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Opinion: Retired gov’t biologist offers more arguments on protecting moose population

Alan Bisset agrees many factors have contributed to Ontario’s declining moose population, but fixing how we hunt them is best way to correct the slide

I very much appreciated the feedback on my recent article. The vast majority were positive and supportive. 

The article was intended to address the most significant and manageable component — hunting. While other factors (such as bears, wolves, logging, illegal hunting and habitat) contribute to the problem, they can be addressed in future. In my opinion, if hunting isn’t addressed, nothing else really matters. 

My 2014 paper addresses most of these concerns at least at a superficial level, but I felt that some comments deserved a direct reply lest they add confusion to the situation.

I do not agree with closing the season. The harvest can be significantly reduced and controlled to allow population growth with proper tag allocations. It is essential to continue hunting and to use adaptive management to learn how to manage the harvest effectively. That said, if populations get excessively low, then a zero-tag allocation, rather than season closure, might be wise until there is a huntable population.

The harvest management system must be able to prevent total over-harvest, which might result from hunting in newly logged areas. If the total harvest is effectively controlled then it doesn’t really matter where animals are taken. In fact, it can be argued that newly logged areas are the best place to harvest moose since the actual cut area has the lowest quality habitat for a few years. 

To use road closures as a harvest control tool would require large areas to be closed for 10 to 15 years. It has been tried in many locations in the past and the local moose population was pretty much annihilated once the road was open, regardless of the manner in which the area was logged. Further, with modern ATVs it is almost impossible to prevent access to “blocked” roads. 

With fire suppression, logged areas will become the best future habitat, but it will take a few years to develop. Even if they are “over-harvested”,  moose will move into them from nearby “under-harvested” areas once vegetation is high enough to provide food and shelter.  

The “one tag per kill” harvest control strategy will address both of these concerns. There is absolutely no other method that will permit the population to achieve its potential within the available habitat.

The original selective harvest system would have worked if adult tags had been allocated effectively. An unrestricted calf harvest would result in harvests closer to the “Fennoscandian system” (that is the hunting system used in Fennoscandia or Fenno-Scandinavia, the region including the Scandinavian Peninsula, Finland, Karelia, and the Kola Peninsula). 

If the calf harvest appeared excessive or failed to prevent decline then limits would have been necessary. That time has long passed and the new licensing system, not requiring the purchase of a license to apply, was required.

Habitat was neither mentioned nor commented on, yet it is an extremely important aspect of management and increasingly dependent on forestry. 

Logging is supposed to be carried out in an ecologically sustainable manner that protects all forest values. That said, there is lots of wiggle room in how that is achieved. There is also a lack of demonstrable understanding about what good moose habitat through logging looks like. 

It is not particularly reasonable to expect the forestry industry to spend money to create moose habitat when the moose that are supposed live there and benefit are killed in excess. 

There has been research done in Ontario on habitat and it is being used to plan aerial population inventories. Unfortunately it doesn’t work any better than local knowledge (1). The reason, in my opinion, is that hunting has depressed populations to the point that they do not reflect the quality of habitat. 

It makes far more sense, on many levels, to bring the population up to at least reflect that capability. First, it will demonstrate successful control of the moose harvest (presumably with an understanding of other factors). It will permit assessment of what types of forestry are more or less beneficial to moose. It should improve the quality and cost effectiveness of aerial inventories and, finally, the economic benefits of a larger moose population should provide stronger incentives for better forest management. 

In my experience with foresters, the argument has been “trees are far more valuable to the economy than moose.” Perhaps this was the reason that “Forests” was recently added to the ministry’s name, as a special and preferred category of “Natural Resources”.

Interestingly, on federal lands in the United States, it was the combined value of all resources, (trees, hunting, fishing, hiking) that dictated whether an area was logged or not. An abundance of moose would add considerably to that argument if ever it applied in Ontario. 

Since writing the article, I have had feedback from several knowledgeable sources that Forestry Management Plans are not being followed or enforced. Hopefully, the new minister will follow up on this aspect of moose management, and if true, rectify it.

If hunters are truly interested in conservation and want to restore the population, they will understand the reason and need for direct and predictable control and the need for a significant reduction in tags for a number of years. 

In this regard, there is one final and positive comment that I have received. It is that most hunters will accept the constraints on hunting if they are supported by good factual evidence and produce results. 

I absolutely agree and evidence from the early years of selective harvest in the old Northwest Region supports that belief.

This was the promise of selective harvest (and adaptive management) when it was first introduced. After 35 years of failure and multiple reviews, hunters have seen nothing to justify the change from unrestricted hunting. Selective harvest has slowed the decline, but not prevented or reversed it. It is time to show some real positive results. 

The recent changes will not result in population growth, nor create more hunting opportunities. It is time that MNRF started to concentrate more on population management and less on hunter expectations. The alternative should simply be unacceptable to most Ontarians, whether they hunt or not. 

Of equal importance is that hunters must understand, regardless of their personal beliefs on the matter, that First Nations have legal precedence over sport hunting and that their needs must be met first. Once that is satisfied, additional growth in the herd can be allocated to sport hunting and more opportunities for First Nations through guiding and tourism. 

Note that “need” is my term, intended to convey the concept that First Nations have treaty rights to the resource. It might mean “want”, “require”, “wish” or whatever. Presumably, it is their right to define what it means and apply that definition towards a negotiated allocation. 

If whining about the existence of treaty rights or quibbling about what “need” means prevents inclusion of First Nations, an allocation and harvest control protocols, only the moose population and the future of hunting will be jeopardized.

Alan Bisset is a retired regional moose biologist and wildlife inventory program leader with the former Ministry of Natural Resources. He has written and published many papers on moose management, both Internally and in scientific journals. Bisset lives in Strathroy, west of London, Ontario.

1: Ontario currently uses Geographic Information System (GIS) based information to stratify aerial inventories. It is not better than local information. Personal communication with Phillip DeWitt, Provincial Wildlife Monitoring Program Leader, MNR. I believe there is a paper in Alces (a science journal dedicated to moose management) that Minnesota found the same thing.