The province moved ahead Oct. 1 with a controversial hunt designed to remove moose from areas where caribou herds are dwindling.
An open season on “antlerless moose” — calves and females — began Oct. 1 in the Omineca region, which surrounds Prince George, B.C. It allows any resident hunter with a moose tag to shoot one moose less than 12 months old in two management units spanning the Parsnip River northeast of the city. It ends Oct. 25.
In addition, 400 limited entry tags, awarded through a lottery system, have been issued allowing hunters to kill one calf or cow moose in regions across the province. More than half of those are focused on the Parsnip River area and two management units north of Revelstoke, where caribou herds are on the brink of disappearing.
According to the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, 322 of the 400 tags issued were for hunting within caribou study areas.
That limited entry hunt program has existed for years, but the government increased the number of permits this fall from the 357 issued last year.
Advocates for the hunt say culling the moose population will mean fewer predators like bear and wolves will enter areas where caribou are struggling to survive and prey on the animals, which are listed as “threatened” under the Species at Risk Act.
Critics say it threatens a sustainable moose population and accuse the province of sacrificing one species for another.
The hunt area near Prince George sits squarely within the traditional territory of McLeod Lake First Nation. Youth Coun. Jayde Duranleau says the province hasn’t consulted about the plan to reduce moose numbers. In addition to having the province’s only open season on calf moose, one-quarter of cow-calf moose tags are within the nation’s territory.
“[The Parsnip] is where our family has been trapping and hunting for generations,” she says. “We like to share best practices, and this is not a best practice of traditional hunting. It’s not a best practice that’s been passed down from generation to generation from our Elders. You didn’t do it. You left the cow-calf and the cow moose alone, because they’re very important for future populations.”
Duranleau said there are no science-based studies indicating the cull will help caribou. “To me, it seems like they’re doing testing at the expense of cow and calf moose,” she said.
McLeod Lake Indian Band is not alone in opposing the cow-calf moose hunt. In the Cariboo region to the south of Prince George, local hunters and First Nations groups held a rally last week opposing the hunting of cow and calf moose. According to Williams Lake resident Dan Simmons, 27 First Nations have written or signed on letters letting the province know about their opposition.
Simmons, who grew up an hour to the east in Horsefly, has opposed the cow-moose hunt for years through his Cow Moose Sign Project, which has produced three billboards and nearly 1,000 signs that have been distributed on forestry roads and First Nations territories across the province and ask hunters to “respect the cow moose” by not hunting them.
While only four cow-calf moose tags were issued this year in the Cariboo region, Simmons says that’s four tags too many.
“I don’t know one person that would participate in our area here,” says Simmons, a lifelong hunter who worked with his father, a guide-outfitter, for years. “Everybody knows our moose populations have been declining for 10, 15 years, and they continue to kill the calves and cows.”
Many who oppose the cow and calf moose cull point to predator control as a more direct and effective solution for keeping caribou on the landscape. While the province ended the grizzly bear hunt in 2017, it has spent millions in recent years controlling wolf numbers near struggling caribou herds.
Experts believe that a multi-pronged approach is needed to recover caribou.
Cole Burton is an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia’s forest resources management department and has been studying the effects of land uses on wildlife in the South Chilcotin Mountains Provincial Park southwest of Williams Lake.
He says that studies show a combination of actions, such as wolf control, maternal penning and moving caribou from healthier herds to ones at risk are all needed.
Burton adds that there’s “mixed evidence” about the effectiveness of culling moose and that in the Parsnip area, the culls have not helped to stabilize caribou numbers.
“I would say there isn’t strong evidence that it’s working, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t work,” he says. “I think, with a lot of these populations, the government realizes that it’s a pretty dire time and we’re seeing these small caribou herds become locally extinct. So, I think there’s a feeling that they want to throw everything they can at it.
“I don’t disagree with that. We know that the caribou problem is linked to these species interactions, the predation that’s driven by the wolves and other predators subsisting on prey like moose or deer in some areas.”
The movement of predators into caribou habitat is also facilitated by human impacts on the landscape, such as logging roads. Moose culls and predator control are seen as interim measures, but Burton says the overarching issue is land use changes that allow predators access into alpine landscapes that once provided refuge for caribou.
“I think a lot of people are sensitive to just focusing on either predator control or the control of other prey like moose without also making sure there’s adequate work on the habitat side,” he says. “You could consider a model where we control predators indefinitely, but I think most people would rather see a balance where we restore enough caribou habitat that the populations can be self-sustaining without having to rely on predator control.”
Although 400 antlerless moose tags were issued this year, not all hunters will be successful. Last year, the province issued 357 cow-calf moose tags, but recorded 79 kills.
The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development declined to comment on the issue during the election period. However, the issue was debated in the legislature over the summer.
On July 30, John Rustad, BC Liberal MLA for Nechako Lakes, questioned Doug Donaldson, the minister responsible, about the province’s decision to expand the hunt.
“There are many people around the province who like to hunt for a living. Obviously, moose is a very important species, as well, for First Nations in terms of food and the population levels of moose are a concern for many areas,” he said.
“Some First Nations have held back from hunting moose because they’re so concerned that the numbers in their particular supply units are too low… does the minister believe it is a good practice for us to be killing baby moose?”
Donaldson responded that the program “was more widespread and more abundantly used” by the previous BC Liberal government. In 2011, he said, hunters killed 584 cow or calf moose, most of them outside caribou recovery areas.
“We not only decreased this practice, compared to when the member was in government — and, I might add, never raised this issue — but we’ve also focused the harvest of cow-calf moose into specific areas around caribou recovery and areas where the moose population can be stabilized at a sustainable level. The two areas, specifically, have been in the Parsnip and Revelstoke areas,” Donaldson said.
He added that moose culls are limited to areas where the population can sustain it.
“Moose populations in the Parsnip herd are stable and the populations of moose in the Revelstoke area are increasing. Again, this is a tool we’re using only in specific circumstances and only where the populations of moose are able to sustain it,” he said.
Burton says while it’s true moose populations are declining in some parts of the province, wildlife is managed based on the state of specific populations and can be tailored to different regions.
“I think it is important for people to understand that there are differences by population and that the government is trying to monitor the outcomes of their actions,” he says.
“I think we can always do better with the monitoring, we can get better data on these populations, including the moose and predators, not just the caribou, but we do have to continue to talk about the habitat condition and what we’re doing to recover the habitat condition.”
Some First Nations in the area who oppose the cow-calf moose hunt have also taken wildlife management into their own hands. The Tŝilhqot’in Nation’s traditional territory lies to the west of Williams Lake. In 2014, the nation won title to 1,800 square kilometres of territory.
Last year, it enacted the Tsilhqot’in Nation Wildlife Law. It has barred all hunters from entering the territory and suspended its own people from hunting until moose numbers recover. That’s already beginning to happen, says Chief Jimmy Lulua of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation, a member of the Tŝilhqot’in Tribal Council.
“Everywhere you look, Native and non-Native, they’re fighting to keep their wildlife just simply because there’s too much logging, too much mining and too much harvesting. We put in our laws to protect them, following our traditional laws, but also looking at their western laws,” he says. In both cases, the laws needed to be re-examined and updated as hunting practices had changed.
Lulua adds that wildlife decisions made in urban legislatures often don’t take into account local knowledge.
“I think that the government needs to rethink and consult with First Nations people, even the guide outfitters,” he says. “If their strategic plan is to starve wolves, I think that’s just ridiculous. They should be looking at too much logging, too much mining, and thinking of a different strategy in how to knock the wolf numbers down.”
The nearby T’exelc or Williams Lake First Nation is also taking on a greater role in wildlife management. This spring, the nation signed an agreement with the Conservation Officer Service to work together on wildlife management within the territory.
The large territory surrounds Williams Lake, a regional hub with a population exceeding 10,000, and attracts hunters from a wide area. Joining forces will help them enforce both provincial and Indigenous laws on the territory, Chief Willie Sellars says.
“People are worried about filling their freezers as opposed to preserving those populations for future generations and that’s definitely concerning,” he says. “By harvesting those [cow-calf] animals, the population will decrease quite significantly, in rapid fashion.”
The nation has issued a moratorium on hunting cow moose to its own membership and Sellars says it would object to the province issuing cow or calf moose tags for non-Indigenous hunters on the territory.
“We’re trying to do our part and monitor what’s being harvested and if there’s any low numbers, whether it’s cow-calf or whatever, I want to make sure we’re preserving for the future generations and doing our part,” he says. “Having the COs [conservation officers] on board helping us police the region is what we envisioned by signing that agreement. It’s going to help us get a better handle on the populations of those animals, whether it’s cow-calf moose, bull moose, deer or elk or caribou.”
At McLeod Lake, Duranleau says the nation will not stop hunters from entering the territory. However, she says it’s time for politicians to start listening to First Nations, who rely on the transfer of traditional knowledge to sustain future wildlife populations.
“It’s really on the shoulders of the politicians to do the right thing,” she says. “We rely on moose for sustenance and we have treaty rights that allow us to hunt. They’re not considering our Section 35 treaty rights and they’re also not considering other ways to help the caribou population, such as more wolf culls and bear culls.”