Across the continent, wildlife biologists are sounding the alarm for moose, warning climate change and hunting are killing off the king of the boreal forest.
Manitoba, sitting as it does at the crossroads of North America, straddles the geographic hot spot for failing moose numbers.
Weeks ago, retired Winnipeg biologist Vince Crichton shared his own concerns during a tour of moose terrain in Riding Mountain National Park, the one place where moose should be safe and flourishing.
He’s apprehensive southern Manitoba is nearing the point of no return for historic moose numbers.
When Crichton and the other 20 authors of the bible of moose biology, The Ecology and Management of North American Moose, are worried, we all should be, too.
"We all need to work together so little Julia and your grandchildren can enjoy what we did," Crichton said. Julia is his granddaughter and the apple of this scientist’s eye. "She knows more about moose than I did at her age."
Consider this a warning the days of hunting moose with a gun or a camera might never be the same again.
Now retired and a popular speaker on the hunting lecture circuit— he’s a standard at Cabela’s Canada — Crichton’s years of work in Manitoba Conservation left him convinced there is one culprit standing in the way of saving moose — and it’s not climate change.
It’s poaching, he said.
Back to Riding Mountain. It’s Manitoba’s best-known moose frontier, a protected oasis where hunting is banned and wolves are the only predator they need to fear.
So it may come as a surprise to suggest moose don’t always thrive there, even in the absence of people with guns.
Riding Mountain, for all its federal status for wildlife protection, is a victim of its location, a 3,000-square-kilometre boreal island plunked in a sea of farm fields. A winter tick infestation a decade ago wiped out 30 to 40 per cent the park’s moose, cutting numbers down to 2,500. Because of the way moose groom their coats, they don’t pick off ticks until the bugs are engorged.
At that point, moose scratch up against anything they can to get rid of them. They will pull their pelts out in patches until they’re ghostly bare and left to shiver in the dead of winter. Moose left bare-skinned and skinny from fighting tick infestations are called ghost moose.
It’s taken a decade for Riding Mountain moose numbers to slowly but steadily rebound to about 3,000 now.
For two days in October, photographer Joe Bryksa and I cycled and hiked Riding Mountain’s Lake Audy region with Crichton.
He’s been making the trip for 40 years and there wasn’t a stop on the trail where he didn’t have a moose story — which was all the more frustrating for Bryksa, who wasn’t getting any shots.
One misty morning, a moose stood in the middle of the trail and wouldn’t move, starring down Crichton from three metres away for two solid hours.
Another day, a calf lay down by a ditch and let him pet it.
He points to a swamp, where moose often browse on red willow shrubs. Those sweet red stems are like ice cream to moose.
All this Crichton told us. But we didn’t see any of it.
In fact, the closest I got to anything moose was when I held a bleached leg bone, years old and probably left behind by a pack of wolves, long dead themselves.
Crichton is passionate about moose. It’s clear he loves the majestic creatures and welcomes any chance to spread the message the species is in trouble.
Crichton’s been called the Man Who Would be Moose. To us, he was Dr. Doolittle of Moose Meadows.
We came back with a single moose photograph, a shot of a cow and a calf spooked from a spruce bluff the first morning.
It would be wrong to conclude there are no moose because we didn’t get pictures of them. But it’s hard not to feel that way.
‘Who’s going to shoot a pissy old bull when you can have a nice fat cow’
The remark likely surfaced in the 1980s when First Nations leaders ran interference on Manitoba’s ban on hunting female moose. But the line — and its sentiment — has never gone out of circulation. You could argue it remains a flashpoint for moose in the province.
For non-natives, it offers a comfortable if negative stereotype — a lot like pushing on a pressure point that’s painful but pleasurable at the same time.
The source of the pain? The perceived inequality of protecting indigenous hunting rights while restricting hunting licences for everybody else.
It also shines a spotlight on the province’s weakest link in wildlife conservation: enforcement efforts.
As the level of government authorized to manage wildlife resources, Canadian provinces have been caught between a rock and a hard place on hunting rights for decades.
They can’t police constitutionally protected treaty rights. That’s a federal issue.
As a result, no province will ever hold regulatory control to curb Métis and First Nation game hunting.
For some older conservation officers, such as Crichton, the "pissy bull" line is one he repeats out of sheer frustration with the legal quagmire.
"There’s licensed hunters, treaty Indians and Métis. How can you manage a resource when you only have control over one of those groups? Conservation only applies to licensed hunters. That’s why we have to make sure everyone is at the table, to protect that legacy for future generations," he said.
So it came as no surprise when a First Nation community hunt in western Manitoba in December 2012 triggered a firestorm over 12 elk that were legally hunted.
Crichton issued a warning then he’s still repeating now: If the province doesn’t do more to protect wildlife, licensed hunting in the province — hunting and angling-trip expenditures in Manitoba were worth $469.1 million in 2010 — will disappear.
"If this continues like this, licensed hunting as we know it in Manitoba will be history in 10 years or less," Crichton said at the time. "If it keeps going on like this, there won’t even be opportunity for non-hunters to go out and view animals."
First Nations hunters are not a visible or vocal group, not like their leaders. But among them, too, there’s a growing sense of frustration.
Traditional hunters disparage the "boys" who go out spotlighting, illegally hunting from the roads at night. Walk into any First Nation community and you’ll eventually hear about one or another moose carcass left to rot in the bush. Close on the story will be the inevitable accusation: "No Anishinaabe would do that!"
Murray Marchment is a non-native hunter married to a First Nations woman. They’ve raised a family in Hollow Water First Nation on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.
As a white hunter living in a treaty community that still depends on subsistence hunting and fishing, he hears flak from both sides.
"I’m often the sounding block for dissatisfaction against non-aboriginal (hunters). They use me as who I represent. Racism is alive and healthy in the aboriginal community and out of it," Marchment said.
Marchment is convinced both are to blame for over-hunting. He has little patience for racial stereotyping and wishes his own people would accept the reality there are treaties.
"The concern I have, and it’s not attached to any nationality, is the overuse of animals. I have nothing against someone taking an animal to feed his family, but in our area we have people hunting in areas we’ve all agreed not to hunt in."
It’s a mug’s game for conservation officers, he added.
"We have non-native hunters and some are respectful and some are terrible. We’ve done interviews with Conservation and it’s difficult for them. It’s a political quagmire. There may be instances of First Nations over-hunting or hunting in an area that’s closed, but the cost and politics of taking them to court makes it a waste of time," he said.
Wildlife officials keep mum about undercover enforcement operations. Ask a conservation officer about "Fluffy and Duffy" and all you’ll get is a cryptic smile. Fluffy and Duffy are life-size decoys set up in the bush to bring down careless poachers.
But the poaching rumours are rife.
On the east side of Lake Winnipeg, there are persistent stories of local non-native hunters who buzz moose in float planes, herding bulls to the lake where First Nation hunters wait to shoot them. That way, if conservation officers stop them, the First Nation hunters can invoke their treaty rights to protect the interest of their non-native partners.
To this point, no one’s been charged.
No one was ever charged either when it was rumoured treaty hunters in eastern Manitoba were selling moose meat illegally.
Meanwhile, wolf packs are menacing moose in ever greater numbers here. One hunter reported hearing howls from wolves hidden in trees all around him and his hunting party earlier this winter.
In western Manitoba, you’ll still hear stories about First Nation hunters from northern Manitoba who used to pull in for hunts at Duck Mountain towing freezers behind them.
"Sagkeeng, the meat market, our enforcement people heard a lot of about this," said Dan Bulloch, manager for game, fur and human-wildlife conflict at Manitoba Conservation.
"They investigated it but they can’t substantiate it. We hear all kinds of rumours like this. Some have gotten to the point where it’s an urban myth."
These days, Manitoba Conservation is working hard at mending fences. Aboriginal hunters are reaching out, too, signally a willingness to sit on the province’s advisory bodies in western Manitoba where moose are in the worst trouble. None answered a call to comment on this story, though.
Conservation officers have to keep that big picture in mind.
"We work with First Nations... the tack we’re taking is we try to get them involved in the actual management. They have the right to negotiate, through their treaties and we respect that. Then, everybody is working together," Bulloch said.
Across the boreal forest fringe of the continent, which includes parts of Ontario, Minnesota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, moose populations are down anywhere from 20 to 70 per cent. In some places, including Duck Mountain and parts of northern Minnesota, the numbers have virtually fallen off a cliff, dropping as much as 90 per cent.
British Columbia’s government is looking at equipping moose with GPS collars that would at least let them know when an animal drops dead. Similar efforts are underway in Minnesota.
"If the trends continue, moose could be almost gone from northeast Minnesota by 2022 or even earlier," notes the Minnesota Moose Advisory Committee, which was commissioned to study the dying population and recommend wildlife measures to save it. The board was disbanded after its task was done and the state mounted a massive intervention. On one front, scientists and hunters both agree: They regard moose as the majesty of the boreal world.
Ron Moen, a wildlife conservation expert and senior research associate with the University of Minnesota, said the now-defunct committee was a model of co-operation — representatives from the state’s indigenous tribal groups and wildlife conservation officers all worked together in an effort to restore the numbers.
As for aboriginal stereotyping, no one had time for that.
"We went through that probably 30 years ago with walleye and fishing," Moen said. "We don’t hear about it so much. They are legal treaties, signed 150 years ago, and there’s co-operation between the state and the tribes."
Separate conservation officers for state and tribal authorities manage permits for hunting. When moose numbered 8,000 animals, the permits allowed about 400 moose to be taken. At 3,000, permits were slashed to 150.
Still the moose keep dying.
"Almost none of it is hunting pressure... and this year, there was no harvest," Moen said.
A generation ago, Minnesota had two moose populations, one in the southern part of the state and the other in the north. In the south, the moose have virtually disappeared. In the northeast, the population is dropping 25 per cent a year and it’s now down to fewer than 3,000.
There are more questions than answers about Minnesota moose, but it seems disease, perhaps related to climate change, is killing them off. Minnesota’s problems are Manitoba’s, too. Deer are moving into the province’s southeast and then up through the east side of Lake Winnipeg; with them come brain worm and liver fluke, both fatal to moose.
In 2011, the province earmarked $800,000 over five years for its moose recovery program. It’s not a lot of money and there are a lot of demands: road closures, additional moose counts, more wolf control and beefed-up enforcement.
A moose moratorium two years ago on the east side of Lake Winnipeg stirred up friction between aboriginal and non-native hunters.
Hunters from Sagkeeng said they were losing their traditional hunting ground. The province responded by only shutting down two small areas to hunting in Game Hunting Area 26. The province also bulldozed the Happy Lake logging road to ambush illegal hunting.
As a tactic to plow a path around hunting rights, it’s effective.
"In the Duck Mountains, we ripped out some culverts and ripped up the road. Not even God could get down it," said Crichton.
The province keeps trying to improve the situation, but Crichton says there must be a way to for aboriginal and non-aboriginal people to work together.
Meanwhile, moose licences are half what they were a generation ago. And while people fight over how to save this icon, it’s beginning to look like the moose may be going the way of the bison.