Can Nova Scotia's mainland moose be saved?
One of Canada’s largest and most iconic animals is thriving in the forests of New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Cape Breton, but it’s a different story in mainland Nova Scotia.
All that remains of the endangered mainland moose is a fragile population and the animal faces long odds to avoid extinction.
At one time, there were an estimated 7,000 moose in mainland Nova Scotia, but now that number is believed to be below 1,000.
“If you ask me today, my gut feeling is that it’s less than that, but how much lower? Nobody will know,” says Mark Elderkin, an endangered species biologist for the Department of Natural Resources.
The mainland moose, which is nearly genetically identical to New Brunswick’s healthy population, was declared an endangered species over a decade ago.
In 2004, the Department of Natural Resources created a recovery team to study the animal and hopefully save it.
It determined seven threats, including disease and parasites like brain worm, which has crossed over from its natural host, the whitetail deer. The parasite causes confusion in moose.
“Totally disoriented, behaviorally abnormal, they have no fear of people,” says Elderkin.
Poaching also remains an issue.
In late September, a four-year-old moose was found roaming a farm in St. Croix. DNR officials relocated the animal, but its remains were found in the woods near Mount Uniacke less than a month later.
“Every year we have issues with animals being shot,” says Elderkin.
Other threats include development, forest practices, acid rain, climate change and access to habitat.
“The ideal for the moose population would be if we actually had a clear understanding of what their habitat needs were on large landscape basis,” says Randy Milton, manager of habitat and ecosystems at the Department of Natural Resources.
He says the home range for the mainland moose ranges from 17 to 25 square kilometres, but right now habitat is evaluated on a smaller scale, on a site-by-site basis.
“So we have what we call shelter patches out there,” says Milton.
If a forest company conducts clear-cutting, it is only required to leave about 12 per cent of the cut behind in a shelter patch. They are designed to give moose relief from the heat in summer and late winter.
“It starts to become warm because of the heavy coat that moose have at that time. So when temperatures get to, say, -5 in wintertime, the moose can become what’s called thermally stressed and will seek out cover,” says Milton.
“Many of the most heavily cut areas in the province exist in the known concentration areas for moose and it’s certainly having an effect,” says Matt Miller of the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.
Forestry is Miller’s family business, but he turned to the conservation side over concerns of forest sustainability.
Miller says DNR decisions made in the 1980s continue to cause problems today.
“We had a provincial forest strategy based on turning basically the entire landscape into a tree farm,” says Miller. “Managing our forests exclusively to provide softwood fibre for the industry, and that strategy really came at the expense of other forest values, like wildlife habitat for mainland moose.”
When it comes to forests, the DNR’s mandate is to develop, manage and protect, and biologists like Milton are part of the same department as those responsible for overseeing forest harvesting.
“It’s very complex. There’s no doubt about it,” says Milton.
“Maybe there are other animals that deserve to have a life here too, and although they don’t vote, they deserve some consideration,” says Bob Bancroft, a retired DNR biologist. “Right now we have a very single-minded forestry.”
Moose populations rebounded after collapses in Newfoundland and Cape Breton and Milton is optimistic the same could happen on mainland Nova Scotia.
“Yes, I think we can maintain the mainland moose. It may be in a similar geographic area conducive for the temperature problems they may have,” says Milton.
But Miller and Bancroft aren’t so sure. They have doubts over whether the animal can be saved on the mainland.
“I think with the measures we have in place to protect mainland moose, the future is bleak,” says Miller.
“This has gone off the rails if you will,” says Bancroft. “I’m afraid, unless it gets back on track, the moose population will eventually be gone.
With files from CTV Atlantic's Jayson Baxter