Conserving moose in Canada through stakeholder engagement and use of GPS

Manitoba Model Forest, Canada

The issue
 
Moose are the largest mammal in the boreal forest (weighing up to 600 kg) and the largest member of the deer family. They are an important component of the overall biodiversity found in the boreal forest, and a food source for predators such as wolves and black bear. Moose require a mixture of habitats of a variety of ages, which provide both protection and food, and their habitat requirements can overlap with those of other species such as deer and caribou. Moose are highly sought and valued by both Indigenous subsistence hunters and licenced (non-Indigenous) hunters, and are the subject of eco-tourism activities such as photography.
 
Manitoba Model Forest Inc. (MBMF) is currently leading an effort to reverse a dramatic population decline in the moose population in Game Hunting Area (GHA) 26, which makes up a significant portion of the Model Forest land base. The moose population has declined from approximately 2,400 in the year 2000, to only 800 in 2010. MBMF, and in particular, the MBMF Committee for Cooperative Moose Management (CCMM), have worked closely with the Manitoba government to research and understand the causes of the decline, and to develop solutions with a range of partners.

The Manitoba Model Forest
 
Manitoba Model Forest Inc. (MBMF) was established as a non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) in 1992 and was one of the original Model Forests established under Canada’s Model Forest Program. MBMF encompasses approximately 1 million hectares and the majority of its territory is covered by boreal forest, one of the largest forest biomes in the world. A smaller part of the area includes agricultural land, much of which was formerly forested.
 
Biodiversity is rich in MBMF with several hundred species of birds, fish, amphibians and mammals, including the woodland caribou, a species designated as Threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
 
The MBMF conducts ecological, social and economic research on all aspects of the boreal forest and uses that knowledge to develop innovative approaches to natural resource management. It also works with communities to identify economic opportunities from the forest.
 
The Committee for Cooperative Moose Management (CCMM) 
 
The CCMM was established in 1995 as a multi-stakeholder committee of the Manitoba Model Forest to promote the conservation, recovery and sustainability of eastern Manitoba moose populations. Its purpose is to provide a forum for people with a common interest in moose conservation to share information and ideas, participate in management projects and activities, and develop cooperative recommendations to the Manitoba government for the conservation and management of moose in eastern Manitoba.

Factors related to moose population decline 

 

Factors such as predation, hunting, road access from forestry and mining operations, and parasites and disease can have direct or indirect effects on the moose population. In addition, other factors such as habitat, climate and severe weather events can play a fundamental role in determining the capability of an area to support moose.

 

The main source of predation on moose in GHA 26 is wolves. Local observations, Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge and aerial surveys conducted by the CCMM indicate that the wolf population has increased over at least the last decade, and the population is sufficiently high in GHA 26 to negatively impact the moose population.

As wolves feed opportunistically, the presence of alternative prey species in an area can also influence the overall predation rate on moose. The relatively new appearance of white-tailed deer in GHA 26 is likely supporting the growth of the wolf population, particularly in the southern portion. Wolves also prey opportunistically on boreal woodland caribou, which are also found in GHA 26.

 

The MBMF-CCMM has undertaken several landscape-level research and monitoring studies to understand the population distribution of wolves, moose and deer in the area. While moose were historically distributed throughout GHA 26, based on a combination of local observation and GPS data, researchers found an almost complete absence of moose in the southern part of area from 2010 and onward. The introduction of the brainworm parasite by deer and its fatal effects on moose may also be a contributing factor.

 

Researchers also examined the role of corridors (roads, trails, etc.) in the interaction and distribution of wolves and moose in the northern portion of GHA 26 using a global positioning system (GPS) collar on wolves – the first time the technology was used on wolves in Manitoba. Using a combination of the GPS data from the collared wolves, aerial survey data as well as track surveys, the study was able to clearly demonstrate spatial overlap of wolves with moose in the northern portion of GHA 26, negatively impacting moose populations there.

 

The advances in GPS collar technology and capabilities have also allowed researchers to study, in detail, seasonal habitat use, movements, home ranges and other attributes of animal behaviour (e.g., predation) of various wildlife species. This has provided data that would otherwise be difficult to obtain through traditional field studies. When the GPS moose location data is combined with other spatial data (e.g., land cover, roads and trails, water bodies, industrial activities such as forestry and mining), it can provide a powerful landscape scale tool to understand how moose travel, use various habitats, and respond to human activities.

 

Actions taken

 

To halt and reverse the decline in moose, the Government of Manitoba developed an incentive program (which ran from 2010-2015) for local trappers to increase their harvest of wolves with the goal of reducing, but not eliminating, the wolf population in GHA 26. Incentives to trappers included trapping workshops, provision of equipment and financial incentives. However, based on the number of wolves trapped through the program, information from wolf aerial surveys conducted by the CCMM, track studies, and other sources, the wolf population in GHA 26 was considered as having remained high enough to have the ability to significantly impact ungulate populations (such as moose) by preventing or slowing the recovery of the moose populations or reduce them to a level low enough that moose would become extirpated from the GHA. Additional work was needed, including:

 

  • A reduction in the deer population in GHA 26, by increasing the number of deer hunting licenses and extending the length of the fall deer hunting season.
  • A joint MBMF/provincial government study to document levels and distribution of the brainworm parasite in white-tailed deer showed high levels of infection in the area further supported the decision to reduce the deer population (thereby diminishing transmission to moose).
  • Upon recommendation from the MBMF Committee, and in partnership with local Indigenous communities, the province reduced hunting pressure on moose, (especially during the vulnerable mating period)and all-terrain vehicle traffic as well as restricted truck access by decommissioning roads (removal of culverts and bridges, ripping up sections of the road and placing barricades on roads at river crossings).

 
Signs of recovery 
 
Following a 65% decline in moose population between the years 2000 and 2010, and after the initiation of diverse management actions, the moose population had grown to just over 1300 individuals in 2013, representing an increase of 60% from its population low in 2010.
 
Furthermore, improvements in other population indices (ratio of calves to cows, bulls to cows) also demonstrate that the moose population is beginning to recover. The MBMF-CCMM and its partners are confident that the trend will continue to be positive.
 
Conclusion
 
While biodiversity values already form part of the provincial government’s resource management planning and decision-making process, the Model Forests’ CCMM provided a valuable mechanism to facilitate stakeholder input into that process. By using science and technology as part of their research and monitoring initiatives, the MBMF-CCMM is helping to understand the complex interactions within the boreal forest, with an ultimate objective of maintaining sustainable wildlife populations, including moose.
 
The long-term existence (more than 20 years) of the organization has allowed for the development of trust and effective working relationships amongst government, industry, community and NGO partners. This in turn has allowed for open and candid approaches to solving resource management issues.
 
The success of the Committee has drawn the attention of stakeholders in other parts of the province, resulting in the relatively recent establishment of a similar moose committee in western Manitoba, further supporting the MBMF’s goal to serve as a model for others.

For more information on this project, please read p. 15-20 of the CBD report entitled: Mainstreaming forest landscape restoration and biodiversity conservation