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Protect the moose

As moose populations in La Verendrye Park collapse, the Anishnabe have the answers

As governments and the public gather in Tiohtià:ke (so-called Montreal) for the UN Conference on Biodiversity, Indigenous peoples are reminding us of their long history of sustainably managing diverse and abundant ecosystems, as is the case with Anishnabe people in La Verendrye Wildlife Park.

Since time immemorial, Anishnabe people have been the caretakers of the land in and around the La Verendrye Wildlife Park near Val D’or, Quebec, and developed complex traditional ecological knowledge about the needs of the land and its inhabitants. They specifically rely on moose for healthy food, clothing, and ceremony.

However, the community has, in the last 15 years, noticed a sharp decline in the moose population. Even the Quebec government’s own study shows that moose numbers in the Park have dropped by 35% in the last 12 years, and yet the government has failed to take adequate action to address it. In response to this shocking decline in a once stable population, the Anishnabe communities in and around the Park came together to form the Anishnabe Moose Committee in 2021, and conducted the most in-depth study to date on the region’s moose population. The report pointed to sport hunting, logging, and climate change as the cause of the population collapse.

This steep decline in the moose population raises a number of questions: What economic, political, and social forces have contributed to the decline in the moose population? Where can we go from here? This analysis explores the role that forestry, mining, sport hunting, and resource management by colonial governments has played on this ecosystem and the moose – and people – that have lived here for millennia.

Moose, Anishnabe history, and the colonialization of La Verendrye Park

La Verendrye Wildlife Park, over 12,000 square kilometers of land 300 kilometres northwest of Montreal, is on unceded Algonquin Anishnabe land. Indeed, the Park was established in the 1950s without any treaty or agreement with the Anishnabe when highway 117, connecting Mont Laurier and Val d’Or, was constructed to open the region to tourism and sport hunting. In the process, the Quebec government displaced Anishnabe communities living on the land, banning them from settling, hunting, trapping, fishing within ten miles of the highway, setting aside a measly 59-acre plot of land to set up the Algonquin of Barriere Lake reserve. “Government and industry have been voraciously extracting resources from our territories, taking from our communities and lands and harming the moose, and offering very little in return,” the Anishnabe Moose Committee report quotes. “An estimated $100 million is extracted from their traditional territory annually in logging, hydro, and sport fishing/hunting revenues, but the Algonquins don’t see a dime of it,” wrote Shiri Pastenak.

Overhunting is harming the moose

To the Quebec government, the Park has always served as a revenue source from hunting, not to steward the ecosystems or the moose that live there. The sale of hunting permits pays for the cost of building and maintaining Highway 117 when it was established. In 1964, just 14 years after establishing the park, the Quebec government began a pilot project, in agreement with the Algonquin community of Barriere Lake, where they would open up the park for the hunting of moose for five years. The government of Quebec then extended the pilot to 15 years without consultation or consent from Barriere Lake and began bringing in wealthy American hunters and establishing game wardens. By 1979, the government of Quebec unilaterally designated La Verendrye as a Reserve Faunique (“Wildlife Reserve”), which counter-intuitively allowed forestry and hunting by settlers.

The focus on revenue affects the way the Quebec government manages the moose population. The Anishnabe study suggests the government is selling too many permits in an attempt to attract out-of-province and international hunters from the United States and Europe. To create a “favorable offer” for sport hunters, Quebec’s moose management strategy allows for a certain number of females to be hunted within wildlife areas based on a lottery system, even in hunting zones with restrictive (male-only) hunting years. “This economic framework of “offer-and-demand” (where the offer is moose hunting opportunities and the demand is sport hunters’ interests) takes precedence over understanding the needs and rights of the moose and Anishnabeg,” states the AMC report.

Maintaining a stable moose population is of interest to both Anishnabe people and sport hunters. The collapse in moose population due to management practices based on potential revenues from licensing and tourism rather than ecology puts an end to future hunting potential. The moose also plays a critical role in the ecological system, and their collapse could impact the plants, herbivores, and ecosystem stability in the forest. More critically, the moose is a cultural keystone species that the Anishnabe people rely on for food, clothing, and ceremonies.

Logging and other extractive activities play a big role

The government permit large-scale clearcuts in the Park with no consultation of the Anishnabe – even though many Anishnabe people live within the park’s boundaries. The AMC moose study outlined extensively the impacts of large-scale deforestation by Resolute and other forestry operations. Logging affects their food quantity and quality, disturbs and stresses out the moose causing them to shift in movement patterns, reduces their habitat and protective cover, alters the ecosystem balance (number of other herbivores, small animals, etc.), and disturbs the aquatic area and wetland habitats that the moose rely on.

According to an article by Shiri Pastenak, by the 1980s, more than thirty-eight logging companies had leases in the Algonquin of Barriere Lake territory. One of the largest logging companies with an active permit in the Park is Resolute Forest Products.

The horrendous record of Resolute Forest Products

Resolute has been conducting industrial logging in the Park for a long time. In 2013, the community called for, and ultimately set up land protection camp to end clearcutting practices by Resolute Forest Products. Waba Moko, grassroots Anishnabe and one of the co-authors of the AMC report, confirms that Resolute Forest Products is in operation in La Verendrye as of the writing of this blog.

This is not the first time Resolute has been involved in logging that results in serious impacts on Indigenous peoples and their livelihoods, tradition, and health. Resolute, formerly known as Abitibi/Bowater, is one of two logging companies that were responsible for the clearcutting and mercury contamination in Grassy Narrows First Nations. For years, the company logged Grassy Narrows’ traditional territory in the Whiskey Jack Forest, located in Northwestern Ontario, without the community’s consent, resulting in one of the longest standing blockades in Canadian history. In 2008, Resolute surrendered its license in the Whiskey Jack Forest amid a storm of negative publicity and community resistance. The Supreme Court ruled that Resolute and Weyerhaeuser are still responsible for the cleanup of the mercury-contaminated Grassy Narrows site.

According to Greenpeace: “As one of the largest logging companies in Canada’s Boreal Forest, Resolute markets itself as “sustainable”. However, behind these claims are unsustainable forest practices, regulatory infractions, failure to protect endangered species, disregard for Indigenous rights and communities, and “green” products that don’t warrant the name.” The Greenpeace report reveals Resolute’s “sustainable” operations have also attracted over $1 million in fines arising from its forestry practices in Quebec alone between 2003 and 2013, making it the most fined operator in the province.

Mismanagement by Ministry of Forests

The poor practices by Resolute and others in the forestry industry are permitted by a culture of mismanagement by Quebec’s Ministry of Forest, Wildlife and Park (MPFF). An independent investigation initiated by the Order of Forest Engineers revealed a culture of political interference, inconsistent orders, lack of accountability, and industry pressure within MPFF. All internal orders received within the department are aligned to best serve the interests of industry, even when a company is not complying with environmental regulations. An open letter from 67 scientists called for an independent body to manage of the state of the forest, saying that “The apparent bias of the Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks (MFFP) in favor of the forest industry suggests that the other dimensions of forest management are neglected.” Greenpeace has called for a parliamentary inquiry into the ministry in light of these discoveries.

The Anishnabe have been protecting the moose and their land for centuries

To the Anishnabe, the threats to the moose represent threats to their sovereignty and way of life. “When you think of the history of the moose and my people, we go far, far back in time. Sovereignty was our way of life that sustained us. Moose kept us alive, gave us food and shelter, gave us clothes, mukluks, baby clothes, moccasins, drums. They give us ceremony, economy, education, stories … basically: a way to live. The way they protect and provide for us, we have to do the same thing for them now,” said Waba Moko, the coordinator of the Moose Study.

Over the years, Anishnabe communities have set up several protection camps around La Verendrye Wildlife Park to raise awareness of and prevent clearcutting and mining activities and their damage to the land, water, wildlife, and their way of life. In 2013, the community called for an end to clearcutting practices by Resolute Forest Products, permitted by the Quebec government. In 2016, they set up land protection camp again to protest the permitted mining by the Toronto-based Copper One without their consent. Again in 2020, Anishnabe land defenders set up checkpoints throughout the Park to stop moose hunting and demand government action to protect the moose, resulting in a moratorium on moose hunting which will expire at the end of 2022.

The report by AMC tells us something grassroots Anishnabe have known for hundreds of years: we cannot put profit before our shared resources. The moose population’s decline is the latest victim of centuries of ecological damage driven by profit-seeking forestry, mining, hunting practices permitted by our governments. Living on the land, the Anishnabe understand the interconnectedness between the moose, the forest, wetlands, and other living beings that depend on one another. Their countless efforts to protect the forest and moose are another example of Indigenous communities on the frontline resisting colonialism, protecting the land and water, stopping biodiversity loss against extractive industries operating unchecked. From Anishnabe land defenders to Grassy Narrows blockades, Indigenous people continue to remind us that colonialism is the cause of biodiversity loss, and Indigenous people must be part of the solution.

Where do we go from here?

A key message from the recent Anishnabe Moose Committee report is that Anishnabe traditional knowledge is an essential component of protecting the moose.  

The current moratorium on moose hunting that resulted from the blockade in 2020 is set to end this year, and Anishnabe land defenders are calling for an extension of that moratorium and an end to forestry operations in the Park. Through the recent report, the communities once again reiterated that any moose management plan developed in the future must be done alongside Anishnabe people, incorporating their knowledge. In particular, the report recommends that:

  • All forestry operations in La Verendrye Park cease immediately;
  • The moratorium on the sport hunting of moose continue for an additional 2-5 years and be enforced;
  • A comprehensive, multi-methods study be conducted that is co-developed, co-implemented, and informed by the knowledge of the Anishinabe People;
  • The voices of grassroots Anishnabe people living in their traditional family territories be included in the current negotiation process between the Quebec government and the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council and in the development of a moose management plan.   

We ask you to support their call to action, donate to future community-led research, and stand with the Anishnabe to protect the moose, the forest and the Anishnabe rights for current and future generations.

Vi Bui

Vi Bui is the Ontario, Quebec, Nunavut Regional Organizer at the Council of Canadians.