ontario, and those parts of that province and state have both seen fairly drastic declines as well. Yet in Minnesota there hadn’t been any hunting for several years.”
Vince Crichton, Canadian vice-president of the North American Moose Foundation, is an acknowledged expert on the biology and management of moose; he is known by the moniker “Dr. Moose.” He recently retired after 40 years working in what is now Manitoba’s Wildlife and Ecosystem Protection Branch. His experience with moose is deep. He was born and raised in central-north Ontario, where his father worked in wildlife management, and he remembers going to the Chapleau Crown game preserve (at 7,000 square kilometres, the largest in the world). “We used to be able to see 10 or 12 moose in a morning. Now it’s a waste of my time.” In areas of declining population, he is a keen advocate for tight restrictions on everything from logging roads to hunting (by all parties). “When populations go down like this, to low numbers, the impact of disease, predation, incidental mortality becomes more of an issue.”
Just as the situation in the southeast resembles nearby locales, southwestern Manitoba has much in common with neighbouring Saskatchewan — where the moose population is rising. In trying to explain this trend, scientists and planners cite the lack of traditional predators, particularly wolves and bears. Some also point the finger at consolidation of farm ownership and resulting rural depopulation. In short, there just aren’t as many people living in these areas, and that means there are fewer unregulated hunters shooting moose in the “back 40.” That may change, however, at least in Saskatchewan, where the government has introduced a formal hunting season in districts where moose are most plentiful.
FIFTEEN OR 20 YEARS AGO, when it became clear how much damage the mountain pine beetle infestation was doing to British Columbia’s forests, most people thought of the trees. The toll on the moose turned out to be almost as bad.
As with most provinces, moose population trends in the West vary by region; and for every place in decline, a different mix of the factors already outlined applies. However, according to Al Gorley, a forestry consultant who authored the 2016 moose recovery strategy for the B.C. government, “one of the areas where the most serious declines have happened is in the same area where we had the huge mountain pine beetle outbreak and a huge logging effort to salvage the dead timber.”
The pine beetle salvage result? A blueprint for how not to manage wildlife populations. The intense logging, Gorley explains, brought all kinds of roads. All that road access brought hunters and predators. And that chain of events led to a collapse in moose numbers. Elsewhere in the province, intense expansion of oil and gas infrastructure and electricity transmission lines has had a similar impact. But rather than close roads or curtail expansion, the province’s initial remedy was to start culling wolves. Only last year did it also announce measures to reduce hunting and begin habitat restoration.
Gorley’s report, which the former B.C. government accepted in full, takes a much different tack. Published a year after the province also adopted a new framework for moose management, it calls for measures based on an explicit intent to make moose restoration a public policy goal. “There are all kinds of tactical things people would like to do [to help moose], but in my opinion if the public wants to have moose on the landscape in greater numbers… then that has to be built at the foundational level of your land management objectives,” he says.
With forestry, for example, this would mean requiring logging companies’ forest stewardship plans — which must be approved before they can harvest — to address a goal of increasing moose populations by protecting or creating a certain amount of habitat. “Then they could require the company to describe in their plans how they were going to accommodate that or proactively incorporate it into their operations.”
As in Manitoba, the relationship between First Nations and non-Indigenous hunters is also an important piece of the moose management puzzle in British Columbia. There are more than 100 First Nations in the province, many with moose on their territory. Some have “very structured approaches to moose management,” says Gorley, while others have very little. For its part, the province has “virtually no tools to manage Aboriginal hunting.” In essence, there are “two jurisdictions managing one moose.”
Going forward, he puts stock in the emerging area of “collaboration and co-management” agreements between the government and individual First Nations. Recently, a number have been struck, in both treaty and non-treaty areas, to manage different resources. Gorley cites an example in his report that deals with elk on Vancouver Island. “There, the province and the First Nation are coordinating their activities,” he explains. “The First Nation actually sets a quota and issues tags and enforces limitations on their members in an attempt to parallel the government activities. So there are signs of light there.”
Similar, heightened collaboration might be considered across the country. While there is a great deal of formal and informal information sharing among the planners and managers in different provinces, their actions are limited to their own jurisdictions. Yet both the moose and the threats they face — the threats we cause — know no such boundaries. “We’re going further north and further inland,” says Dalhousie’s Beazley. “As the climate changes, too, then these impacts move further northward as well.”
This perspective, stressing the human factors undercutting moose population, dominated the proceedings in September one year ago when wildlife managers and researchers from across Canada (as well as the U.S. and Europe) met in Brandon, Manitoba, for the 50th North American Moose Conference. And it was likely to be prevalent at this year’s conference, too, although the 2017 venue — Cape Breton Highlands National Park — ensured plenty of focus on local hyperabundance, too.
Crichton, the 2016 conference co-chair, says that, until recently, too many governments have been reluctant to tackle the full spectrum of thorny political issues moose management demands. As that changes, Gorley wonders if “coordinated pilot projects” among governments could facilitate greater information sharing and help to improve the collective response.
“Because the circumstances [in different provinces] are pretty different and the relationships with First Nations vary across the piece, I would be hesitant to try to lay a blanket solution,” says Gorley. But the “big picture” needs to be on everyone’s mind. “I encourage everybody to look at [the moose problem] as a land and resource management issue and not pick any particular piece in isolation.”
This article was originally published in Canadian Wildlife magazine September-October 2017. Photos courtesy of pixabay.com. Graphic courtesy Canadian Wildlife.