It’s been a long time since I last posted. As per my usual practice of late, the post is my latest column in Ontario Out of Doors magazine.

The fall started off really warm. There were periods of heavy rain as well. There was a big snow and windstorm on Remembrance Day, Nov. 11. It was a big dump and lots of small trees and shrubs became laden with the sticky snow and bent right over, making travel a mess. Many larger trees also fell down in the storm, mostly trees that were standing but were usually dead, diseased, or injured. After that snowstorm, the snow has not melted away.

Grouse and woodcock hunting wasn’t what I had hoped for. Neva, our Wachtelhunde, injured herself on the 2nd or 3rd time we were in the field, so she was largely out of commission entirely, or on light duty until mid-October. But that’s when trapping season opens and I am not at all okay taking the dog out hunting in areas where traps might be set. With her nose and inquisitiveness, if there’s a baited trap somewhere, she’ll find it.

So I started calling her my “George Springer dog’, in reference to the injury and accident prone slugger on the Blue Jays baseball team lineup in 2021. Both are stars, but tend to often be found on the sidelines and missing most of the action.

Then if was on to deer hunting. Did no waterfowl, moose or bear hunting.

I wound up hunting from one spot. On the evening of Nov.14, the 13th day I had been on stand (and sometimes twice a day), a mature buck showed up and I took it.

Which, brings me to the post. Hope you enjoy it. It’s the original and I know it was thoroughly edited before it saw the light of day in my column.

One of the most popular deer hunting techniques used by Ontario’s 160,000+ deer hunters is sitting, watching and waiting. There are hunters that sit and watch from an elevated position – others sit and watch from the ground.

In fact, virtually all deer hunting techniques include some amount of sitting, watching and waiting.

It’s by far the most practiced method by which deer are hunted, so it’s obvious that finding a good spot for sitting – watching – waiting is always a top priority.

One of the pre-conditions I have when looking for a spot to sit, watch and wait is whether I can be more or less invisible and be reasonably comfortable for at least a couple of hours.

Being both invisible and comfortable are a couple of the reasons why blinds – not only temporary pop-up blinds, but small shooting shacks on the ground, perched high in trees or on stilts – are becoming increasingly popular.

There is another option.

Find an old, abandoned farm house, or other building, somewhere out in deer country.

With at least some preparation, you’ve likely got yourself a safe and comfortable spot to sit and watch and wait and be virtually invisible. Best of all, abandoned buildings in deer country are more than likely a deer hunting hotspot.

A Deer Hunting Hotspot

Abandoned buildings in deer country are often associated with farms and farming, so there’s a good chance it’s sitting right in a chunk of prime deer habitat, or it’s overlooking farmed land, pasture or old fields. All of these are prime places deer are likely to frequent. If the building(s) are the remains of an old homestead, there could also be remnants of apple orchards, hawthorns and other mast-bearing trees and shrubs, all of which can provide the food and cover deer seek.

Another huge plus factor for abandoned buildings is that deer are acclimated to the spot and unafraid of the building(s).

While farm country is the best place to find these deer hunt spot gems, they can also be found in forested habitats. Over the years, a lot of farmland, like the buildings themselves, have been abandoned, and trees quickly encroach; on Crown lands, where forestry, mining or other activities occur, trailers and shacks are regularly abandoned, despite Public Lands Act laws that forbid such practices. These old buildings can also be great places to hunt from, especially if they overlook a cutover or other forest opening.

Finding Old Buildings

The easiest way to find an abandoned building deer hunting hotspot is always keep an eye out whenever you’re driving, walking or riding roads and trails. If you have rural and/or farmer friends, tell them what you’re looking for and have them ask around.

If you do find a building that looks like it might be a good place to sit, watch and wait, there are a number of things you need to do before glomming on to it. The first order of business is to determine whether the building is on private, leased or public land.

If it’s on private or leased land, you’ll need permission from owner or leasee to at least have a first-hand look to see if it meets your needs.

Preparation

Once you’ve got the A-Okay from the owner, the top consideration before even entering the property is personal safety. Abandoned buildings are commonly associated with abandoned machinery and other ‘junk’ – be aware of unmarked wells and other holes and pits that might be hidden from view. Insofar as the buildings themselves are concerned, they too can be a hazard. Be on the lookout for rotting walls, ceilings and floorboards, shards of glass and rusty nails.

Don’t be noseying around wearing inappropriate clothing, particularly footwear like flip-flops, Crocs or sandals.

Depending on the condition, you will probably need to do some maintenance. Floors and windows in particular might need attending to. As long as the place provides a good vantage, is comfortable and safe, it’s up to you  – with owner permission – how much time, effort and money you want to spend on a fix-up.

But even before fixing the place up, a clean-up is likely in order. Chances are there were or are mice, squirrels or larger animals – like skunks and raccoons – that have used the building as a residence. You want to breathe clean air and not be amid animal feces to minimize the potential of contracting of diseases or parasites (hantavirus and raccoon roundworms come to mind).

At a minimum, sweep up and wipe down (wear a proper mask!) where you will be – sitting – watching – and waiting – as well as where you’ll be eating, stretching and pacing.

Don’t forget about what to do about relieving yourself. A port-a-pottie will make your vigil much more enjoyable.

Be aware of the direction you’ll be shooting (not towards a road!); be sure the sun’s not in your eyes at dusk or dawn and have an appropriate backstop.

A Final Alternative

If you can’t find, or have access to an abandoned building, there is one other option to consider.

A fish ice-shack.

Fish shacks that are built to last for years have to be stored somewhere during the off season. An ice shack looking to be a deer hunting shack can be just the ticket. Think of the possibilities.

Sitting in a spot for months will let the deer become well acclimated to its presence. Plus it should be clean, safe and comfortable with minimal effort.

A short while ago I had a call from Sarah Frankcom, a Biology student at Carleton University in Ottawa (my old Alma Mater). She had an assignment and wanted to talk about moose, mostly with respect to the area north of Kenora, in the vicinity of Grassy Narrows. Part of the assignment, or project, was to produce a Podcast.

So here it is.

Over the years, I’ve done a number of media interviews and given numerous presentation to various groups, so I was reasonably well-prepared for this. However, in listening to the tape, there’s a lot more that could be said.

But it is what it is.

I hope you find it at least somewhat informative

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Uv7NMwF97imtqGq_LgXP7W2KygbA_1tp/view

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Here’s my latest column published in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. Title and post was the submitted article, not the edited version published.

I didn’t hunt with my Winchester .300 WSM this fall as I had no moose tag and didn’t head out west, where the long-distance shooting for big-bodied deer is ideal for a magnum. Instead, I hunted with my Winchester Model 70 in .280 Remington. One shot was all I took.

Magnum cartridges are simply big cartridges with more powder than ‘normal’. Bullets are often the same as used with regular brass. Hunters like magnums for their extra ‘knock-down, killing’ power. Short magnums have similar power to their standard magnum counterpart, but in a larger diameter, shorter cartridge.

Short magnum rifle rounds are fired in short action rifles specific to the caliber.  A short-action rifle has a shorter receiver and about a half-inch less of bolt travel compared to its long-action sibling.

Development

As far as I can tell, the first commercial short magnum was introduced in 1965; the .350 Remington Magnum.  It was based on a 2.5 inch, 7mm belted Remington Magnum case, shortened to 2.171 inches and necked up to .358 caliber. In 1966 Remington introduced the 6.5mm Remington Magnum. Both were designed to work through the .308 Winchester action. Neither saw much success.

Most credit the current crop of short magnums to benchrest competition shooters in the 1970’s. Benchrest shooters tend to be experimenters, are often gunsmiths, typically use custom-made rifles and handload their ammunition. They discovered that if you necked down a M43 Russian military case to either .224 or 6mm, gave the shoulder a sharp 300 of angle, outstanding accuracy, with little loss of velocity, could be achieved.

They found a short, fat case – shortfat – gave improved accuracy because powder burnt more uniformly, which improved charge consistency.

Even so, new short, fat, magnum cartridges, did not show up until 1997, when the 7.82 Lazzeroni Patriot was introduced by the Lazzeroni Arms Company – known for their long range hunting rifles and high speed cartridges. Winchester (the U.S. Repeating Arms Co.) followed suit, producing the WSM (Winchester Short Magnum) line, starting with the .300 WSM. Remington trailed with their version, the ‘Short Action Ultra Mag’ (SAUM).

A few years later, Winchester came up with a family of small cartridges called the super-short magnums (WSSM).

All WSMs, WSSMs and SAUMs are non-belted cartridges.

Pros and Cons of Short Mags

The weight-saving of a short mag rifle compared to the long mag version is a definite plus for many hunters, myself included. A short mag rifle can weigh at least a quarter-pound less, which is a significant and tangible benefit when hunting in rugged terrain, or whenever you need to walk and tote guns and gear long distances. 

Some claim rifles with a short action are faster to reload – on a bolt-action, one might save a couple of tenths of a second to eject a shot shell and reload a fresh round, which doesn’t sound like much and really isn’t. Still, in a hunting situation, every second – or tenth of a second – counts.

The time-saving may not be as critical as the overall shorter action. The longer the bolt throw, the greater the chance of catching clothing or debris, or simply not drawing the bolt back far enough to eject the spent shell before trying to seat another. In other words, a short action rifle should see a lesser chance of jamming.

However, short mags can and do jam. Many attribute short mag jamming problems to having a case diameter larger than the rim, which means the face of the bolt has only a small amount of overlap with the rim of the case, so grip isn’t as good as it could be. When coupled with the sharp shoulder and a rush to reload, jams can occur. 

But no firearm is immune to jamming.

Short mags ballistics are equal, or slightly better, than their regular magnum counterparts. But there are fewer choices in terms of bullets and cartridges and overall, less availability.  Most short mag ammunition seems to be premium quality, which is good, but expensive. Expect to pay top dollar for short mag ammo.

Short mags use about 10% less powder than a regular mag. Coupled with the powder burning characteristics the end result is less – some say more pleasant – recoil. However, being magnums, recoil is still substantial.

Are short mags, like their predecessor the shortfats, noted for great accuracy? Indeed, they are inherently accurate; but today, all premium store bought ammunition, regardless of caliber, can provide outstanding, precision shooting.

I don’t reload but friends and acquaintances who do say there are no issues with short magnums. I’ve shot their short mag reloads without incident.

My hunting partner Deryk calls my .300 WSM the ‘fattie’ because of the shell shape. In some rifles this means less magazine carrying capacity.  Along with the theoretical increased probability of a jam in a panicky situation, short magnum rifles are generally not recommended when hunting dangerous game. They are well-suited for deer, moose, elk and black bear as well as African plains game.

The ‘knock-down, killing power’ of a magnum may not always be an advantage. In some typical Ontario hunting situations, magnums, including short mags, can actually be disadvantageous.

When hunting is done at close quarters, high velocity loads (a magnum!) can whistle through an animal without expanding, especially if large muscle mass or bone isn’t hit. I’ve had this happen twice with whitetails I’ve shot with my .300 WSM. One ran more than 300 m before bleeding out. That’s a lot of unnecessary and extra dragging to do.

No firearm or cartridge can do everything. But for many, a short magnum is a very fine firearm to have and use. I like mine, a lot.

The deer I harvested this year. Not with a magnum!

harvest-3

 

The column I submitted, which was edited and published in the 2020 Ontario Out of Doors Hunting Annual. As usual, this is the unedited version – except I noticed in reading the mag column I had the directions of deer movement into northwestern Ontario opposite of what it should have been (east vs west) I fixed that here. The other difference is the editor added ‘Coues Deer’ to my mention of the Key Deer that Canadian snowbirds might be familiar with. I don’t know how many Arizona snowbirds are familiar with the Coues Deer, but maybe they are.

Anyway, the deer season here opens on Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, which is next weekend.

Deer numbers are WAY WAY down from a few years back, and there are not a lot of big bucks around, let alone deer period.

But, I’m optimistic I’ll see at least a few. Probably. Hopefully . . .

At any rate, here’s the column.

I have captions for these photos, but I have no idea how you can see them!!! Before WordPress changed their format, the caption was visible simply by moving your cursor on the photo. Now, that doesn’t work. The captions are ‘lost’ . . .

However, if you click on the photos, I’ve provided captions in the ‘comments’ section. That was the only way I could figure out how to do it.

In recent years, many of us have read and heard a lot about the ‘Algonquin Wolf’, ‘Non-migratory, Forest Dwelling Woodland Caribou’ and other animals that some think are unique species, sub-species or ecotypes. However, when it comes to the White-tailed Deer, most assume all whitetails are the same, except, perhaps, for the diminutive Key Deer of Florida, familiar to many Canadian snowbirds. But for most, a whitetail is a whitetail, no matter where it’s found.

And, maybe, that’s true. As I’ve written before, in the world of taxonomy, there are lumpers and there are splitters. Lumpers tend to view species with often quite different physiological, biochemical and behavioral differences – like the white-tailed deer – as ‘plastic’, characteristics which enable it to survive and thrive in a wide ranging set of environmental conditions. But wherever they are and whatever the differences, they’re first and foremost a White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

Splitters put greater emphasis on differences and identify groups with unique sets of characteristics as sub-species, ecotypes or simply populations. In general, many believe sub-species are new species ‘in the making’.

At any rate, most biologists agree with the concept of sub-species even if they argue amongst themselves what is and isn’t one. To that end, it’s generally acknowledged that “no less than 30 sub-species [of White-tailed Deer] are recognized in North and Central America”.

Ontario is home to two of these sub-species. In most of the province, the deer people are familiar with is the Northern Woodland Whitetail (O.v. borealis). However, along a thin strip of northwestern Ontario, adjacent to the Manitoba border – in the Kenora and Fort Frances areas – the sub-species is believed to be the Dakota Whitetail (O.v. dakotensis). This is also the sub-species of the Canadian prairies and the northern plains of the USA.

The Dakota deer was first observed and scientifically described in 1856 in – no surprise – North Dakota.  Dakota deer are renowned for their massive body size and huge antlers. The current Boone & Crockett world-record typical whitetail – taken by Milo Hansen in Saskatchewan – was a Dakota deer. Of particular interest to Ontarians are the top two B&C non-typical Ontario deer – both came from that strip of northwestern Ontario said to be the home of the Dakota whitetail.

When I first moved to Kenora as the District Wildlife Biologist for what was then the MNR, there was much talk in town as well as the office about ‘mule deer’. Mule deer were invariably monster bucks with racks so much bigger than ‘normal’ deer that they had to be mule deer, because, ‘as everyone knew’ mule deer were much bigger than whitetails.  Since then, over many years, I’ve examined untold dozens of deer from northwestern Ontario – bucks, big and small, young and old and none were mule deer. But some were definitely gigantic. And that goes for both antlers and body size.

Many of these brutes had racks of great mass that were often unusually craggy and adorned with multiple tines of all shapes and sizes.

It’s not unusual for bucks 4 ½ years old and older from the Kenora and Fort Frances areas to field dress out at 220 plus pounds. My biggest bodied buck – a 10 + year old Methuselah – weighed a hefty 260 pounds field dressed. To do a shoulder mount, the taxidermist had to use the form from an elk.

Behavioral differences in sub-species are often documented. As I wrote in a recent column, deer in the northwest gave wildlife officials headaches for years when it came to policies regarding deer yard management, because deer there don’t ‘yard’ like they do in the rest of the province. Of particular interest is that even in areas where they do congregate, they seldom hole up in cedar swamps.

Another characteristic of the Dakota whitetail is a coat that is lighter in colour than other sub-species.

While there is little doubt that there are subtle differences between deer in the extreme northwest as compared to the rest of the province – and elsewhere – do these differences warrant sub-species classification?

Some of the difficulties with answering this question lie with changes that have happened in the years since most of these deer sub-species were initially identified and described.

For one, deer, like many North American game species, were greatly reduced in numbers during the carnage that occurred after Europeans began to colonize the continent and up until modern game laws began to be implemented in the early 1900’s.

In many areas, deer were virtually wiped-out, so one solution was to trap, transport and translocate deer from areas of abundance to areas where they were scarce or gone. Not much attention was paid to which sub-species was being moved where, so there was a considerable mixing of gene pools.

In addition, habitat alterations have occurred on a massive scale and continue to this day. Deer often have been able to take advantage of those habitat changes and so the range and distribution of deer – everywhere – has been affected. Deer are thought to have been absent from all of northwestern Ontario prior to the very late 1800’s.

Did Dakota deer expand east into Ontario and the Northern Woodland deer expand west? There is no ‘gap’ in the range distribution between the two sub-species. 

Regardless of the sub-species, the White-tailed Deer is not only a challenge to hunt – they’re a challenge to study.

I haven’t blogged for many months. I’m sure most will understand when I say ‘there have been a myriad of reasons’ for my yap gap.

My last post was – posted – before the Covid madness had descended. The pandemic has changed every-bodies lives, everywhere in the world and continues to do so.

There’s a lot of talk about what the new normal is going to be, the one that emerges after all this period of change settles down, but who’s to know when that will be, or what it will look like. A phrase that I keep going back to is one about how the only constant in our lives is change. Every day is a new day, also comes to mind.

Except for a swath along the equator, most of the world sees constant, seasonal change. Even equatorial regions have alternating wet and dry seasons. No two seasons are ever exactly the same, although patterns and trends may be clearly evident.

Since my last posting, the ice and snow that covered our field, marsh and forest has melted away, replaced by many shades of mostly greens. A blue pond now compliments the summer skies. Goslings and ducklings have come to be and fawns now need be aware of bears as well as wolves. It’s summer!

Anyway, thoughts about the consistency of change that comes with the seasons is an underlying premise of this blog. Things are always different than they used to be, although trends are clearly evident..

The posting has been published. It’s my latest column in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. 

As per my practice, the posting is the unedited version of the column. I know the two are always a bit different, but I seldom compare the two and if I do, it’s only a very cursory look. Editors edit – that’s their job and most are good at it.

I’ll keep posting. There was a time when I posted about once a week – well, I can’t do that anymore.

Until next time, stay safe.

 

What Goes Up, Does Come Down

By: Bruce Ranta

I heard the hunter before I saw him. When we met on the trail, he looked at me, somewhat perplexed, then blurted out “They’re extinct!”

We were hunting moose – moose weren’t ‘extinct’, of course, but it did seem that way. Neither of us had seen a fresh track or any other sign of moose.

Unfortunately, the lack of moose didn’t surprise me. Moose on my stomping grounds close to my Kenora home had been on a steep decline for several years – and not just where I liked to hunt. Moose populations had been on a similar downhill slide in much of northwestern Ontario, neighboring Manitoba and Minnesota, as well as further afield, in places like Vermont and New Hampshire.

What was going on?

There were many theories. To sort it through, Dr. Murray Lankester, a parasitologist with Lakehead University and I analysed data pertaining to moose and deer in the Kenora area going back, in some cases, over 100 years. We concluded that several factors were driving forces behind moose (and deer) population fluctuations.[i]

For one, we found that both moose and deer populations surged in the aftermath of large, landscape scale disturbances, namely fires, large blowdowns, clear-cut logging and spruce budworm epidemics.  Deer abundance was also tied to winter severity – long, cold and snowy winters knocked deer down – short winters without much snow saw big upticks in deer numbers.

In the 1990s, deer and moose numbers swelled in tandem. Winters were mild and food was abundant. Even a bad winter in 1995 didn’t have much of an impact on deer – the woods were full of easy to reach and nutritious arboreal lichens growing on millions of balsam trees killed by a spruce budworm outbreak. The same thing had happened 40 years earlier.

When deer became super-abundant, moose numbers began to plummet. Brain worm appeared to be a factor. The parasite has no discernible impact on deer, but is deadly on moose. When deer densities get above 4-5 deer/km2, the disease becomes problematic to moose.

Deer densities rose to at least twice that level.

Exacerbating the problem was the weather – a series of wet summers made conditions ideal for terrestrial snails and slugs, the brainworm’s conduit for the disease.

High deer numbers also led to skyrocketing wolf numbers.

The quantity and quality of moose browse declined precipitously with a slowdown in logging and the maturing of burns and blowdowns.

In short order, the moose population crashed.

Deer eventually depleted the supply of arboreal lichens. Winters turned cold and snowy. Wolves were everywhere. Deer too, crashed.

Today, there aren’t a lot of moose or deer in much of the Kenora area (except in the city where deer are relatively safe from wolves and people feed them).

With deer numbers down, will the moose recover?

Maybe, although with only low levels of logging and no recent large forest fires or blowdowns, moose habitat is presently sub-optimal.

Deer have continued their downward spiral owing to a spate of snowy winters and continued predation by wolves. With few deer, wolves will eventually crash. Then, with at least a few mild winters – deer might stage a comeback. The next spruce budworm epidemic will help, but that’s still a few years off (budworm outbreaks occur about every 40 years).

The fact is, ups and downs are normal in many populations of wildlife.  Stable populations, especially in seasonal climates, are the rarity.

What happened in the Kenora area isn’t exactly why moose – or deer – numbers have gone up or down elsewhere. Still, there are parallels and commonalities.

Food availability is commonly linked to population changes, as is weather, the abundance of predators and human hunting pressure. Diseases are also problematic, especially during population peaks.

Across North America, some populations of barren ground caribou have recently shown dramatic declines. Although somewhat alarming, it’s not unprecedented. Northern herds have a history of spectacular ups and downs. In Alaska, the caribou population dropped by more than 50% in the late 1970’s. In Quebec/Labrador, the caribou population jumped from less than 200,000 in the late 70’s to around 1 million in just 20 years. They have recently plummeted to only a few thousand.

In winter, caribou eat lichens, a very slow-growing plant, almost exclusively. Although over-grazing lichens isn’t the only issue they face (wolves, hunting pressure, disease and parasites and the weather are also important), food does matter.

After being reduced to paltry numbers (and extirpated in eastern Canada), wild turkeys, aided by re-stocking and re-introductions, underwent a huge expansion in range occupancy and population. But in the USA, turkey numbers peaked about a decade ago, and have since declined – again, not unexpectedly – ‘new’ or reintroduced populations often flourish, subside, then have years of – you guessed it – ups and downs.

While wildlife population ups and downs can’t be curtailed, they can be managed.

As OFAH Wildlife Biologist Keith Munro says, “We really need to take a big picture approach to wildlife management. Rather than focusing on a single factor that may be affecting a wildlife population, we need to consider the whole system which includes, but is not limited to, harvest (both licenced and rights-based), predation, competition between species, diseases, parasites, and habitat”.

But no matter what we do, what goes up – does come down.

[i] To read the entire study, see Ranta, B., and M. W. Lankester. 2017. Moose and deer population trends in northwestern Ontario: a case history. Alces 53: 159–179. https://alcesjournal.org/index.php/alces/article/view/227)

 

I haven’t posted in a while . . . been busy doing renovations to the house, among other things.

It’s been a relatively nice winter. The snow hasn’t piled up too deep, not overly cold and today it’s sunny! But hey, it’s a northern Ontario winter, which means that although there’s been snow on the ground since the end of October, there will still be snow on the ground a month from now. It gets to be a drag.

There are not many deer left in this part of the world. A few hang around the house, which is nice. And while there are still timber wolves lurking about, their numbers are down. How could they not be? Few deer and even fewer moose. Maybe they are Farley Mowat wolves, surviving on mice. 

Anyway, here’s my most recent column published in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. It’s the unedited version, as per usual.

What’s a Deer Yard?

wtdeer-24

Year round,we have deer in our yard, but our yard is not a deer yard. A deer yard is an area where deer concentrate during the winter months.

In Ontario, deer yards can be as small as a few hectares or cover tens of square kilometers – they have been talked about, described, managed and mismanaged for at least 100 years. Today, deer yards are more properly referred to as ‘deer winter concentration areas’.

White-tailed deer have been described as ‘yarding up’ for the winter ever since the days of early settlement, when knowing where deer were was critical information – especially during winter, when food and money were often scarce.

Deer biologists have long believed deer living in the forest, on northern ranges where winters can be long, cold and snowy, yard up for two main reasons: ‘energy conservation and as a defense against predators’.

Deer have relatively long legs, but by the time snow depths hit 50 cm, movement is severely restricted. Conifer cover intercepts snow and deer can move around under conifers with relative ease.

But, when deer from any given area are concentrated under conifer cover, food availability becomes an issue. Problems are exacerbated because browse is not that abundant under heavy cover and deer yards that are used year after year – a common behavior – tend to become over-browsed. Eastern white cedar, a tree that provides both food and cover, often has a distinct browse line, where there is no greenery below the reach of the deer.

To cope with deep snow, food shortages and potential predators, deer in forested areas make trails, use windswept ridges, frozen lakes and rivers, snowmobile trails and even plowed roads.

In the forest, conifer cover is a critical component of a deer yard – it’s usually where deer spend most of their time – but other, adjacent habitats are also important.

Deer don’t exist only in the forest. They also thrive in mountains, prairies, agricultural lands and, increasingly, in urban areas. Wherever they are, especially if winters are snowy, deer generally use habitats differently in the winter than during other times of the year.

For example, in southern Ontario, where forest cover can be limiting but snow cover often is not, deer still tend to concentrate in certain areas during the winter months. A winter concentration area might be a park, ravines, a string of woodlots or something else – anyplace where there’s resting, hiding and escape cover, abundant food and a dearth of predators.

In northwestern Ontario, deer yards used to be a problem with the old Land and Forests and later, the MNR. Managing a deer yards was problematic because the consensus was that deer in northwestern Ontario ‘didn’t yard up’. Since they didn’t ‘yard-up’, forestry and wildlife habitat management prescriptions weren’t applicable.  Deer did – and still do – concentrate their winter activities in certain areas, just not in what could be described as a ‘yard’.

Management issues around identification of deer yards were largely resolved with the adoption of deer winter concentration area concepts.

In Ontario, a mapped winter deer concentration area is information useful in land use and resource management planning on both private and Crown lands. All levels of governments, and agencies like the OFAH, have policies and directives that recognize deer winter concentration areas as a value.

Deer winter concentration areas are constantly changing. With time, forest fires, insect infestations, severe winds, floods, logging, and infrastructure development of all kinds change the landscape. Predation levels rise and fall.

Concepts and definitions of deer winter concentration areas are important, but it’s still okay to talk about ‘deer yards’. Just be sure to make it clear what you’re talking about . . .

The Loring Deer Yard

Situated in the wilds somewhat below the French River on the Pickerel River system, east of Hwy. 69 and west of Hwy.11, The Loring Deer Yards has been one of the largest and longest lasting deer yards in Ontario.

It was first identified as a deer yarding area soon after deer in central Ontario became common, around the turn of the 20th century.

Severe winters, especially in 1961, wiped out tens of thousands of deer in the province, alarming many who loved deer and deer hunting.

Logging, which had seemed to coincide with surging deer herds in forested areas, was on the wane. The Dept. of Land & Forests was led to believe that by replicating logging efforts, the deer population south of North Bay could be rejuvenated.

By the late 1970’s, the Loring Deer Yard was an official MNR program. Bulldozers and snowmobiles were used to build and maintain trails to help deer move through deep snow; browse and later, other deer foods like pellets were provided; and, wolves were trapped to reduce predation.

Studies were done and results published. Policies, directives and reports were written.

There wasn’t a deer manager or biologist who didn’t know about the Loring Deer Yard and who hadn’t heard about Ernie Bain and Paddy Stillar.

By 1988, management efforts had doubled the size of the Loring Deer Yard. In some winters, it held as many as 20,000 deer.

But, time brings change. MNR(F) adopted new policies and directives. Active deer yard management efforts declined. Eventually, trail-making and feeding was a role for volunteers. Predator (wolf) control was discontinued.

In recent years, deer numbers in what was once the best known deer winter concentration area in Ontario, if not Canada, have plummeted.

Is the Loring Deer Yard history? Only time will tell.

January, 2020. Happy New Year!

Winter has set in and the forecast is for a cold spell. But first, some (more) snow.

It was cold early to mid-fall in 2019, but then it turned ‘mild’. Not a snow-melt above the freezing mark mild, but few -200 C bone chillers, the last couple of days a minus 32, but no minus forties at all. All in all, a rather pleasant Christmas and New Year holiday season.

The moose and deer seasons are closed and I stop grouse hunting on Dec. 15. For years and years Dec. 15 was when the moose, deer and grouse hunting seasons used to simultaneously close here in the part of northwestern Ontario where Lil and I live. In recent years, there have been some season length extensions to grouse seasons, but I haven’t taken advantage of them. It seems that once the snow comes, the grouse are hard to find and from my perspective, a 3 month hunt for big and small game that ends Dec. 15 is all I want or need. By then it’s time for get ready for the upcoming holiday season and try and be primed to participate in the festivities.

And so here I am in early January at the beginning of a brand new decade. A hundred years ago we’d be entering what came to be known as the roaring 20’s.

But this is a new time and place. We’ll just have to see where it leads.

As usual for me, this is when I reflect on the hunting seasons that just passed. As I previously wrote, I had a wonderful hunt with Neva, our Wachtelhunde hunting dog and companion.

I didn’t go moose hunting as neither Lil nor I even applied for a tag to hunt an adult moose. In the two Wildlife Management Units we like to hunt, there was only 1 tag available in each unit. One of the tags was for a cow, which seemed ridiculous (if there are so few moose that licensed hunters are provided with only 1 tag, why would it be for a cow?) and in the other WMU, we had no idea where there might even be a moose in a place with both access and where there was a reasonable chance of success. So we opted out of applying for a tag, but bought licences to retain priority for future draws. Prior to the season, and then during the season in a WMU where I was deer hunting, I did see moose.

I didn’t shoot a deer, either. I did have opportunities, but did not have a doe tag and the few bucks I saw I opted not to shoot.

There are lots of places where I see game during the fall hunting season where I can’t hunt. Some of the animals are on protected areas and other properties I have no permission to hunt on; sometimes I see animals I don’t have a tag for; and, there are a lot of animals that are on or adjacent to a road. Around here, you can’t shoot down, across, or from the traveled portion of a road and on some roads you can’t even have a loaded firearm until you are well away from the right-of-way. And on many roads, it can be dangerous to come to a stop unless you can pull off, which isn’t always possible. Often, there is simply no space to stop, pull off or park.

So given all these places where I’m not hunting, I take advantageous of photographic opportunities when I can. As with a gun, there’s still much more seen than shot, and there’s still places where I can’t shoot with the camera – but there’s more spots where I can pull out the camera to try and get a shot than there are spots I can pull out a gun.

I also have to say that shooting wildlife with a camera isn’t easy. Often, it’s harder than with a firearm. For example, shooting ruffed grouse on the fly with a camera is quite the challenge that I haven’t yet mastered and likely never will (although for me, the same is true with a shotgun . . . ). Still, I sometimes score and when I do, it’s a very satisfying feeling.

Similarly, I’m always trying to get good shots of buck deer. Deer are not near as plentiful here as they used to be a few years back, but there’s still some around. The best place to see buck deer though, is in the city. Over the past few decades, deer in northwestern Ontario, like in a lot of villages, towns and cities all across North America, moved in, found suitable housing and are now a fixture in many neighborhoods.

The other thing with the camera is that you can shoot any species at any time with no need for a license or a tag. There’s waterfowl, fur-bearers and basically anything that walks, crawls, slithers, swims or flies can be the subject of a photo shoot.

whiskey-1

But now that we are into January, there’s not near as much life around. Big game hunting is over as it is for waterfowl and upland game birds. With respect to photo shooting, the majority of birds have left, many of the animals have gone into hibernation and most of the deer have lost their antlers. I still see a few grouse – lately a couple come each evening just before it gets dark to bud in the white birches. A few other odds and sods, but it’s not a wildlife viewing paradise by any stretch.

rgrouse-12

So the hunting season is a wrap and photo season has transitioned.

Still, it’s a New Year and it’s all good.

Time to go ice-fishing.

trout

Some of the Kenora area wolves I have seen.

Back in 2014 I wrote on my blog how the local wolves, particularly the big wolves that prey on deer and moose, were still doing well. Locally, meaning within about a 100 km radius from the city of Kenora, the moose population had collapsed and white-tailed deer numbers were plummeting – but there were still a lot of big wolves around. Smaller canids, namely coyotes, were present, but not numerous.

These days, I can report that moose populations have not recovered and deer populations really crashed; there are still some deer around, but very, very few moose.

Surprisingly, a sizable population of big wolves has endured here, but maybe not as many as back in 2014. Coyote and other smaller wolf numbers seem to be up.

With respect to wolves in general, there remains much controversy regarding wolf taxonomy and wolf management. Research on wolves continues to provide interesting information on wolf biology.

Big wolves are widely distributed – they are found across much of North America and Eurasia, as well as India, China and even parts of Africa. There’s general agreement that the majority of these wolves are all one and the same species, the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus). Some claim there are not one but three species of wolf in the world; the Grey Wolf, the Red Wolf (C. rufus) and the Ethiopian Wolf (C. simensis). A few – mostly some Ontario-based biologists and scientists – say the Algonquin Wolf is also a separate species of wolf ( C. lycaon).

In North America, there is also the other ‘wolf’, the Coyote (Canis latrans), which many suggest is not really a wolf.

 

Small Wolves . . . .

The trouble with taxonomy is that there are no clear rules as to what constitutes a species. It appears that all these wolf species can interbreed and produce viable offspring. So are they all one species with a lot of variety, or  . . . what?  For example, the Red Wolf is in danger of extinction in large part because of hybridization (interbreeding) with coyotes.

The Algonquin Wolf was, until recently, referred to as the Eastern Wolf, a sub-species of Grey Wolf or perhaps a distinct species. However, recognized hybridization with Coyotes and Grey Wolves messed thing up and somehow it became the Algonquin Wolf. Interestingly, on the official Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry website on the Algonquin Wolf (https://www.ontario.ca/page/algonquin-wolf), the scientific name provided is Canis sp. Which seems to me to say: ‘We don’t know exactly what it is, but we know one when we see one.’

Anyway, regardless of the taxonomy, the prevailing attitude almost everywhere is definitely pro-wolf protection (the exception may be coyotes). Often, the attitudes and management direction seems to me, to be totally bizarre.

For example, on the USA side of Lake Superior, Grey Wolves have been re-introduced to Isle Royale (at great expense), after apparent inbreeding brought the resident Grey Wolf population down to two. Two wolves couldn’t keep the moose population in check and moose were eating themselves out of house and home.

The resident wolves on Isle Royale came to be there by crossing the ice, like the moose (when early Europeans went to the Isle, they found Caribou; apparently, there were no moose, or wolves).

Natural re-population of wolves from the mainland was thought to be a non-starter because climate change was making the chances of an ice-bridge in the future unlikely. Same with Caribou.

Meanwhile, over on the Canadian side, wolves crossed Lake Superior’s frozen waters a few years ago and pretty much wiped-out the resident Caribou on the Slate Islands.  Then wolves proceeded to do the same on Michipicoten Island – to save the not so long ago introduced Caribou (a species officially classed as Threatened under the provincial and federal legislation), the Ontario government  . . . decided to catch the Caribou and move them to (again, at great expense). . . the Slate Islands.  In other words, save the Caribou (???), but only by doing no harm to the wolves.

The Grey Wolf, by the way, is a species that in Ontario is not at risk under the Endangered Species Act, (they are common and widespread in distribution); although the Algonquin Wolf is listed as ‘Threatened’. By consensus, the wolves around Lake Superior are thought to be Grey Wolves, not Algonquin Wolves.

Back on Isle Royale, ice has made a bridge from the mainland to the Isle a couple of times in the last few years. On at least one occasion, researchers documented wolves from the mainland did cross the ice over to the island, but they didn’t stick around.

It’s supposed to be another colder than average winter in the Great Lakes Region, so chances seem good that in 2020 there will once again be an ice bridge from the mainland to Isle Royale.

Back home in Kenora, I’ve been seeing coyotes (brush wolves?) on our property over the last few months. I have seen tracks of much larger wolves, but haven’t seen one lately. When I was out deer hunting about 50 km from the house the other day, my hunting partner and I came across tracks of a pack of at least three big wolves.

Off property, I have been deer hunting on 8 different days – neither I nor my hunting partners on those days have seen a deer (or a wolf).  But one day we did see a moose!

Recent studies in Minnesota are confirming Grey Wolves can move vast distances and set up a new home range. Hundreds of kilometers of movement does not seem all that unusual, as evidenced by northern Minnesotan wolves re-locating to the Red Lake, Ontario area (about 300 kms, as the crow flies). See https://www.facebook.com/VoyageursWolfProject/ for interesting updates on their findings.

From my perspective, wolf management, or a lack thereof, is symptomatic of the problems facing the wildlife management profession everywhere.

Too much emotion, too little use of scientific principles.

It’s a big problem.

The last three fall bird hunts have tended to be  . . . poor.

That’s not really the right word to describe those hunts, but it’s a start.

The issue has been injuries to my good buddy and hunting dog, Neva.

One year, she had a run-in with a porcupine within the first hour of the pheasant hunt in Alberta. It was a full-on face plant of quills and required a trip to the vet, in Medicine Hat, over an hour’s drive away. Never did shoot a pheasant that year . . .

Another year she cut her paw on glass, we presume, on our first ruffed grouse hunt of the season. There was no reason for glass to be there in the bush, but it was close to a forest access road, and way too many people throw their garbage – like beer bottles! – out the window when driving around. Regardless, it was a deep cut, needed stitches, and put Neva out of commission for a good month. By the time she had recovered, there was snow on the ground, which seems to result, at least around here, in the virtual disappearance of the grouse. I don’t know what happens, but once there is snow on the ground, you can go for miles and hardly ever find a bird. So that year was also a washout.

Last year we were on our property, hunting grouse for the 2nd or 3rd time, when Neva flushed a grouse, ran over an old garbage pile, and cut a paw again. Needed stitches, out of commission . . . . .

The fellow who last lived on our property – back in early post-war years, I think – was for the most part a bootlegger. We’ve removed pick-up loads of cans, bottles and iron over the years. There were literally huge piles of cans and bottles all over the place. I know there’s still a couple out there, but I can’t recall exactly where. If I find them, I’ll clean them up too. At least the places and trails where we usually hunt and go for walks with the dogs have been cleaned up. I still worry about shards, though.

So far this year Neva has avoided getting injured. And we had a great time!

We didn’t kill a lot of birds, but we flushed many. I even shot a few woodcock and saw and missed several others. Most woodcock I have ever seen in the Kenora area. A banner year!

Neva was 5 this year. Given her history of hurts, it’s easy to see she hasn’t had a lot of bird hunt time.

ruffed grouse-164

I thought we’d see a lot of grouse on our property as we had seen a number of coveys during summer. However, that wasn’t the case – sometimes we’d be out for an hour and not see a single grouse. I suspect the foxes and coyotes cleaned them up as well as the 10 skunks (10!) Lil live-trapped in the yard.

I haven’t hunted with her for a few days – the deer rut is on and smelly bucks are distracting to a dog that loves to hunt. I have to admit I’ve never seen dogs that like to hunt as much as these Wachtelhundes.

Unfortunately, there’s snow on the ground and I haven’t seen a grouse for days, not even during a full day of deer hunting where birds had been plentiful in early October.

Fortunately, there’s not a lot of snow – yet.

Oh well, it was a great fall, full of flushes and even some shooting. If the weather holds, we might even get to do a bit more of both.

And next year, maybe Neva and I can do some duck hunting.

Neva-13