Ontario’s moose population is under threat with “rapid declines” in numbers over the past decade, warns the environmental commissioner in a new report that urges the government to take better care of the province’s wildlife and forests.

“It matters that moose are in decline . . . moose are key forest species in most of Ontario,” said Dianne Saxe, who blamed the “loss of roadless areas, too much fire suppression, disease, parasites and hunting all (making) life difficult for moose.

“Climate change is making it worse — moose are exquisitely adapted to cold weather and very poorly adapted for heat.”

Her annual report, which comes as hunting season is under way in much of Northern Ontario — both the hunting of adult moose and calves — notes that “there are now an estimated 92,300 moose — amounting to a decline of about 20 per cent over the last decade.”

Some areas have been harder hit, including Thunder Bay, where moose numbers are down 50 per cent, and 60 per cent in Cochrane.
Saxe told reporters at Queen’s Park that hunting rules for calves are too lax, noting that “every single one of the 98,000 licensed moose hunters in Ontario is allowed to kill a calf every year — that’s more than three times as many hunters as there are calves even born.”

Saxe also raises concerns about a “large-scale loss of biodiversity,” calling it a “crisis in our province and around the world” with eight of 27 amphibian species in Ontario considered at risk, and four of eight bat species are listed as being “at serious risk of extinction” — a situation she called a “terrible tragedy.”

“I always knew bats were important, but before I became commissioner, I never knew how important,” she said. “In the United States, the decline of bats is costing agriculture more than $3 billion a year.”
Bats, which help cull insect pests, are succumbing to “white-nose syndrome” in droves, even though the disease only arrived in Ontario a decade ago. “In 10 years we’ve had a catastrophic decline,” Saxe said.

MPP Kathryn McGarry, the province’s minister of natural resources and forestry, said for years Ontario has been working on improving the moose population. which led to a shorter moose hunting season in Northern Ontario last year, and a delay to its start this year.

The declining moose population “is an issue that’s happening across North America,” she told reporters at Queen’s Park. “In parts of Manitoba and Minnesota, the moose hunt has been cancelled. So we’re working with other jurisdictions to do some more research to ensure that we have a sustainable moose population in the future.”

While anyone who obtains a moose hunting licence is allowed to kill a calf, not all do, she noted.

Her ministry is now working with indigenous communities and hunting groups, but there are no plans at this point to cancel the hunt. However, she added, “we need more research into the subject.”

Saxe’s report does congratulate the government for making some changes, especially when it comes to fighting invasive species, such as the emerald ash borer. However, she also questioned “will it work? Most of the hard front-line work is still left to municipalities, conservation authorities and private landowners.”

MPP Peter Tabuns, the NDP’s environment critic, said “it’s apparent that the government isn’t doing what needs to be done to protect biodiversity” and is particularly concerned about the lack of controlled fires to manage forests.

“If we look at what happened in Fort McMurray, we don’t want to have that kind of catastrophic fire happen here in Ontario,” he said. “Even though there are strategies to deal with too much fuel in the forest, they’re not being put in place. We are going to be putting northern communities at risk.”

Saxe recommended the natural resources ministry make use of controlled fires, because the province has an unnaturally mature forest.

It may mean “that timber that might otherwise be harvested 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now has to be allowed to burn, for the greater good. If there is timber that’s ready for harvest and a market for it, by all means log it first.”

Such a move would also benefit moose, which “depend on and thrive in an area where you have a natural mosaic” of tree species and stages of growth.