How Ontario's dwindling moose population is hurting First Nations

With fewer than 100,000 moose left in the province, a staple of life in the Nishawbe-Aski Nation is at risk
By Cameron Perrier - Published on Nov 24, 2016
Moose are vital to First Nations communities, but thanks to climate change their numbers are declining in northern Ontario. (Ron Poling/CP)

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In northern Ontario’s Nishnawbe-Aski Nation communities, moose-hunting festivals bring everyone together. Hunters share their harvest, deputy grand chief Derek Fox explains, and the elders cut the meat and tan the hides. “It’s what we’ve always eaten,” Fox says. “Our people have been here for thousands of years, and so have the moose.”

Moose meat is vital to the 49 communities that comprise the Nishawbe-Aski Nation, and it’s more nutritious than the processed and frozen options available at remote northern grocery stores. But a recent report from Ontario’s environmental commissioner, Dianne Saxe, says this significant part of the Nishawbe-Aski Nation’s way of life is threatened by the continued decline of the moose population.

According to the report, the moose population has dropped nearly 20 per cent over the past decade and is now down to fewer than 100,000 specimens. Worse still, near the cities of Cochrane and Thunder Bay, the population has declined 50 to 60 per cent — which the report attributes to climate change and human activity.

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Saxe says a major contributor to the decline is a lack of forest fires in the boreal region where the moose live. When she visited the First Nations community of Pikangikum in March, they explained that “to have a healthy wildlife population, you need to have fire — and if you have a forest that has gone too long without fire, you won’t find many moose there.” (Saxe’s report explains that the apparent link between moose populations and wildfires is not fully understood.)

Meanwhile, Andrew Chapeskie, a senior adviser with the Whitefeather Forest Initiative, says climate change is affecting the moose population by exposing them to new diseases. Warmer temperatures mean less snow, which has led to an expansion in the range of the white-tailed deer — but white-tailed deer carry brainworm, a parasite that can destroy moose populations.

It’s an issue Fox has heard about from elders in communities where hunters now have to go elsewhere to find moose. Fifteen or 20 years ago at Shoal Lake 39 and 40, near Kenora, he says, there was an abundance of them: “You’d go on the road and the lake and shoot a moose. Now you don’t see them. You have to go to a community like Grassy Narrows, which is two hours from there.”

Communities that lose access to moose are often left in the lurch, forced to rely on pricey Northern stores to get food. But a 2011 report from Lakehead University, in conjunction with the Aroland and Ginoogamming First Nations north of Thunder Bay, says the dwindling moose population affects more than just food security. The study found that people in Aroland First Nation felt more connected to the land and had a greater sense of well-being when the animal was part of their diet.

The population decline is partly attributable to hunting itself. In Ontario, the moose hunt is governed by a tag system: hunters vie for tags, and each tag gives them the right to shoot a moose. The government controls the hunt by limiting the number of tags it sells each year — a system that, according Joseph Leblanc, lead author of the Lakehead report, favours affluent sport hunters. In 2014, the province reduced the number of tags handed out, and the following year shortened the calf hunting season in an effort to curb the population decline.

Treaty rules state that First Nations can hunt as many moose as they want, but the provincial government doesn’t track those numbers. According to the environmental commissioner’s report, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry lacks solid information about First Nations moose hunting “in large part because subsistence hunting by Aboriginal peoples does not fall under provincial Jurisdiction.

“In effect, the MNRF is making critical decisions with one eye closed, and gambling with Ontario’s moose populations.”

Leblanc says the oversight indicates that the government isn’t working adequately with First Nations. “They need to completely transition their focus from the economic value of moose to the intrinsic food value,” he says. “That’s a fundamental shift that would end this issue — to manage the forest as a food basket rather than a wood basket.”

Cameron Perrier is a Métis multimedia journalist based in Calgary and Toronto.

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