“Buffler!” exclaimed Boone Caudill, A.B. Guthrie’s iconic character in his 1947 novel, The Big Sky.
Guthrie’s story gives us glimpses into both the beauty of the landscape and the mindset that led to some of the biggest mistakes we made on it. Guthrie writes,
Already autumn was coming to the upper Missouri, the short northern autumn that was here and gone like a bird flying. Flecked in the green of the cottonwood trees, telltale leaves hung yellow, giving limply to the breeze…It was often chill in the morning, warming as the sun got up and lay on the land in a golden glow, and cooling again as it finished its shortened arch and fell in flames among the hills.
With this, Guthrie brings us onto the Great Plains region of North America, at a time when the land was full of buffalo and elk, birds of prey and geese, and at a much earlier time, short-faced bears, lions, and mammoths. Guthrie also reminds us that there is a darker side to the story of our interactions with wildlife on this continent, told perhaps most iconically by Ishmael in Moby Dick and summarized by Boone Caudill’s reflections of what the plains had to offer,
It took something to beat a place where you could kill a buffalo every day and not half try and take just the best of it and leave the rest to the wolves.
Thus we revisit the mindset that led to the near extinction of the buffalo, beaver, and a number of other wildlife species in North America throughout the 1800s. I use Guthrie’s story as a strong reminder of our complicated history with wildlife, one that is important to the conversations concerning moose management that have been taking place across North American jurisdictions over the past few years.
The picture Guthrie painted of 1800s Great Plains or that Melville painted of 1800s whaling enterprises is a dramatic entrance to the context of moose management in Ontario. And of course, North American conservation has celebrated countless successes since these times. These successes must not allow us to blissfully forget the risk of complacency. Conservation is an ongoing effort and is successful when forward thinking groups are willing to set aside individual politics and priorities to make difficult decisions when they’re needed to put wildlife first.
Moose populations have declined in recent years due to a variety of risk factors, including climate change, predation parasites and disease, habitat loss, and potentially hunting. While this story has obvious and drastic differences from the continental examples of the buffalo and passenger pigeon, or wild turkey and elk in Ontario, there is an important thematic parallel. Each of these cases was the proverbial frog in the pot, failing to notice the danger of the warming water until it was too late. I fear that our current situation with moose could join those ranks.
The question about moose decline has reached scholarly scientific consensus. In Ontario, the estimate is that populations have declined by at least 20% province wide, and potentially up to 60% in some regions (e.g. Thunder Bay). A number of other jurisdictions have seen dramatic declines in moose populations, prompting Manitoba to begin cancelling moose hunting in a number of areas throughout the province in 2010, and Minnesota to cancel the moose hunt indefinitely in 2013. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2016 that it would be considering listing moose under the Endangered Species Act in a number of areas. The uncertainty is not about whether populations are declining but rather why, how much, and the appropriate management strategy to deal with it.
The response to dealing with moose decline in Ontario has been mired in politics. Too often, the conversation has been defined by partisan debates and emotion. Some of the issues that have arisen in the discourse over moose management are all too common, including the lack of ability for hunters and nonhunters to identify common ground, debates over predator control, and mistrust of wildlife management agencies.
The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) has taken a two phased approach to addressing moose decline. As part of Phase 2, in 2016, the MNRF posted public notices on Ontario’s Environmental Registry to gather public input on proposed changes to moose population objectives that were intended to increase populations, and proposed changes to moose hunting regulations and wolf/coyote hunting regulations. Although many of those who submitted comments on the proposed changes to population objectives expressed that “the objectives should be somewhat higher”, the proposed amendments to moose and wolf/coyote hunting regulations caused a storm among both the hunting and antihunting public.
The responses to, and results of, the proposed amendments to the hunting regulations are an interesting example of the intersection of emotion and science in wildlife management. The proposals were based on the most recent scientific research available and were intended to take an integrated approach to addressing moose population concerns; however, the politics of public opinion have continued to muddy the water. I understand that wildlife management agencies, as departments of elected governments, need to provide opportunity for public input into proposed changes to regulation that will ultimately have social and economic impacts as well as ecological; however, I can’t help but also feel that there is a large portion of the population that has no business expressing an opinion about wildlife management. The opportunity to provide input into scientific wildlife management should not be used as a chance to push personal crusades, whether those are pro- or anti-hunting.
In the case of the proposal to amend wolf and coyote hunting regulations, at least some of the opposition was expressed by people who were simply against any increase or liberalization of wolf and coyote hunting. The MNRF reports that comments opposed the changes because people did not believe that predators were contributing to moose decline, that the proposal was simply another predator control strategy (in other words, that it was couched in the question of moose conservation as a backdoor way to kill more predators), or general opposition to any kind of hunting or trapping. In the end, the wolf/coyote proposal was abandoned as a result of negative public feedback.
It is worth noting that while it has been acknowledged that black bear and wolf predation do affect moose, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s Environmental Protection Report 2015/2016 states that it is unlikely that opportunistic removal of individual wolves will have a positive impact on moose populations but rather that entire packs would need to be removed. Although this proposal may not have been the most effective way to address the impact of predation on moose, the public comments that both opposed and supported the proposal were probably in some cases more emotionally than scientifically motivated. Quite likely, some of the comments that opposed the changes were grounded in the overly simplistic discourse that hunters only want to kill predator species in order to increase ungulate hunting opportunities. Certainly, this was the motivation for some hunters who supported the proposal. In both cases, our philosophical perspective and management approach to predators really needs to be grounded firmly in ecology and science, using principles of sustainable harvest to manage predator species while also appreciating the ecological role they fulfil on the landscape.
The MNRF made a decision to proceed with the proposed amendments to moose hunting regulations despite some negative feedback from hunters. Here’s the problem for me: the MNRF reports that many of the comments that opposed the amendments were submitted by hunters who were more concerned with the inconvenience that season and timing changes would cause to their vacation and planning schedules. It is disappointing to see these responses from hunters who, apparently, are under the impression that science-based wildlife conservation should somehow be beholden to their personal preferences and schedules.
This is not to suggest that the answers are straightforward, even for those with an earnest fidelity to logic over emotion. I’m a supporter of both the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), two organizations involved in moose conservation. I first became aware that CPAWS was getting involved in the moose issue in August 2016, when they published a new blog about moose and launched a survey to assess the public’s priorities for moose conservation. In the very first paragraph of the blog, Dave Pearce, Manager of Forest Conservation for the CPAWS Wildlands League, acknowledged the importance of moose hunting in Ontario. When I followed up with individuals at CPAWS, I was pleased to find that the organisation is not necessarily opposed to hunting. They were keen to follow the science regarding best management practices around moose harvest management.
In February 2017, CPAWS launched a campaign asking its supporters to call for an end to the calf hunt across Ontario. In terms of wildlife population ecology, this is a seemingly logical argument: killing females and young individuals is certainly the fastest way to lower a species’ population. So it seems logical that to promote population growth, there should be less hunting of moose cows and calves. When I spoke to them, representatives from CPAWS noted that there is evidence to suggest that the number of moose calves killed by hunters each year is not purely compensatory. In other words, the number of calves killed by hunters may not simply be the number that would die anyway due to natural causes. In the campaign, CPAWS cited a Toronto Star editorial that reported what appeared to be some concerning numbers. In the editorial, the Toronto Star reported that there are “98 000 licensed moose hunters in Ontario. That’s more than the number of moose, estimated at 92 300. And every one of those hunters is allowed to kill a calf every year”. If one does the simple math, this could mean a complete end to moose across the province; however, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario reports that hunters kill an average of 5 700 moose per year. As with most things, the simple answer is rarely the complete one.
I reached out to Mark Ryckman, Senior Wildlife Biologist at the OFAH, to ask for his thoughts on the calf hunt question. He offered some great perspective on what is a complex issue. In terms of some numbers, Mark told me that there were about 800 calves killed in 2015. While acknowledging that in principle, lowering calf harvest could benefit populations, Mark also expressed his opinion that it is unlikely that killing 800 calves out of a population of 92 300 moose is going to be responsible for population decline. Mark also acknowledged that there are few other, if any, jurisdictions that guarantee every moose license holder a calf tag. I found his response sobering and thoughtful. As someone who would more than willingly sign on to hunting restrictions in the interest of species conservation, I was more convinced that, while ending the calf hunt may end up being an important part of a multi-pronged strategy, we are going to need a broader approach that maintains focus on science rather than emotional appeal.
Moose conservation will continue to depend on ongoing, rigorous, and accurate information about populations and about the effects of management decisions on population trends. It is important that the MNRF take a balanced and integrated approach to moose management, considering and addressing all of the factors that affect their populations, rather than limiting its management options solely to hunting amendments. Significantly, in its Biodiversity report, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario called on the MNRF to “examine and publicly report on whether habitat-related issues are playing a role in moose declines” (the hunting community has also been calling for this for years). The MNRF needs to commit itself to consistently collecting the highest quality data on both moose populations and habitat quality. With respect to the former, I’m quite pleased that the MNRF has proposed mandatory reporting for all moose hunters across the province. With regard to habitat, it is vital that government agencies make responsible decisions about habitat management, including managing the effects of disturbance and fragmentation on wildlife populations. And we, as the public, need to continue to call on public wildlife management agencies and to hold them to the tasks that are needed.
Having said that, however, we must also put the onus on ourselves as the public. It is critical that the general public support effective management decisions, regardless of how these sit with personal preferences or politics. There may very well come a time when calf harvest needs to be closed and we, as hunters, need to accept and support this. It seems worth reiterating that hunters are well aware that over-harvesting moose is not in our best interest and that, as a group, we are committed to protecting moose. At the same time, nonhunters need to accept the role that hunting plays in wildlife conservation and be willing to support meaningful management strategies even when those include hunting.
It is somewhat of a cliche to finish this discussion with an elaborate call to set aside personal politics and emotions. What I will suggest is that we all take a long-term outlook on our historic relationship with this iconic North American species, one that has fulfilled an important cultural role on this continent since humans have been interacting with it. Ecologically, it would be devastating to lose such a species that is so truly important to the landscapes of this continent. We need to be critical and engaged in the conversation. It has been repeatedly shown that the ways in which we frame our messaging about complex issues need to be specific to the beliefs and morals of our audience. We need to remember that the long-term conservation of wildlife is worth the effort to engage with difficult decisions and difficult audiences and that there is tremendous power in making the sacrifices and putting in the work that will be necessary to put moose first.