ome things have become synonymous with Canada: politeness, hockey, maple syrup. Moose, too, would probably fit into that category.
Estimates put the number of moose in Canada at nearly 1 million, fanned out across almost all of the country’s provinces. They are enormous creatures — on average, moose stand well over 6 feet tall and can weigh more than 1,400 pounds, making them the largest land mammals in North America. That means a lot of mouths to feed, many times a day.
“Moose in high abundances are quite damaging,” said Schmitz. Moose feed heavily on woody vegetation throughout the boreal forest, favoring shoots and leaves from trees. This hinders the ability of plants to photosynthesize, reducing their ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Furthermore, cold soil in the boreal forest makes for an ideal carbon cycle, as plants not only absorb carbon to produce clean air, but the absorbed carbon gets stored underground, keeping it from escaping into the atmosphere. If this carbon cycle is undisturbed, Schmitz estimates that the entirety of Canada’s boreal forest ecosystem can store enough carbon each year to offset all of the country’s yearly fossil fuel emissions. (Canada is one of the 10 highest carbon emitters
in the world.)
Efforts are now being made across Canada to control the moose population, almost entirely through recreational hunting. But little effort is being made to conserve the primary predator of moose, the wolf, which can exert important control over moose populations.
The reason for that, Schmitz said, is because wolves also kill caribou, a highly threatened species and also culturally significant animal in Canada. Factors like oil and gas development and logging have forced moose to migrate across and into new landscapes to find food — landscapes that are home to caribou. As moose have expanded their territory, wolves have followed, with the caribou becoming collateral damage.
So, what to do? An article in the August 30, 2017, issue of The New York Times
highlighted a study led by Robert Serrouya, a biologist at the University of Alberta, that monitored the three species in British Columbia for a decade. The findings of that study posited that by hunting moose, there would be fewer wolves and more caribou. Some conservation organizations and wildlife management agencies, Schmitz said, have advocated for cutting out the middleman and simply hunting wolves.
Eliminating the predator from the equation, however, could mean devastating consequences for the carbon cycle.
“This should be a win-win,” said Schmitz. “Not only could we conserve all of the animals and conserve biodiversity, we would maintain their functional roles and conserve the landscape’s entire ecosystem. This would protect that carbon cycle.
“Top predators are already disappearing at a rate faster than other species. Yet at the same time, we’re learning the profound importance they have on functioning ecosystems. Their loss could diminish opportunities of managing climate change in the future.”