National Column: Mighty Ontario moose need our help to survive

by Thomas Walkom

The World Wildlife Fund predicts the mass extinction of numerous animal species unless humankind mends its ways. That’s the bad news.

Ontario’s environment commissioner has highlighted the moose as one such species under threat. But she has suggested a few modest ways to slow that trend.

That’s the not-quite-so-bad news.

The World Wildlife Fund’s apocalyptic Living Planet report briefly dominated the media when it was released on Thursday. It notes that vertebrates are under pressure around the world. It estimates that the overall population of such animals has declined by 58 per cent since the 1970s and predicts that, unless serious remedial action is taken, this proportion will reach 67 per cent by the end of the decade.

It warns of what it calls “mass extinction” – on a scale not seen in millennia.

But these disappearing species are not just limited to exotic animals such as elephants and hippopotami.

As Ontario environmental commissioner Dianne Saxe noted in her annual report on Wednesday, the
phenomenon of mass extinction also affects animals in this province.

Of these, none is more iconic than the moose. Even for those who have never seen one, the massive animal represents Ontario.

Moose have been so common that, in some parts of the province, road signs warn drivers against hitting them.

But as Saxe warns, they are not that common anymore. The moose population has declined by 20 per cent over the past decade to just 92,300 animals.

To put that into perspective, there are more licensed moose hunters in Ontario (98,000) than there are moose.

In almost half of the province’s moose areas, the number of calves reaching breeding age is insufficient to keep the population stable.

While the reasons for this decline are varied, most are man-made. Logging and road building in the north cut into areas where moose can live.

Warming temperatures associated with climate change increase the number of diseases and parasites that affect moose.

Hunters kill them.

In 2014, 3,621 adult moose and 1,429 calves were legally shot and killed by licensed hunters.

Aboriginal hunters, who do not need licences, shot and killed an unspecified number on top of this.

In other words, at least 5 per cent of Ontario’s remaining moose population was wiped out in one year.

Saxe acknowledges that hunting is just one cause of the moose crisis. But she notes, correctly, that it is one area over which the Ontario government has control.

In her report, she balks at calling for more restrictions on the moose hunt, opting instead for the more politically palatable solution of better reporting.

Similarly, she does not recommend the government takes action to protect moose habitat from, say, logging companies. Instead, she suggests that it study the problem.

But the logic of her report is clear. If Ontario’s Liberal government wants to arrest the decline of Ontario’s moose population, it must at the very least do two things.

First, it must suspend the annual hunts. Second, it must take measures to protect moose habitat.

The other iconic species in danger of disappearing from Ontario are amphibians such as frogs, toads and salamanders.

Again, mankind is the reason. Saxe points to the disappearance of wetlands as the primary reason. She notes that the government has so far taken no action on a habitat protection plan recommended seven years ago by a previous environmental commissioner.

And she points out that the government actively subsidizes the destruction of wetlands through a provincial act that gives farmers grants to drain sodden property.

Saxe recommends the government ban the construction of roads and other infrastructure in wetlands.

And she notes that while Ontario has an endangered species act on its books, it tends to ignore its requirements. She recommends that it remedy that casual behaviour.

All of these are reasonable and modest suggestions. They may not on their own prevent what the World Wildlife Fund calls the sixth mass extinction event (the fifth included the destruction of the dinosaurs).

But we could possibly save the moose and a toad or two.

Thomas Walkom’s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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