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Moose survey results confirm concerns about declining population

BY Patrick Quinn Oct 8, 2021

Results from last winter’s aerial survey confirm fears that Eeyou Istchee’s moose population is significantly declining. A downward trend in moose numbers had been observed for several years by Cree hunters and in success rates reported by sports hunters. 

“There is reason to be concerned, given the numbers we were provided,” said Isaac Voyageur, director of environment for the Cree Nation Government (CNG). “If we were to act now, there could be some positive change in the near future. We hope to have a collective approach to addressing this issue we’re faced with.”

The survey was conducted by helicopter over five weeks last January and February in Zone 17 and the southern part of Zone 22, primarily in the Waswanipi region, in collaboration with the Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs (MFFP). Two Cree teams and three Quebec teams surveyed a sample size of moose habitat to extrapolate representative data for the territory.  

With no moose surveys conducted in Zone 17 since 2009 and in Zone 22 since 1991, the Cree Nation had requested action from Quebec for several years. It was only after the Crees resolved to undertake an independent survey with funding from the Canada Nature Fund that Quebec announced in December that they would also participate, contributing about half the funding to study a larger area.  

“As I understand, Quebec didn’t provide any investments in monitoring moose because there weren’t enough sports hunters,” shared Nadia Saganash, senior advisor of Cree-Quebec governance for the CNG. “It’s a concern that investments are not being put to monitor wildlife populations, especially important species that the Cree and other Aboriginal people rely on for food security.” 

While the MFFP had compiled and analyzed the data by June, the Cree Nation didn’t receive the preliminary results until September 9, when a formal request was made following this year’s Annual General Assembly (AGA). Although the official reason for the delay was that this “sensitive information” had to first be presented to the minister, many have speculated that it was to give sports hunters one more season based on old data. 

“There’s no explanation to justify not sharing this information with us,” Saganash told the Nation. “Receiving it at the last minute puts us in a frustrating position. It compromised many potential discussions that could have taken place between Quebec and the Cree, hindering possible solutions.”

The survey showed a 35% decline in Zone 17 since 2009 to an estimated 1,036 moose. Even more concerning is the low reproductive rate. While over 50 calves born for every 100 females is usually considered an acceptable recruitment rate, the survey revealed only 30 calves being born per 100 females, down from 45 in the previous survey. 

The male-to-female ratio is also the lowest ever recorded. While it’s ideal to have a 50-50 ratio, the latest survey recorded only 27 males per 100 females in Zone 17. The density of the species in that zone was estimated at 0.52 moose per 10 square-kilometres and 0.41 in Zone 22, meaning only one moose per 20 square kilometres – far less than the 1.5 average in 10 square kilometres that Quebec’s management plan suggests is healthy.

“I’m not even sure if we’ll be able to get there because of all the road activity and impacts of forestry,” explained Saganash. “Since 1985, it’s been going down more and more, especially after they implemented sports harvesting only for males in Zone 17. Certainly, there’s a pressure on males and the recoupment rate for females is also low, most likely because there’s not a lot of males.”

From the 800 sports hunting permits issued in that zone last year, there were 50 moose harvested – significantly lower than the 69 average since 2009. The MFFP did not respond by press time to the Nation’s request for the number of permits issued this year or the reason for its long delay before sharing data. 

However, both Saganash and Voyageur cautioned that there could be multiple factors causing the decrease. Habitat degradation, disease and tick infestation have become common threats to moose populations in recent years.  

“I’m not quick to point a finger at any one source,” said Voyageur. “It could be man-made; it could be a result of predation or disease. You notice this kind of trend everywhere – a drop in the numbers and rebounding later, nature taking its own course. If we were to help, it could go a long way to maintaining or improving the numbers in future years.”

Changing migration patterns may also be a factor, as range limits have moved further north since the signing of the JBNQA. While Saganash recommended studying the rest of Zone 22 next year to achieve a more accurate picture, she acknowledged that aerial surveys are too costly and logistically complicated to conduct more than every five years.

Success rates from the sports hunt are another indicator but not sufficiently reliable without accurate reporting from Cree hunters. Presented with the survey results at their AGA, the Cree Trappers’ Association (CTA) swiftly developed a resolution and renewed efforts to encourage hunters to report their harvests using the CTA mobile app. 

The CTA recommends precautionary conservation measures for hunters, establishing an upper limit of harvest, collaboratively developing guidelines to reduce and monitor moose harvests, and closing the sports hunt to ensure a guaranteed harvest for the Cree until allocation levels can be set.

“The most pressing decision is whether a moratorium on the sports hunt will be implemented immediately,” stated Saganash. “Given it’s almost starting, I’m not sure how feasible it will be. We need to react in terms of moose sustainability. We can’t ask tallymen to reduce their harvest if the sports hunt is still open.”

At press time, the CNG Board Council was discussing whether to close the sports hunt now or after this season, the possibility of an allocation for the sports hunt, and what guidelines to develop. Saganash recommends building upon the tallyman’s role to ensure the traditional harvest management system remains effective.

“Cree tallymen had a lot of concerns about habitat quality, the impact of forestry and more access in the territory,” Saganash shared. “It will be up to them to make sure that Cree harvesting levels are respected and don’t compromise the moose population. That’s for the benefit of all.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.