A proposed moose hunt inside Cape Breton Highlands National Park hasn’t received final approval yet, according to a park manager, but it is necessary.
That’s because the moose population in the park is four times higher than the average density found in a typical, healthy North American forest, said Derek Quann, resource conservation manager for the Cape Breton Highlands.
Moose — which were wiped out on the island in the 1920s and reintroduced nearly 70 years ago — have reached what Parks Canada calls a hyper-abundant level, with an estimated population of 1,800 animals threatening the park’s forest and other species that need trees to live.
A four-year trial has started to try to regenerate the boreal forest, with fenced areas and tree planting already underway, and a moose cull on North Mountain is being considered before implementing a park-wide hunt to reduce the overall moose population.
The proposed hunt would be exclusively conducted by Mi’kmaq under a 2012 Parks Canada agreement, which local non-native hunters have said is unfair.
As well, Dennis Day, a moose hunting guide from northern Cape Breton, is organizing a protest for Saturday at two park entrances. He says no one should be allowed to hunt in the park because a lot of moose died last winter due to harsh conditions.
“We’re a long way from where moose are no longer hyper-abundant,” said Quann.
Hyper-abundance “is a Parks Canada term and some of the key elements are when a species exceeds its typical or natural range of density or population numbers … and it begins to or has significant ecological impacts,” he said.
“Typically, if we look at moose range in North America, numbers closer to 0.5 or so per square kilometre would be typical in a relatively healthy forest, especially when there is a natural predator like wolves.
“In northern Cape Breton and in the park, for sure, 1,800 moose translates close to two moose per square kilometre, and we’ve indeed, in the last 10 years, exceeded two per square kilometre.
“The issue of hyper-abundance within Cape Breton Highlands National Park really struck us once we started to look at satellite imagery that allows us to look at the forest on a large scale, and we saw that, due to moose overbrowse, approximately 30 per cent of the forest in Cape Breton Highlands National Park has been affected.
“And some 11 per cent of the park has converted to grassland, and grassland is an indication of a state that is really far gone, where it requires severe intervention to re-establish.”
Stan MacKinnon and Hamilton Carter, who live near the park in Dingwall, said hunting has never been allowed in the park and starting now sets a dangerous precedent.
Besides, they said, if nature is allowed to take its course, the moose will run out of food and die off without intervention.
The boreal forest never properly regenerated after a devastating spruce budworm infestation in the 1980s, said Quann. Parks Canada is always reluctant to intervene in park ecosystems, he said, but in this case, it has to happen.
“We asked ourselves that question close to 15 years ago and embarked on a large-scale study, and we were believing and maybe hoping for an indication that the forest would rebound,” he said.
“What seems to be happening is the forest is on track to a very severe state of degradation that’s going to affect all kinds of other species, including some species of concern … so we need to be aware of that and take the measures that we reluctantly, but still need, to take.”
A Mi’kmaq official said the hunt is tentatively scheduled to take place in mid-November.
Park officials have drafted a hyper-abundant moose management plan that outlines the need to reduce the moose population in a 20-square-kilometre test area centred around North Mountain, representing about two per cent of the total area of the park, said Quann.
That plan has been shared with stakeholders, such as Mi’kmaq, local non-native hunting guides and provincial officials, but it still needs final approval before the hunt can proceed, he said.
The plan will not be subject to public input, said Quann, because it does not affect the park as a whole.
If it is approved, the moose population and the forest on North Mountain will be monitored over the next couple of years, and further consultation will include the public before hunting is considered in the rest of the park, he said.
“We need to get this one under our belt first and have some results,” Quann said.