Bring Back the Boreal: Restoring forest health in the highlands

Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Summary report

A thriving boreal forest is not just about healthy trees, it is important habitat for species who depend on it for survival like moose, hare, birds, squirrels, lynx and American marten. Bring Back the Boreal was a five-year forest restoration project that came to an end in March 2019. This pilot project focused on two areas within Cape Breton Highlands National Park: Skyline trail and North Mountain. Working with our partners, Parks Canada tested different techniques in each area to find the most effective approaches to restoring forest health. These included tree planting and added fencing along a section of the Skyline trail to prevent moose from browsing (eating) young trees, and removing moose from a 20 km2 area on North Mountain.

A huge thanks to the many volunteers, community members and partners involved. From planting trees and assisting with the moose harvest to monitoring ecological work and sharing on social media channels, all these efforts helped engage more Canadians than Parks Canada could have reached alone.

A great deal of data was gathered during this five-year project. What follows is a brief summary of the project. A more detailed report is available upon request at

Bring Back the Boreal: A story about Cape Breton Highlands National Park


Animated title sequence: Bring Back the Boreal: A Story About Cape Breton Highlands National Park

[Narrator] Cape Breton Highlands National Park is known for its spectacular highlands and ocean scenery. Steep cliffs and deep river canyons carve into a forested plateau bordering the Atlantic Ocean. The national park’s beautifully rugged landscape is home to three distinct land regions: Acadian forests of ancient hardwoods and lush softwoods grace the valleys and coastal fringes, boggy wetlands and arid barrens sit way up on the highland plateau, and between the two lies the vast boreal forest, which covers a third of the park. A healthy boreal forest is made up of softwood trees like balsam fir and spruce,

and hardwoods like white birch and mountain ash,

and is home to many animals. Like the red squirrel, Bicknell’s thrush, snowshoe hare, spruce grouse, marten, lynx, moose,

and more. Today, a thick mat of grass is replacing the once thriving forest. The national park’s boreal forest and the lives of the plants and animals who call it home, are threatened. Ecosystems are always changing. The boreal forest is naturally disturbed by large insect outbreaks

and fire. But a healthy boreal forest rejuvenates itself. When older trees die, they make space for younger trees to take their place. There is also balance among animals. When food for herbivores is abundant, predators keep populations from growing unchecked. Each part of the ecosystem is critical to keeping the balance in a healthy boreal forest. To understand what is happening today in Cape Breton Highlands National Park's boreal forest, we need to take a look into the past.

Since time immemorial, the Mi'kmaq have lived in harmony with the boreal forest. Following the arrival of European settlers, moose and wolves disappeared from Cape Breton Island. 40 years later, moose from Elk Island National Park in Alberta were brought across the country and introduced to the park. A new population slowly took hold. In the 1970s, a spruce budworm epidemic killed most of the trees in our boreal forest. Naturally, it began to regenerate and saplings started to grow.

With an abundance of saplings to eat and no natural predator, the moose population exploded.

Today, the saplings are eaten before they have the chance to mature into trees and grass is taking over. If this is left to continue, we could lose our boreal forest to grassland. Whenever we can, we let nature find its own balance. But our boreal forest will not regenerate without help. And that's what Cape Breton Highlands National Park is doing.

We can help the boreal forest find balance again.

Youth, Mi'kmaq, local communities, researchers and park staff are all working side-by-side to help the forest recover. You can get involved, too. Come visit Cape Breton Highlands National Park and see it for yourself. Then, plant a tree to help the restoration process and experience the magic of the boreal forest.

For more information, visit…

[Bring Back the Boreal logo]

[Unama'ki Institute of Natural Resources logo]

Parks Canada logo.

© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by Parks Canada, 2016.

Canada wordmark.

Executive summary

The 2010 State of Parks Report for Cape Breton Highlands National Park identified the forest indicator was in “Fair, Declining” condition, with certain components of the boreal forest showing “Poor and Declining” conditions. A past spruce budworm outbreak combined with a high moose population suppressed forest regeneration, disrupting normal forest succession processes. This resulted in approximately one third of boreal forest area loss, with approximately 12% of the national park having converted to grassland. It was time to intervene and provide nature a helping hand.

Following public and stakeholder consultation, Parks Canada began to implement Bring Back the Boreal, which included testing different reforestation techniques and integrating wildlife population reduction program models from other national parks. In collaboration with the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia, four moose harvests were held in a 20 km² area of North Mountain in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This was combined with active reforestation, planting seedlings, and testing the use of fencing (to exclude moose) to protect forest regeneration on the Skyline trail.

Monitoring was an essential part of this project including tree browse on French Mountain and within the harvest area of North Mountain. Results have been promising with the availability of unbrowsed twigs rising from 46% in 2015 to 86% in 2019, following the final moose harvest.

In terms of public engagement and awareness, a viewing platform within the Skyline trail moose exclosure with interpretive panels received over 61,000 visitors in its first two years of operation. A webcam on the viewing platform had almost 57,000 visits in its first year of operation. Two YouTube videos and a project website resulted in more than 33,000 hits for the project. Outreach associated with the project has resulted in over 4,000 volunteer hours, and engaged 19 partners. This resulted in closer relationships with academic partners, multiple new partnerships, and strengthened relationships with other existing partners.

Bring Back the Boreal met all targets tracked in Parks Canada’s Information Centre for Ecosystems, with the exception of planting 5 hectares of new area high-density softwood seedlings surviving at a density greater than 7,000 stems/hectare. Parks Canada achieved 3.6 hectares surviving at the desired density.

Tree planting

Bring Back the Boreal volunteers planted over 16,000 trees along the Skyline trail. An additional 51,000 trees (white spruce and balsam fir) were planted in proximity to the Skyline trail resulting in 3.6 hectares of high density (greater than 7,000 stems/hectares) and 1.6 hectares at lower density. Since moose prefer eating balsam fir and tend to avoid eating spruce, balsam fir seedlings were planted inside the fence while spruce trees were planted outside the fence. Several different planting techniques were used to help identify which techniques would be most successful under the conditions identified on French Mountain (Skyline trail).

Moose population reduction

Parks Canada worked with the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia, coordinated through the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources, to complete four moose harvests from a 20 km2 area of North Mountain. The harvests removed 138 moose from the area between 2015-2018, with at least 60% of the moose within the area removed each year. These harvests provided 190,440 servings of moose meat to Mi’kmaw and other communities in need across Nova Scotia, as well as moose hides, antler, and other culturally important moose parts for ceremonial use.

Lessons learned

Parks Canada learned a great deal about the boreal ecosystem in Cape Breton Highlands National Park during this project as it touched several difficult ecological and social spheres. Findings showed that if moose access to trees was limited on both North Mountain and French Mountain, trees were able to grow.

Bring Back the Boreal, however, was not without its challenges. The moose harvest component of this pilot project proved an important but difficult one. Harvest operations on North Mountain were complicated by accessibility, inclement weather and a tight window of opportunity throughout each harvest period. Helicopters were used extensively throughout the harvest operations to scout the area for moose, transport harvesters to/from field sites, and transport harvested moose to the base camp. While the use of helicopters increased efficiency and reduced the impact on the ground, it resulted in additional costs to the project. If other moose reduction operations occur in the future, it is recommended that landscape-scale moose population control programs with fewer time and operational constraints be used to reduce and/or eliminate the use of helicopters to control expenses and reduce operational restrictions.

The moose harvest was also a controversial component of the pilot project garnering national and regional media attention particularly in its first year. Opponents to the harvest were vocal throughout the project but especially at the beginning of the first harvest in 2015 and the months that followed. It required greater involvement by Parks Canada Law Enforcement and RCMP to ensure everyone’s safety during subsequent harvests. While safety was Parks Canada’s top priority, added measures substantially increased project costs for the first two harvests. Opponents were less vocal during the last few years of the project, resulting in reduced law enforcement costs.

Bring Back the Boreal can be credited with transforming how the public views boreal ecosystem restoration in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The successes and lessons learned from this project will be used by Parks Canada and partners to inform park management plans and future conservation efforts. The project has demonstrated the potential for ecological integrity recovery of this major ecosystem with proper management and co-operation with partnering agencies.

Contact us

Date modified :