Once More Unto the Isthmus: Our Bridge to the Mainland and the Moose Who Must Cross

That sliver of land connecting Nova Scotia to the rest of North America is known as the Chignecto Isthmus, functioning more as a concept than a bridge with hard borders, its thousands of relevant acres our only defence against islandhood.

In case you like the idea of such oceanic isolation it’s important to give our isthmus its due, shaping local ecology in ways which are difficult to overstate. As it’s been described to me, Nova Scotia is part of the Northern Appalachian-Acadian Ecoregion, an assemblage of New England states and Atlantic provinces which are ecologically alike. Provided they remain connected these neighbourhoods can support one another, exchanging plants and animals to encourage ecological health, even inspire recovery.

Without the isthmus, however – one of the narrowest corridors in the entire region – we would be on our own, any loss to local biodiversity unrecoverable and the future of our endangered species all the more uncertain. But while the Chignecto Isthmus still supports our roadways, its openness to animals is an entirely different matter.

In a very real way, Nova Scotia is already an island.

Divided and Conquered

Few mammals struggle more so than the mainland moose of Nova Scotia, the loss of habitat and persistence of poaching leaving them alarmingly fragmented and numbering no more than a thousand; some say far fewer.

Craig Smith is program director of the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) provincial branch, and last year he described our local moose to me solemnly. No provincial population could be considered large, he said; some, such as that occupying the Chebucto Peninsula south of Halifax, number 15-20 in all, only a small fraction of whom would be of breeding age.

“The impacts of fragmentation manifest in animal health as an overall reduced level of fitness,” said Craig, a consequence of lessened genetic diversity. He went on to say this is accompanied by a drop in reproductive success and increased susceptibility to parasites and disease, both of which have made themselves known among provincial moose.

Without the input of new genetic material, even our largest population in the Cobequid Hills – numbering perhaps 400 – will stagnate in time. Craig said the addition of even a single individual from New Brunswick would be enough to sustain this population for decades, but with the state of our isthmus, this has become less and less likely.

The Chignecto Isthmus has been subjected to settlement for centuries now, its development going back to the time of the Acadians. On our New Brunswick border community expansion and agriculture have swallowed considerable space, accompanied more recently by forestry. Craig said the Town of Amherst alone takes up roughly a third.

By way of roads, homes, fields and clearcuts, the opportunities for wildlife to cross into Nova Scotia are substantially limited in a time when they’re needed most. But for the sake of our moose and others, an organized effort has conspired to keep this corridor open.

Eastern Moose
Shown above is an Eastern moose.
Mike Dembeck photo

Acre By Acre

“We need an influx of moose from New Brunswick,” Craig told me, thought to number 28,000 strong on their side of the border. More important than the numerical bump this influx would mean to local populations are the genes coming with. Even a few individuals could make a tremendous difference.

The NCC is a land trust and, in my considered opinion, is among the most important national charities we’ve got. Where our federal and provincial governments have the power to protect public land – exercised all too rarely – trusts like the NCC acquire and protect private land with the express goal of keeping it forever wild.

Commonly these lands are either purchased or donated and because the NCC depends completely on donations, they must focus their resources where they’re most needed. Typically this means acquiring undisturbed lands in areas of outstanding ecology, but in the case of the isthmus, all land is good land.

While the provincial governments of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have taken steps to safeguard the isthmus – such as the recent Chignecto Isthmus Wilderness Area – much of these lands are private, making the NCC an indispensable player. All told, they’ve acquired some 25-30 properties on both sides of the isthmus, for which Craig credits landowners themselves.

“These are not wealthy people,” Craig told me. “Most of them are not in a position to donate their land outright, but they are willing to sell to us for something perhaps less than what they could get if they sold to a forestry contractor or on the open market.”

The farther north you travel, the more intact this isthmus becomes, said Craig, so their properties have focused there, amounting to roughly 3,300 acres. If we add together all the isthmus’ protected lands this number grows to over 6,000 acres in Nova Scotia and 5,000 acres in New Brunswick. In the course of the next decade, the NCC and its partners are aiming for 25,000 and 50,000 acres respectively.

“We’re in a very expensive business, but it’s also a permanent business,” said Craig. “It costs a lot to buy land and even if people are donating it, there are still significant expenses incurred. We need people to do everything they can to contribute.”

In a time when the isthmus is secure, Craig and his colleagues hope to think bigger, connecting this rebuilt wilderness bridge with moose populations across the province, particularly Cobequid Hills.

Give Us Your Farmed, Your Clearcut

It’s rare the NCC will acquire developed land, focusing their time and money on preservation rather than restoration, but the isthmus is important for its positioning, not for its being pristine. So while the protected lands along it contain one of our province’s largest wetland complexes as well as habitat for innumerable species of seabird, songbird and migratory waterfowl, they also contain farmland and woodlots.

One such parcel, purchased by New Brunswick resident Bruce Coates in the 1970s, hosted both, its forested regions subject to selective cuts and its fields yielding regular hay. Of course that’s not all Bruce used it for, taking several fond walks through its wild flowers and wealth of Balsam fir.

By 2014, as Bruce began farming less and less, he’d come to recognize this property as a special place…a place he never wanted to see developed. So when the NCC approached him with an offer, he didn’t ask for more or solicit other bids. The property changed hands that year.

On June 17 of last year I visited Bruce’s property, alongside a platoon of NCC volunteers in rubber boots and rain coats. Our focus was this property’s farmland which, if left to its own devices, would fill in with white spruce and take its sweet time maturing into something moose friendly. So with shovels and planting bag we each took part in giving this burgeoning forest a boost with the addition of 2,500 late-successional trees.

I was fortunate enough to be partnered with Bruce himself, a retired combat engineer with the Royal Canadian Navy who hopes to soon retire from agriculture as well, his other properties still in production. We two were assigned a stretch of field and together began our restorative work, bestowing seedlings to the ready soil in sequence – red spruce, white pine, repeat.

We were among the first teams to finish, our efficiency contested loudly by other volunteers. We must have been throwing our extra seedlings into the ditch, one claimed, while another suggested Bruce a new nickname – Spruce.

With our early freedom Bruce offered me a tour of the adjacent forest and, given my wetness from the rain and the layers of mud caking my clothing, I figured there was no risk of additional discomfort. The mosquitoes proved me wrong of course. So thorough was my prosecution that my hands were constantly in motion, brushing them off. Bruce had the forethought to apply bug repellent.

This small kingdom of Balsam fir was gorgeous, with flowers filling all available space and old man’s beard hanging from every purchase. Now and again I saw Bruce’s cuts of this lot, as well as the small gaps made by the NCC so a greater diversity of trees could be planted within.

Had the wetlands not stopped us, forming a natural barrier on all sides, Bruce and I might have reached the provincial border, exemplifying this property’s importance to the isthmus. Bruce has personally seen moose nearby as well as their footprints on his fields, and if the NCC has their way, these magnificent animals will treat this opened corridor as an invitation to the vacant corners of our province.

Red Spruce
Shown above is a Red spruce seedling, planted on old farmland within the isthmus.
Zack Metcalfe photo

Stampede of All Sorts

The moose is this project’s flagship species, the most endearing of our indigenous wildlife as well as the most obviously affected, but by no means are they the only ones in need of the isthmus.

Nova Scotia has lost much of its wildness along the way, some of which can’t return given our islandhood. While most other provinces are surrounded by sources of new life, our only avenue is the undone isthmus, possessing a special significance and so deserving of special protection.

I would like nothing more than to see a wild moose on the home front, but for as long as I’ve lived here, that’s required a stroke of unprecedented luck. Perhaps soon we can do better.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with Rural Delivery Magazine.

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