By Fran Yanor | Legislative Reporter

With moose in decline across most of the province, some wildlife stakeholders worry even targeted moose cow and calf hunt increases could be a ‘slippery slope’ putting more pressure on a declining species.

Big Game guide, Daniel Norton, co-owner of Robson Valley Outfitters and a self-described wildlife enthusiast, on a hunt in Northwestern British Columbia. / DANIEL NORTON

“We all want to see more wildlife on the land base,” said Daniel Norton, co-owner of Robson Valley Outfitters near McBride. “Increasing tags for a species that’s already hurting in lots of areas of the province is not a good idea.”

The province recently announced the annual Limited Entry Hunting authorizations, which showed an increase in moose cow and calf hunting for two small areas of the province: Parsnip, northeast of Prince George, and a 3,300 square kilometre section near Revelstoke.

“I’m not opposed to a cow and calf hunt as long as the population can withstand it,” said Scott Pichette, who operates Bowron River Guiding with his wife near Prince George. “As it stands, right now for B.C., I would say no.”
If the government raises allocations in certain areas of the province this year, next year it could be the Robson Valley, said Norton. “This season, I don’t think it’ll be a concern, however, it’s a slippery slope.”

The only increase in calf hunt numbers will occur where moose overlap with caribou, and where wolf reductions are ongoing, said Dr. Robert Serrouya, a wildlife biologist with the University of Alberta’s Caribou Monitoring Unit. “In areas where the moose are not doing well, there is no cow or calf season.”

In 90 per cent of the province’s moose range, the goal is to have a lot of moose, he said. In fact, five areas in south central B.C. have been under intense study since 2012 to understand the causes of moose population declines.

A 2019 update showed that of 115 deceased cows, 71 died of predation from grey wolf, bear and cougar. Seventeen were killed by hunting and 11 of starvation. Of 29 calves, one third died of predation and 21 per cent from starvation.

“There is definitely a problem with predators,” said Pichette, who works with trappers to keep wolf populations in his guiding area manageable. “We need the wolves out there, they take the weak, they take the sick”¦ a pack of five or six is great. When you have a pack of 40, it’s a totally different thing.”

Wolf culls have been taking place most recently in Revelstoke since 2017, whereas moose culls began 17 years ago when harvested moose increased from 20 to 250 moose in two years. Since then, moose hunting has helped stem the caribou decline, said Serrouya, who studies large mammals in Western Canada and has authored numerous papers on caribou recovery.

Doug Heard, a wildlife biologist with Tithonus Wildlife Research in Prince George, is pictured with some of his research subjects from the Kennedy Siding Caribou herd. / JO-ANNE ALLISON

According to a recently-released provincial government document, over the past three years, one Revelstoke caribou herd increased 4 per cent per year while the moose population grew 20 per cent year-over-year reaching an estimated 575 moose in 2019.

“The reason the (caribou) population was up was because of the wolf cull,” said Pichette. “Not because they shot a whole bunch more moose.”

The underlying wildlife management strategy is based on the interconnectedness of wolves, moose and caribou. “If the moose go up, wolves go up, caribou go down,” said Doug Heard, a former long-time forestry ministry wildlife biologist who now runs Tithonus Wildlife Research in Prince George. “If we can keep moose from going up, either by changing their habitat or by hunting, then moose numbers will come down, wolf numbers will come down, and caribou survival should go up.”

That’s the experiment, said Heard. “If we really understand what we’re doing here and our story about caribou,” he said, “then reducing the moose should result in caribou recovery.”

Low moose numbers may have the reverse effect, Norton said. “They’ll put out more tags, hunters will shoot more moose, and if wolves and bears get hungry and there’s no moose left,” he said, “they’ll just eat the caribou, anyway.”

The goal now in Revelstoke is to ‘stabilize’ the moose population during ongoing wolf reductions, Serrouya said. Otherwise, even more wolves will have to be removed later, which is logistically onerous. “More importantly, it’s socially unacceptable to only remove wolves,” he said, “when you’re not also pulling on the other two levers: the lever of habitat protection, and the lever of moose stabilization.”

Norton agrees the land base needs to be managed and that endless wolf culls are unsustainable, but has less faith in the method. “You’re pulling a lever that’s not proven and hasn’t actually worked very well when we have used it in B.C.,” he said. “And we’re pulling it on a population that we’ve been trying to recover for a long time.”

Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / The Rocky Mountain Goat / [email protected]