The OFAH is always pushing the MNRF to invest in moose science and, if necessary, we’ll roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves. We’ve been very clear that we want the MNRF to take a whole-ecosystem approach to moose management. This means considering all the factors that influence moose populations. Harvest by Indigenous and non-indigenous hunters plays an important role but so do other factors like predation, habitat, climate, disease, and parasites. An ecosystem approach needs to be informed by science, so to support of this we are currently partnering on a research project to see how prescribed fire and forestry affect moose parasites in Northwestern Ontario.
Brainworm and moose
Brainworm is a parasite that is common in nearly all white-tailed deer populations in North America, including Ontario’s. This parasite lives in the membranes that surround the deer’s brain and spinal cord and does not harm the deer. However, when brainworm gets into moose, the parasites effectively get “lost” and burrow through the brain and spinal cord. This causes severe neurological problems in the moose, often leading to death. Research in neighbouring Minnesota has found that brainworm accounts for 25-35% of adult moose mortality and presents a serious conservation concern.
What do slugs and snails have to do with moose?
Understanding what influences the spread of brainworm is a major research priority. Brainworm does not spread directly from deer to deer or from deer to moose. Instead, it passes through slugs and snails, what are known as intermediate hosts. Studies in Minnesota and on Isle Royale in Lake Superior have looked at how differing forestry practices (managed versus wilderness) influence slug and snail communities and the resulting levels of brainworm, but the big unknown is what role fire plays. For public safety and economic reasons, forest fires are usually suppressed in Ontario and logging is used to drive the habitat change needed to create moose habitat. But we really don’t know the different impacts of logging vs. fire on slug and snail communities and, through that, on brainworm. We really need to.
A made-in-Ontario moose research project
An opportunity presented itself to help us better understand this complicated system of fires and logging, slugs and snails, moose and deer. Through his participation in a Local Citizens’ Committee, OFAH Director-at-Large and chair of the OFAH Big Game Advisory Committee Neil Wiens learned that Greenmantle Forest Inc. was planning a prescribed burn in the Nipigon area. Prescribed burns are pretty rare in Ontario and this was a chance to use the burn as a stand-in for a natural forest fire. There have been other studies on this but they took place after a burn had already occurred. Being able to get on the ground before the burn to collect baseline data makes this study unique.
Who’s helping to make it happen?
Mr. Wiens and I were able to pull together a collaboration including Dr. Seth Moore, the Director of Biology and Environment for the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa and an expert on moose and brainworm, and Jean MacIsaac, Greenmantle Forest Inc.’s Silviculture Manager. Working together they came up with an experiment where slugs and snails would be collected prior to the burn in 2020 and then again in the years following the burn. In addition to looking at the effects of fire, the study will also look at the effects of standard logging and herbicide treatments, comparing it all to a section of forest being left alone.
The OFAH provided funding through our Fish and Wildlife Fund and Greenmantle staff, supported by volunteers, collected slugs and snails from seventy-five different sites across three different study areas. All the slugs and snails have been sent to Dr. Moore and colleagues at the University of Minnesota to be identified and tested for brainworm.
OFAH trying to help piece together a complex moose puzzle
Planning the collection ahead of the burn that could have happened as soon as September 1st was an ambitious project for such a tight timeline, but thanks to quick action and some extra effort from everyone involved, we laid a solid foundation for uncovering an important part of the moose puzzle.
This is a great example of how the OFAH works. We are committed to working on all aspects of moose hunting and management. Whether we’re advocating for sustainable hunting opportunities, pushing for increased investment in moose aerial inventories, or making sure needed research happens, we are not leaving any stone unturned.