Better management of moose habitat is often put forward as a way to improve populations of moose. Lately, this aspect of moose management has been getting more attention in Ontario, as well as in other jurisdictions where moose populations have declined. But managing moose habitat isn’t easy.
In forested landscapes, moose thrive best where there is a combination of young and old stands of trees, which in proximity provide moose with food and shelter. Historically, moose populations did best in areas where fires, blowdown or insect infestations occurred. Fire was especially important, as fires were frequent and widespread. However, these days, because of fire suppression efforts, much less of the forest is getting burnt. Data in Ontario suggests that before fire suppression, about 1.54% of the forest burnt every year. These days, it’s closer to .17% – or only about 10% of what it used to be.
Until recently, that didn’t really matter, because of logging. Not too many years ago, about 530,000 acres of forest was cut annually on Crown (public) land in Ontario, and most of that in northern Ontario where moose roam. With the collapse of the pulp and paper industry, which started a little more than 10 years ago, the harvest area is now only about 1/2 of what it used to be. Less area burnt and logged has resulted in less ideal moose habitat (the best feeding areas are forest stands less than 25 years of age).
And that’s not the only problem. These days, the goal of forest management practices is mainly to emulate natural processes, or to make a cut area look as much like a burn as possible. Both legislation and government policies dictate this approach, even though most scientists believe this “cornerstone of sustainable forest management” is probably not valid, because logging is a physical process while fire is a chemical process.
In Ontario, there are provisions to manage for moose habitat, but only through an approved forest management plan and only if specific areas, called “moose emphasis areas” are identified. From what I can gather, there have been few moose emphasis areas identified in recently approved forest management plans. What I’ve been hearing is that the reasons for this are the ‘crisis’ in in the forest products industry (managing for better moose habitat is an added cost that is best avoided) and there are few who have the knowledge and skill set required to implement the approved moose habitat guidelines.
Obviously then, moose habitat management in Ontario is a problem. But even if better moose habitat management was to occur, results (more moose) will be slow to see. It would likely take a number of years to noticeably improve habitat conditions, and better habitat alone won’t result in more moose if mortality, especially from hunting, predation and disease, isn’t reduced.