LAC DU BONNET -- Moose meat is fairly easy to obtain, people here claim, even though moose have been wiped out in some parts of Manitoba and are now vanishing along the east shore of Lake Winnipeg.
"I could pick up the phone and within three or four days have moose meat delivered to my door," said a highly respected member of the provincial committee for moose management, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of criminal reprisals.
"One rights-based harvester (a hunter with First Nation treaty status) told me he shot 150 moose in one year," the source said.
That's a horrific admission when you consider an aerial survey in 2010 found just 800 moose left in all of southeastern Manitoba (stretching as far north as the Wanipigow River). One reason moose are disappearing is allegedly due to be a small band of hunters who use their treaty hunting rights, which are supposed to be for subsistence hunting only, to hunt moose for sale on the black market.
"They've been in there for years and everyone knows about them," said Ken MacMaster, director of the Manitoba Wildlife Federation for the southeastern region.
What is happening to our moose population?
Southeastern Manitoba? Gone.
Whiteshell Provincial Park? Gone.
Lake of the Woods in northwestern Ontario? Virtually gone.
Northeastern Manitoba? Going.
On the west side of the province, people in Duck Mountain are trying to prevent moose from disappearing.
Manitoba Conservation says moose numbers are falling due to predation from wolves and hunting, including illegal hunting. An additional factor is brain worm, which is contracted from white-tailed deer. As a result, the moose population has fallen to just 823 in 2010 from 2,350 in 2002 in southeastern Manitoba.
The province has taken action. It is paying a $250 bounty per wolf kill in Game Hunting Area No. 26, whose borders are the Wanipigow and Winnipeg rivers to the north and south, and the Ontario border and Lake Winnipeg to the east and west. About 75 wolves were killed under the program in 2011-12 and 35 in 2012-13. Manitoba Conservation estimates a single wolf consumes eight large prey (moose, deer, or caribou) per year.
The province also increased hunting limits on deer in the area, which encompasses Nopiming Provincial Park, to prevent spread of brain worm. It hired a biologist and extra natural resource officer for the area. Seven moose have been collared to track their movements. The province has also closed many former logging roads to limit vehicle access in the area. (However, some hunters have hitched chains to their 4x4 trucks to break open gates that close some roads.) An all-weather road called the Trans Licence Road, which runs off Highway 304, wasn't plowed this winter.
The biggest action, however, was the most obvious one: The government has closed the entire Game Hunting Area No. 26 to licenced moose hunters since 2010.
But the province then took a more conciliatory approach with First Nations, using education and consultation instead of an outright ban. The province eventually reached agreement with Hollow Water, Black River and Sagkeeng First Nations to ban hunting -- but only in a section that makes up just 15 per cent of GHA No. 26. Hunters with treaty rights can still kill moose in the rest of the area.
Will it be enough?
First Nations such as Black River have warned band members to curtail hunting or risk wiping out the moose population, Black River Chief Sheldon Kent said.
But Kent also blames the province for allowing Tembec, the former pulp and paper mill, to build so many logging roads.
Sagkeeng Chief Donavan Fontaine opposes a moose-hunting ban in GHA No. 26 because hunting is too important to First Nation culture.
"If you do that, it takes responsibility (for the wildlife) away from us," said Fontaine. "We are the original stewards of the land. If we just give authority to the province (to impose a ban), we're losing our inherent responsibility as First Nations people."
MacMaster, a former natural resources minister in the Sterling Lyon government, said co-operation from chiefs has been "exceptional." Even so, it frustrates licensed hunters when only aboriginals are allowed to hunt, he said.
MacMaster lobbied for a ban on hunting moose in GHA No. 26. Barring that, the province should at least step up efforts to catch treaty-based hunters who kill moose for the black market. "I can tell you positively the elders (on First Nations) think this should be shut down, too," he said.
The Committee for Manitoba Moose members even staked out a winter camp of black-market hunters in 2010. The committee has about 15 members from wildlife clubs, First Nations, environment groups, Manitoba Hydro, government, and the Manitoba Model Forest.
The hunting camp was made up of a large sturdy tent with a stove inside to keep it warm. Committee members gave Manitoba Conservation the hunters' names, licence plate numbers, truck descriptions and camp location.
Manitoba Conservation responded by putting up a notice for the hunters to remove the camp because it was on Crown land. The notice was ignored. Manitoba Conservation took no further action. The camp occupants harvested moose steadily for two to three months, committee members said.
Jack Harrigan, Manitoba Conservation director of enforcement, said early breakup of lake ice that year impeded access to the camp and prevented officers from promptly removing it. Officers removed it eventually when they had access again.
But Harrigan disputed the claim two to three moose were being killed per week. Officers found evidence of just two moose kills in that area. As well, officers have to catch hunters selling moose meat, not killing it, to press charges. The hunting ban had not been agreed to yet.
"We get a small number of persons from First Nations, rights-based harvesters, selling wild meat," he said.
But he maintained the practice is not nearly so prevalent as people claim.
Manitoba Conservation has obtained about one conviction per year for the illegal sale of wild meat.
Not all those convicted are aboriginals.
However, a treaty-based hunter from GHA No. 26 was convicted of selling wild meat in 2010, he said.
Jim Duncan, Manitoba Conservation wildlife director, said the province's consultative approach is making headway. In the first year of the partial hunting ban, just nine moose were killed by hunters in the no-hunting zone and 10 were shot outside it. All sides see that as a victory.
As well, an aerial survey in March showed the moose population has rebounded to 1,306.
That's not considered a recovery but it is almost a 60 per cent jump. That number surprised everyone. There are some doubts about its accuracy, as the aerial survey has a 17 per cent margin of error.
The province hasn't got a number at which it would consider the moose population healthy again and allow licensed hunting.
The next aerial survey, which costs $80,000, is not scheduled until 2016. It means only aboriginals will be hunting moose in southeastern Manitoba until at least then. Licensed hunters say that's too long of a wait.