The Moose That Didn’t Need Culling

Kudos to the Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry for providing information from the March 2019 moose population survey to the public in a timely manner, through stories in the media.  The 2019 survey in Cape Breton included participants from the Lands and Forestry, Parks Canada, the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources (UINR) and the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq. And it showed a dramatic decline in the numbers of moose.

In this most recent 2019 aerial survey of the Cape Breton Highlands Greater Ecosystem, which includes the Cape Breton Highlands National Park (CBHNP), only about 1,300 moose were counted. In the previous 2015 aerial survey, the moose population had been stated as 4,700 — or an estimated 1,800 moose, 2 per square kilometer, in the National Park. Canada and UINR both claimed this number to be four times more moose than a healthy forest could support. Both were proponents of a moose cull on North Mountain.

Photo: Martin Cathrae – CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Four years later, the results of the 2019 survey suggest there are now an estimated 481 moose in the CBHNP, according to Parks Canada resource conservation manager Rob Howey, who works there.

My email request to Parks Canada for additional information from the 2019 aerial survey has yet to be answered. Another request, made through the CBHNP Facebook page, was also unsuccessful in that I was told the Parks Canada report was not yet completed. Instead, I was directed to a Nova Scotia Dept of Lands and Forestry summary page containing limited information, similar to what had already appeared in news stories.

Perhaps the Parks Canada delay in getting information to the public is due to their futile attempts to put a positive spin on the drastic survey findings. But how do you put a positive spin on such a steep decline in moose numbers in the National Park, which seemingly went overnight from an estimated 1800 to about 480?

This dramatic decline –of about 75%– in the moose population happened throughout the National Park, not only in the North Mountain study area. More than 138 moose were culled on North Mountain due to a ‘hyperabundant’ population. They now sadly appear to have been killed in an unnecessary exercise. Doing the math, it’s possible that there may have been only about 620 moose in the Park during the time when those 138 moose — adults, pregnant females, and calves — were being killed indiscriminately in four culls.

In a CBC radio interview on 6 June 2019, Howey was asked about the factors that may have contributed to the drastic, 75% decline in the moose population, as per the recent aerial survey. Some of the excuses put forward by Howey to try to explain the decline are explored below, and none of them hold water when you look at the big picture of how moose have been killed over the past four years in the CBHNP.


Factor #1: Wildlife populations fluctuate

That statement almost makes me laugh, because Parks Canada and UINR, both proponents of the cull, have consistently brow-beaten the public with the unchanging and supposedly ‘hyperabundant’ number of 1,800 moose since 2014 — before the culls began.

The drastic decline in moose population in just four years — from about 4,700 to the current 1,300 in the CB Highlands Greater Ecosystem, and from 1,800 to the current 480 in the National Park –again, a decrease of 75%– did not happen overnight.

Parks Canada may now try to say that wildlife populations fluctuate year to year, but throughout the four years of the moose cull, the moose population apparently remained consistent, according to what Parks Canada and UINR claimed. Since before the culls began in 2015, we were constantly told by Parks Canada and UINR, partners in the cull, that the density of the ‘hyperabundant’ moose population of 1,800 –2 moose per sq km– was four times more than a healthy forest could support. That 1,800 number remained unchanged in their message to the public throughout the cull years — until now. Apparently nothing — births, deaths, harsh weather — affected the so-called hyperabundant moose population during the culls.


Factor #2: Harsh winters 

Howey now says harsh winters can lead to a higher winter mortality for moose, and could be a factor in the major moose population decline. Yet that factor was never considered important before or during the moose culls on North Mountain.

The issue of harsh winters was raised before the moose culls began in 2015: participants at community meetings and moose hunting guides, through their observations, believed that moose numbers had been greatly affected by previous extremely harsh winters with large snowfalls. At that time, it was thought that the population was down by as much as 50% from that 1,800 number Parks Canada and UINR were touting.

Although concerns were expressed at that time to the proponents of the moose cull, the concerns were ignored by Parks Canada and moose management ‘experts’ whose main focus was on the killing of moose in the CBHNP. They turned a deaf ear to the issue of harsh winters and high winter mortality as being a factor in the moose population, even going so far as to say that, “moose are designed to survive harsh winters” and “…even the winter doesn’t bother them much — remember, they are a northern animal and are accustomed to winter conditions.”

Perhaps those concerns were well founded after all, and the number of moose at the beginning of the culls may not have been near that 1,800 number being spoonfed to the public.


Factor #3: Lower calving rates

Howey now states that lower calving rate could be a factor in the steep moose population decline. Yet the importance of calves and calving rate was cruelly ignored during the four moose culls on North Mountain. During those culls, 138 moose were killed indiscriminately, including 21 calves no older than 6 months of age, and 19 pregnant females. The numbers of their unborn fetuses were not tracked by Parks Canada or UINR, perhaps because it was a huge embarrassment — as it should have been. Calves and calving rates did not appear to be a concern to the proponents of the moose cull in their rush to kill as many moose as possible in the North Mountain area.


Factor #4: Less food for browsing

Parks Canada believes that food availability could be a factor in the major decline in the moose population. Yet data collection from the moose killed during the culls showed that the majority of those moose had been in good health. Following the 2018 moose cull, Parks Canada indicated that the signs of forest regrowth were encouraging and showed a much higher than expected increase (about 95%) in twig availability, both in the control plots on North Mountain, and on French Mountain, where no moose culls took place. A lack of food did not seem to be an issue for the moose, based on what we were being told by Parks Canada.


Factor #5: New data

Howey says they worked with data from the last 20 to 30 years, and that data showed high numbers of moose. However, according to the Hyperabundant Moose Management Plan of November 2015, ongoing monitoring was supposed to take place, especially given that people in nearby communities were concerned about moose population depletion outside of National Park boundaries. One would think that ongoing monitoring would have shown a decline in the numbers of moose, because they certainly didn’t decrease from 1,800 to 480 overnight.

According to Parks Canada’s own documents, before the start of the moose culls there was a declining trend in the number of moose. Yet it was that so-called ‘hyperabundant’ moose population number of 1,800, or 2 moose per sq km, that was consistently given to the public.

The 2015 aerial survey has been used to justify that population number. However, emails obtained through an ATIP give food for thought as to the accuracy of the 2015 survey numbers released to the public.

Emails between various Parks Canada officials about the results of the 2015 survey showed there were issues with the data, comments included:

[W]e are getting lower numbers of moose observed overall…

The more I look in to it, the more troubling the intensive data seem. Almost half the data are problematic…

Regarding moose estimates, it was stated:

I played around a little bit…

I adjusted the numbers in all sections that referred to the aerial survey results. The new numbers are the latest we came up with …

It may be that the 1,800 moose were not actually there at all before the culls began.

As recently as 8 November 2018, Rob Howey stated in a CBC radio interview that there were around 1,800 moose in the National Park based on the 2015 survey. When asked about the state of the population, he indicated that “our data shows that this is an accurate estimate of the population in the Park at the moment.” That statement was made just four short months before the March 2019 aerial survey showed about 480 moose.

Photo: chensiyuan CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Since before the moose culls began, the public has been told over and over again that the moose population number was 1,800, all seemingly a part of the Parks Canada and UINR effort to have us believe that moose were hyperabundant and that the culls were justified. Apparently, not so!

Parks Canada seems to be trying to deflect attention from the fact that the so-called ‘hyperabundant’ moose population has suddenly become the ‘sustainable’ population of about 480 or 0.5 moose per sq km. The Resource Conservation Manager actually thinks that the survey results of 75% fewer moose could be viewed as “really good news for the Park” because apparently the forest can sustain that new number.

Parks Canada may try their best to spin this surprisingly steep population decline in a positive light, but the real story here is one of failure: failure to collect accurate data, failure to ensure meaningful public consultation, failure to monitor, failure to protect the wildlife within the boundaries of a National Park.

It’s also a story of a federal agency wasting more than $1 million of public money to kill 138 moose that apparently didn’t have to be culled in the first place.

The only positive in this whole affair may be that the moose population aerial survey was conducted when it was — in March 2019. Had this survey not happened at that time, Parks Canada and UINR would no doubt have continued using flawed data to promote a Park-wide moose reduction, as was the apparent documented intention from the beginning. In that scenario, we could have been looking at a catastrophe similar to the one that now exists on the Nova Scotia mainland, where overhunting was a contributing factor in reducing the endangered mainland moose population from a few thousand to fewer than 100.



Rose Courage was born and raised in Sydney and is a lifelong visitor to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Since retiring from the federal civil service, she has operated a seasonal family craft shop in Indian Brook, Victoria County, with her husband.