Meet one of Ontario’s most elusive residents: The white moose

You’ve probably never seen one — few have. But experts say their numbers may be on the rise
By Claude Sharma - Published on December 4, 2018
white moose in Sweden
White moose are rare, but they live wherever moose live — including in Sweden, where this one was photographed last year. (Tommy Pedersen/CP)

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SUDBURY — One afternoon in October 1990, Jane Armstrong and her sister set off paddling down a creek on Groundhog Lake, intending to trap some beavers. Along the way, they spotted a trio of moose on the shore. There was nothing unusual about that — moose are common in the area. What was unusual was that the cow and two calves were white.

Growing up in Foleyet, a hamlet 100 kilometres west of Timmins with fewer than 200 people, Armstrong had heard stories about white moose in the area; her father had talked about having seen one half a century earlier. But this was the first time Armstrong had seen any herself — even though, when she was young, she’d regularly set up trap lines in the bush for her father, and catching, skinning, and selling wild animals to fur buyers had been part of the family business.

“It was quite a surprise,” says Armstrong, 71. “Of course, we had no camera. You just don’t ever think you’d see something like that.”

Nowadays, of course, people carry smartphones, and when northern Ontarians spot a moose with a white coat — as they do at least every few years — they post the evidence online. Such sightings often then hit the local news. In October, a couple from Timmins saw two of the animals on Highway 101, near their hometown. A year earlier, another pair had been spotted in a neighbouring forest . (And white moose aren’t unique to Ontario; they’re found wherever moose live — including in Sweden, where this magnificent specimen was photographed.)

The white moose on the evening news aren’t albino — they simply have white fur. Frank Mallory, a biology professor at Laurentian University, says that the snowy coat is caused by a recessive gene.

Mallory believes that white moose are more common today than they were in the past. He’s basing this on anecdotal evidence, as there’s no reliable data on their prevalence: they don’t constitute a distinct species, so Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry doesn’t keep tabs on them. “For us biologists, they have the same role as the traditional moose,” says Emilie Kissler, a scientist with the northeast region of the MNRF. “They eat the same thing. They use the landscape in a similar fashion.”

Habitat fragmentation may have caused the boost in numbers that Mallory says he’s observed. “As we have more roads, you put in farmland, which creates an ecological barrier,” he says. “Animals can’t move and disperse like they did in the past.” As a result, “they’re inbreeding increasingly, and we have these recessive genes being expressed.”

Armstrong’s encounter with the animal resulted in far more than a quirky anecdote. For 15 years,  she fought to have white moose protected from hunters, sending letters to the provincial government and others. Northeastern Ontario municipalities, animal activists, and Indigenous groups joined her cause.

Many Indigenous communities have a special connection with the animal. In 2013, for example, Mi'kmaq communities in Cape Breton were outraged after hunters killed a white moose and displayed their catch online. At the time, Mi'kmaq hunter Danny Paul told the CBC, “We are not to harm them in any way, shape, or form, because they could be one of our ancestors coming to remind us of something significant that's going to happen within our communities.”

In 2005, Armstrong and friends got their wish: the Ministry of Natural Resources passed legislation prohibiting the hunting of moose that are more 50 per cent white-coloured, in certain parts of northern Ontario, including areas near Timmins, Chapleau, and Foleyet.

White moose may be safe from hunters, but they’re sadly unprotected from the CN railway line that cuts through Foleyet. Armstrong says that in the ’90s, a white moose was hit by a train. Her nephew, the owner of the Northern Lights restaurant, mounted the moose’s head in his eatery. Since then, people passing through Foyelet have been guaranteed a white-moose sighting — of sorts.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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