Moose are an incredibly vital species here in the Peace region. They are culturally and spiritually important for First Nations, as well as being an important food source. Moose are also valued by the public, including licensed hunters, and are an important part of our ecosystem.
Recent studies have shown that moose population numbers are declining in the western portion of the Peace region. In the Parsnip sub-region, moose numbers dropped from around 3,000 in 2005 to approximately 1,000 in 2018.
To better understand what’s limiting local moose populations—the conditions that threaten them—the Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program (FWCP) funded the multi-year, Moose Limiting Factors research project led by Wildlife Infometrics that wrapped up in 2020. The final project report is available now.
Beginning in 2016, the study monitored moose in the Williston Reservoir Watershed. One-hundred female moose, called cows, were captured and outfitted with GPS collars so that biologists could track their movements as well as their habitat use, the number of calves born, the rate and timing and causes of moose mortality and other factors.
The condition of the female moose at time of capture was generally good, with only three individuals recorded as “poor.” Most moose had no evidence of ticks—89% in West Parsnip and 80% in Moberly—and only two individuals had a high tick load. Ticks are an external parasite, feeding on the animal's blood and can cause anemia. The moose’s skin also becomes inflamed and they change their behaviour, spending more time grooming, rubbing against trees until their fur comes off, and less time eating. Severe infestations may also result in significant blood loss.
Of the hundred collars, 54 were on cows west of the Parsnip Arm (the “West Parsnip”) and 44 in the area of the Moberly River Watershed (the “Moberly”). The remaining two collars failed. The GPS collars were set to record cow locations once a day at 9 a.m. If an animal didn’t move for more than four hours, the collar sent out a mortality signal. Crews would fly or drive out as soon as possible—ideally within 48 hours—to determine the cause of death.
For three years, survey crews monitored the status of calves that were with the collared cows. They flew out to the study areas at the end of June to check on calf survival, in December to tally summer/fall survival, and in March to estimate recruitment—the number of calves that survived the year and were added to the population.
To conduct these surveys, crews set out in helicopters armed with the latest downloaded locations and aerial telemetry to find collared cows. Once crews located a cow, they noted observations like whether or not she was with a calf or calves, her general location, weather conditions, the type of habitat she was in, and snow depth and cover—depending on the season.
Thirty collared cows died over the course of the study: 17 in the West Parsnip and 13 in the Moberly. A leading cause of death in both study areas was predation, either by wolves or bears. On average, annual survival rates were high (90% in the West Parsnip and 94% in the Moberly). The number of calves that were born and survived varied by year and study area, but annual population growth rates—which are calculated using adult female survival and calf recruitment—were more likely positive than negative, which points to a stable or increasing moose population.
Supporting stable moose populations means looking for opportunities to conserve and enhance their preferred habitat types. Although further research is needed to deepen our understanding of limiting factors for moose, this study showed that moose selected habitat with high forage values—areas with lots of food—and they avoided roads and young cutblocks.
Given this finding, and the fact that predation is a significant cause of moose mortality, restoring habitat by increasing forage and reducing access for predators is a positive enhancement opportunity. So, in 2021, the FWCP is funding a Seed Grant project that will support the development of an application for a large, multi-phased moose habitat enhancement project near McLeod Lake. We’re also funding a project that will support the development of a joint moose and caribou habitat restoration and protection plan by the Tsay Keh Dene Nation.
This study taught us a lot about moose in the Peace region and gave us the knowledge we need to support conservation action through projects that restore their habitat and where more research is needed to further understand the factors limiting moose in the region.
Chelsea Coady is the Peace Region manager for the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program. Have a question? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.