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Moose are at risk of disappearing from mainland Nova Scotia.

Courtesy of Bob Bancroft

Nina Newington was guiding her pickup truck down a gravel logging road in southwestern Nova Scotia in October, a half an hour from any paved roadway, when she saw it: a 900-acre-sized wasteland where old-growth trees used to be.

“The forest, it was just gone,” she recalled. “It was like driving into the largest parking lot you’ve ever seen.”

This land, in the wooded heart of Digby County, is one of the last few remaining patches of untouched Acadian forest left in the province. And it’s home to an endangered moose population, those solitary giants of the woods that once roamed widely but are now believed to number fewer than 100 on mainland Nova Scotia.

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The sight of the forest gutted by clear-cutting prompted Ms. Newington, a 62-year-old author and activist, to organize a blockade of Crown land to protect this unique habitat.

She’s among a growing number of Nova Scotians turning to acts of civil disobedience to put pressure on the provincial government for a moratorium on clear-cutting in areas where moose are known to live. Ms. Newington was one of nine people, many of them women in their 60s and 70s, arrested in December when they refused to leave their blockade. One of their group, 25-year-old Jacob Fillmore, has been staging a hunger strike outside the provincial legislature since March 8.

Moose, while abundant in Newfoundland and Labrador, Cape Breton and New Brunswick, are at risk of disappearing from mainland Nova Scotia. A 2017 aerial study commissioned by Nova Scotia estimated there could be as few as 85 of the animals left on the province’s mainland. Conservationists say clear-cutting by the forestry sector is a main culprit.

“We didn’t have time to waste. We had to do something,” said Mr. Fillmore, who says he’s been surviving on water and broth. “This is something I can do to try to make my government take action.”

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Conservationists have been advocating for Nova Scotia’s moose, declared an endangered species by the province in 2003, through petitions, rallies and the courts. They accuse the provincial government of doing little since it declared the population at-risk, in part because of disappearing habitat and forestry industry practices.

Nova Scotia adopted a recovery plan for mainland moose in 2007, but activists say lobbying from the forestry industry has prevented any meaningful protection measures from being implemented. A wildlife corridor established by the Nature Conservancy of Canada to encourage moose from New Brunswick to migrate to Nova Scotia also appears to have had little impact on the dwindling population.

“We’ve been hammering away at this for a long time, but nothing is happening,” said Bob Bancroft, a retired wildlife biologist who’s now president of Nature Nova Scotia, a conservation group.

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Bob Bancroft, a retired wildlife biologist who’s now president of Nature Nova Scotia, a conservation group.

Picasa/Courtesy of Bob Bancroft

Mr. Bancroft, who used to record moose sightings, droppings and tracks for the province, is among a group who took the provincial government to court over the issue. Last May, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court sided with the conservationists, saying the province has failed to live up to its legal obligations to protect at-risk species, including moose.

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A key government report that recommends reducing clear-cutting and turning a portion of Nova Scotia’s Crown land into protected zones has yet to be implemented by the province. The new Premier, Iain Rankin, campaigned for his job on an environmentally progressive agenda, but so far has rejected calls for a temporary moratorium on clear-cutting.

Nova Scotia doesn’t have to look far to see what can happen when the plight of the moose is ignored. Moose were wiped out in Cape Breton in the 1930s because of habitat destruction and overhunting. The moose that live on the island now, separated from the mainland by the Canso Strait, trace their origins to a genetically distinct Alberta herd reintroduced to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park after the Second World War. Biologists don’t want them mixing with the mainland variety.

Roughly half of Nova Scotia’s forests have been harvested since mechanization introduced large-scale clear-cutting to the province in the 1980s, Mr. Bancroft said. That machinery requires a vast network of logging roads, which opened up dense patches of Nova Scotia’s interior to predators and poachers, while removing larger amounts of woods that moose need to roam, he said.

“The roads went into those places where I used to count the moose, and the whole thing changed,” he said. “The rate of forest removal has just accelerated so much.”

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Mr. Bancroft also blames a growing market for wood chips, shipped overseas to be burned in biomass energy plants, for increasing the rate at which Nova Scotia’s forests are being harvested on shorter and shorter rotations – a practice that doesn’t allow the forest to mature. That’s a problem for moose, who need a mix of older hardwood and softwood trees for food and shelter, he said.

“It’s like a great vacuum cleaner going across the forest floor,” he said. “What moose need is actually the opposite of what the companies are doing.”

The general manager for WestFor, a management consortium for a group of Nova Scotia sawmills, said the kind of restrictions activists are calling for would cause the industry to grind to a halt and create a shortage of forestry products. He argues with proper forest management, moose habitat can actually be enhanced.

“We continue to believe that a responsible forest industry can be balanced with the need to protect our natural environment, including endangered species such as the mainland moose,” Marcus Zwicker said in a statement. “Forestry and the mainland moose can co-exist and thrive here as they do in many other areas throughout Atlantic Canada and across North America.”

The forestry sector said it’s worth about $2-billion to Nova Scotia’s economy, and indirectly employs more than 11,000 people. But it’s also an industry under pressure to find new markets – more than three million metric tonnes of forest products were harvested in Nova Scotia in 2019, about half of what was taken out of the woods in 2005, according to the province’s annual Registry of Buyers.

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Forestry Nova Scotia, an advocacy group that represents the industry, did not respond to an interview request. Neither did the province’s Department of Lands and Forestry.

Ms. Newington said the forestry sector is trying to harvest as much as it can before any potential restrictions are brought in. What they’re leaving behind is an ecological desert, she said.

“It’s an industry in a death spiral, and they’re in a clear-cutting frenzy to get the last of what they can before change comes,” Ms. Newington said. “We saw this happening, and we had to take a stand on the land.”

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