Parks Canada started a four-year project last year with the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources and other partners to restore the boreal forest in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

“We’ve been studying this for 15 years and the scientific evidence is there to show the moose browse has caused the forest to convert to grassland,” said Parks Canada resource conservation officer Derek Quann. “The forest health issue can be traced back to the spruce budworm days and the forests haven’t regenerated.”

Large areas that were once forest were unable to regenerate as moose browsed any seedlings that grew more than 30 cm high. These over-browsed and stunted trees have started to die and have now been replaced by a thick mass of grass and ferns.

According to Parks Canada, grasslands now cover 11 per cent of the national park.

These open grasslands are poor habitat for species that rely on boreal ecosystems, including federal and provincial species-at-risk like Bicknell’s thrush, lynx and the American marten.

“Usually systems will find their own balance, but in this particular case the forest health isn’t in a good place and not heading in a good place.”

A protest of the proposed Mi’kmaq moose hunt organized by local guide Dennis Day, on Saturday, attracted approximately 80 people in Cape North and Pleasant Bay — concerned that the moose population is in decline.

“We are awaiting a decision on the proposed harvest and if the plan is approved then we will look to proceed,” Quann said. “A first course of action will be to do a count of moose in that area before any harvest begins in partnership with and handled by the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia, under the direction of the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources.”

Quann stressed that the project is about more than moose management.

“It’s about trying to restore the health of a large amount of forest,” he said. “We are exploring more tree planting options, fencing of areas to remove the influence of moose and a few of the more promising strategies to see what might give us the best options going into a future long-term strategy.”

The proposed moose hunt is looking at reducing the moose population in the area of North Mountain by 90 per cent.

“In North Mountain, we’ve been very clear that we are talking about a pilot project that is focused on 20 square kilometres or two per cent of the park,” he said. “It’s a location where the forest regeneration shows good potential to recover naturally if we can remove the influence of moose browse.”

As a result of research and monitoring initiatives, Cape Breton Highlands National Park has determined that moose are hyperabundant and a serious threat to forest ecosystems within the national park.

“We’ve had two successive harsh winters, but Parks Canada hasn’t seen any evidence to show there has been a massive die-off of moose,” Quann said. “Last year we surveyed the area and we found there were almost 40 moose, which is consistent with prevous estimates of an average of two moose per square kilometre. The number of moose in the area is still strong and showing an overabundance.”