Our Hungry, Lonely Giants

The Chronicle Herald

Jan. 31, 2015

It seemed to Henry Peters that every bog had a good calling rock.

Along with his father, famed Mi'kmaq hunting guide and former Bear River First Nation chief Louis Peters, he'd hunch on one on a frosty morning.

The best moose hunting was within a week of a fall full moon.

"Now, you didn't dare talk, you didn't dare to smoke, you didn't dare to cough, you didn't dare to do anything," Henry Peters recalled for the 1990 book Guides of the North Woods: Hunting and Fishing Tales from Nova Scotia 1860-1960.

Louis would call into the con-ical birchbark horn: "Ooowah. Ooowah."

Then they'd wait - maybe 20 minutes. Then they'd hear the bull moose calling back.

"He'd come right through the swamp to the edge of the bog," said Peters, who guided hunters around Nova Scotia through the opening chapters of the 20th century.

"Lots of times he'd get a little suspicious, especially a big bull."

So his father would sneak back farther into the country and call again, leaving him on the rock between him and the aroused bull.

"This bull would think ‘Oh my God, that cow is leaving.'

"Then he'd come right across the bog. They pace. They rock sideways with those great big six-foot antlers waving back and forth. And the frost! On a frosty morning, the nostrils would just be steaming. Steam pouring from each nostril, and him coming right for you!"

Peters and his father knew how the moose thought. Knew what it ate, what it needed and what it avoided.

They knew all this because the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia's interior had been hunting moose for thousands of years. Early 17th-century French explorer Marc Lescarbot said that moose, second only to fish, was the Mi'kmaq's "most abundant food."

But you'd be hard pressed to believe that today because the mainland moose has been in decline for 90 years.

"We call it a WAG - a wild-ass guess - because there hasn't been a census done since the 1980s," Scott McBurney said Thursday.

"The WAG for mainland moose is maybe a thousand animals."

When a moose is found dead in Nova Scotia, it goes to McBurney. The wildlife pathologist based at the University of Prince Edward Island has been studying the moose decline for the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.

Thirty-two per cent of the moose brought to him died due to trauma like being hit by a vehicle, 25 per cent were killed by the brain worm parasite, 25 per cent by winter tick and starvation gets five per cent. The rest were killed by a variety of other causes.

Nature abhors a vacuum.

The causes of the decline of the mainland moose and the consequences of the room its absence makes in the food chain of the forest are intertwined and complex beyond McBurney's tally.

It all started 15,000 years ago when moose accompanied humans across the Bering land bridge into North America.

Genetically speaking, said McBurney, moose remain "the new kids on the block."

This puts them at a disadvantage.

The ancestors of the white-tailed deer were already here and, over countless generations of genetic trial and error, developed resistances to a nasty parasite called brain worm by those who don't speak Latin.

Moose never got the chance to develop genetic defences.

How nasty is brain worm? Well, it starts when an adult brain worm lays its eggs in the moose's central nervous system. Those pass into its lungs, where they hatch. The moose coughs up the larvae and swallows them again, and they pass through its tummy, intestines and out into the natural world.

Now we get into the callous nature of warfare in the wild.

Moose are bigger than white-tailed deer, so you would think that the moose would be dominant where the two species' territories overlap.

Not so, because white-tailed deer practise a viral warfare on moose. Though they have immunities to the ill effects of the brain worm, white-tailed deer play host to the virus. Where their territories overlap with moose, they pass it on to their competitors.

When Europeans first arrived in what would become Nova Scotia during the 16th and 17th centuries, this wasn't a problem. Huge mixed stands of old-growth hardwood and softwood were home to caribou, wolves, moose and other species of a healthy wild forest.

Hunting for meat and pelts drove the moose population back during the early 1800s, but protective legislation saw them rise again until the beginning of the 19th century.

The clearing of land for farms, clearcutting for the forest industry and the flooding of areas for dams through the first half of the 20th century changed the Nova Scotia wilderness, making room for white-tailed deer that, armed with the parasite, pushed moose out of the prime habitat that remained.

"If you look at the chart, in the 1920s the white-tailed deer population starts to go up and the moose starts down," said McBurney.

Coincidentally, it was during the 1920s that Bowater Mersey built dams on the Mersey River to generate hydroelectric power. Peters, the old Mi'kmaq guide, took issue with that.

"When Mersey Paper built those dams, they flooded Lake Rossignol. They flooded the best moose feed in the western part of Nova Scotia," recalled Peters in Guides of the North Woods.

"See, moose can't live on just fir and maple browse. They got to have rocky polypod, princess pine, lily roots. They got to have all these aquatic plants, as well as highland plants like ground hemlock. Well the moose needs this. When the ground hemlock dies, or is flooded out, the moose migrate, but in western Nova Scotia there is no place to migrate to."

There remains a small moose population in western Nova Scotia.

But they're not overly healthy. The carcasses brought to McBurney often have testicular abnormalities and deformed antlers - not signs that they're not getting enough food but that they're not getting enough variety.

That's what Henry Peters thought, too.

"All that happened to our moose is simply malnutrition," he said in the book.

"He got sick, got lazy. He'd hang around the swamps; he'd grow long hair and ticks would take over."

To get away from the white-tailed deer and the brain worm, the few moose that remain have moved to higher ground like the Cobequid Hills, which has the mainland's largest population, and barrens.

"The moose have been pushed not to the areas that they would choose to live but where they can live," said Peter MacDonald, a large-mammal biologist for the Natural Resources Department.

So what's the future for the mainland moose? It doesn't look good, warns MacDonald.

Nova Scotia is the southern end of the moose's range. Global warming will likely take a further toll.

But there are efforts to save the mainland moose.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada has been buying up land on the Chignecto Isthmus that connects Nova Scotia to New Brunswick for its aptly named moose sex corridor.

John Wile, 63, a Brookdale, Cumberland County, wildlife biologist and outdoorsman, has spent 30 years tramping about the area.

"You're looking at a 34,000-acre block of fairly undeveloped land; there are few places like that left in Nova Scotia," said Wile.

"There's almost every kind of wetland you can think of out there, then there's Acadian forest and lakes that provide a habitat for a wide variety of species."

About a third of the isthmus that allows the Cobequid Hills population of moose to mix with stronger populations in southern New Brunswick is protected under the Town of Amherst's water supply or by the province.

The nature conservancy has bought up about 800 hectares in the last five years, and Wile, who scopes the land for the conservancy, hopes they can increase that.

"I don't know how many chances you get to conserve that big a block of land.

"So, for me, that's pretty neat."

Aaron Beswick