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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Pileated woodpeckers are usually very shy, but this male has become very tame. It even landed on Lil's arm the other day, when she was re-filling the suet holder. Early in the 20th century, there was fear the pileated would become extinct. Fortunately, the population recovered. They can do a lot of damage to utility poles, though, and the Hydro crews in northern Ontario are constantly replacing 'problem' wooden poles - ones the woodpeckers like to nest in - with steel girders.

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I’ve been reading that wild turkey populations in many areas of the USA have declined in recent years, and there’s lots of speculation as to why. I’d suggest it has a lot to do with expected population dynamics – when a species is introduced to suitable, but unoccupied habitat, the population tends to surge, often overshooting what biologists call ‘carrying capacity’. Given that many, many populations are the result of re-introductions into areas where wild turkeys had been extirpated decades earlier, the rise and subsequent fall of their numbers in recent times shouldn’t be a surprise.

In Ontario, populations are, for the most part, still in the ‘surge’ state. This winter might temporarily halt that, but I think recovery will be quick, and the population growth will continue for a while yet.

Wild turkey restoration across North America is a one of the most spectacular recent, conservation success stories.

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This harsh winter might do good for our local elk herd, animals originally from Alberta that were released in the Lake of the Woods area about 15 years ago. If the winter does in a substantial number of deer - and wolves - the elk, along with our moose, should benefit. This photo was taken from a Bell Long Ranger with a Nikon D80 fitted with a Nikon 80-200 2.8 VR lens.

As the tough winter in much of Canada and the US continues, it becomes more and more likely losses of game animals, especially deer and turkey, but others as well, will be substantial. That's problematic for managers, as budgets of state and provincial wildlife agencies are often linked to sales of hunting (and fishing) licences. This becomes problematic because many agencies - and hunting and fishing advocacy groups - are reticent to restrict hunting opportunities to the extent they maybe should when populations drop, fearing the loss of revenue. In my opinion, too strong a linkage to license sales and management budgets isn't, as Martha Stewart  would say, 'a good thing'.

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A little while back, I did an article on the importance of lichens for deer, and other wildlife,  I’m posting it below, for context as to why I’m predicting large losses of deer here this winter.

The last time the area I live in had a winter this severe – about 20 years ago – the forest was strewn with dead and dying balsam trees, most of them laden with lichens. Although deer south of here suffered terribly, the deer around me came through the winter in much better shape than most envisaged, and what the models were suggesting. I and others thought the reason was the abundance of lichens – where lichens were rare, deer losses were much higher than in those deer wintering areas where lichens were abundant (south of here, the forests where deer thrive are poplar and cedar, with little lichen. North of here deer numbers have never been high, it’s just too far north and winters are on average, too severe).

Now, it’s another bad winter, but the forest around me has little lichen. I think a large deer die-off is imminent.

They’re Lichen It!

By Bruce Ranta

Lichens (pronounced ‘likens’) are an important food source for many species of wildlife. Squirrels, beavers and even groundhogs relish a meal of lichen. Lichens are also a source of food for Ontario’s cervids, namely whitetail deer, moose, elk and caribou. Indeed, lichens can be the key ingredient behind population fluctuations of caribou and deer on many northern ranges.

Aside from the fact it’s a favourite winter forage, the lichen is an interesting plant. Lichens are an example of a perfect symbiotic relationship, a case where two different species depend on each other for survival. So a lichen is a plant made up of tens of thousands of individuals of two other plants, one an algae and one a fungus, united together. How algae and fungi fit together to form lichens – including many different species of lichens – is still mostly a mystery.

There are three major types of lichens. Foliose lichens are leaf-like in appearance, fruticose are shrubby or hair-like, while crustose look crusty. A fourth group, known as squamulose, are small and don’t have certain vegetative structures found on the others. Only foliose and fruticose lichens are large enough to be a meaningful source of food for wildlife.

Lichens are relatively slow growing. The fastest growing species are mostly fruticose lichens that grow on trees, referred to as arboreal lichens. These species can put on about an inch a year. All lichens grow as a result of self-manufactured food intake through photosynthesis. They also absorb nutrients from rainwater and from whatever they are attached to. They thrive in cool damp climates and do poorly in areas that are hot and dry. They reproduce and colonize mainly by a process called vegetative propagation, which means when a piece breaks off, that fragment can start a new plant. Lichens are very susceptible to air pollutants and can die and disappear where air quality is poor.

As forage for ungulates, lichens are believed to be at least as nutritious as most woody browse, although standard forage analysis results in questionable results. Still, lichens are known to be rich in micro-nutrients, some of which may play an important role in helping to deal with the stress of a long, cold winter. It’s also thought that lichens might act as a carbohydrate resource, increasing the efficiency of urea cycling and helping deer, for example, maintain a higher amount of body water than they can on a steady diet of twigs and buds. Theoretically, that would help combat cold.

It’s long been known that in winter, caribou eat little else but lichen. Their preference are ground fruticose lichens, appropriately enough called caribou ‘moss’, which upon inspection actually look like caribou antlers. Caribou also eat arboreal lichens, as do white-tailed deer, elk and moose. While ground lichens can be very abundant on exposed rock ridges and open, lightly stocked conifer forests, only caribou feed heavily on ground lichens.

Arboreal fruticose lichens can be unbelievably abundant. This is particularly true in northern forests where conifer forests of spruce and balsam fir predominate. In healthy spruce and fir forests, there isn’t much for deer to eat during the winter, and deer populations tend to be low. However, when there are huge swaths of dead and dying conifers in the aftermath of a spruce budworm epidemic, deer populations can skyrocket. That’s because budworm outbreaks create ideal conditions for arboreal lichens, especially for a group of lichens biologists call Usnea, more commonly known as ‘gray beard’ or ‘old man’s beard’.

A typical spruce budworm outbreak occurs over tens of thousands of square kilometers and results in millions of dead and dying fir and spruce. These dead and dying trees quickly become colonized by Usnea, to the point where a stand of dead fir will still look green and healthy to casual observers. In such situations, the lichens are by far the most abundant living plant in the forest.

Lichen laden forests of dead balsam (spruce don’t suffer as much mortality from budworm as do balsam) are a boon to wintering whitetails, sometimes for years. Lichens in budworm ravaged forests can be so lush deer can find plenty of food even during heavy snow winters simply by jumping from one dead tree to the next.  Eventually, though, the dead balsam fall down and are vacuumed clean by herds of hungry deer. I’ve killed several deer whose rumens were full of arboreal lichen and little else.

Moose and elk feast on Usnea as well, but caribou don’t seem to like it as much as they do other species. Caribou prefer arboreal lichens like Alectoria and Bryoria, hairy looking, dark coloured species that in Ontario, grow mostly on black spruce.

Spruce budworm epidemics occur regularly on about a 40 year cycle. In northwestern Ontario, the last outbreak started up about 1980 and took over 10 years to run its course. The next outbreak in the region isn’t scheduled until about 2020. Interestingly, deer numbers around Kenora peaked about 2007, and in a forest where lichens are now much reduced, deer are now definitely trending down.

Although old man’s beard and other arboreal lichen species aren’t as abundant in a healthy forest as they are in one with oodles of dead and dying trees, they’re still there and supplement the winter diet of all the cervids. Many trees have some lichens growing on their trunks, while other trees, such as large spruce, are often laden with lichens. While much of the lichen biomass might be high in the tree and out of reach of animals, there’s always some that can be gleaned from the lower branches. High winds can also provide deer with otherwise unavailable lichens by blowing them free, breaking off branches and knocking over trees.

Foliose lichens – the ones that look like leaves – also provide cervids with a winter food source. One type of foliose lichen, called rock tripe, is common on large rocks and rock faces that are regularly wetted or are in some sort of damp micro-climate, like along lake and river shorelines. On the lower French River, elk foraging on rock tripe on such shorelines have made a noticeable ‘browse line’. Adult elk from that area can actually be identified by their worn down front teeth, a testimonial to how much grazing on rock tripe they do each winter.

When I’m hunting deer late in the season, I always keep an eye out for areas with blowdown, or even individual trees that have recently fallen. These can be magnets for deer looking to fill their bellies, and offer excellent opportunities to jump deer or set up a stand and wait for the dinner bell to ring. I recall setting up on a knoll one afternoon in late November beside a clump of dead balsam, encrusted with lichens that had fallen over in a recent windstorm. Within a half hour, there were three bucks munching on the lichens, one within 10 feet of me.

Looking for lichens won’t necessarily put you on animals, but being aware of just how fond all deer are of this strange little plant could be what helps you bring home the venison some years.

Me? I’m waiting patiently for the next big spruce budworm epidemic.

There's more than 70 cm of snow on the ground today. It looks like this winter will result in a major loss of deer in our area. I'll have more to say about this as winter progresses. What I will say is that it's likely moose will make a comeback in NW ON, SW MB, and Minnesota - moose are not doomed! You heard it here first.

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Well, posting the first bit of ‘Stupid Laws’ worked easier than I thought (feared) it would, so I’ll go ahead and post the rest of the article. Enjoy.

If exotic game birds aren’t your thing, maybe you should try to match wits with the Arctic Fox. You can hunt Arctic Fox in all of Ontario from Oct. 26 through to March 31 – no limit! But only if you’re a resident of Ontario, as the season is closed to non-residents. Oh, and the hunting summary makes a point of stating that “Generally, furbearing mammals may not be hunted in Provincial Parks . .  . and Crown Game Preserves . . .” I’ll be sure to keep that in mind next time I’m hunting in Rondeau and spot a pack of Arctic Foxes eyeing up my dekes.

If you like hunting raccoons, be sure to have the proper loads handy if you happen to be on a goose hunt in the James Bay region. Raccoon season is open in all of Ontario to both residents and non-residents from Oct. 15 to Jan. 15. Non-residents can’t hunt raccoons at night, though, so when you’re in an Atawapiskat goose camp with your American buddies, they’ll have to stay in camp at night playing cards – or something – while you’re out sloshing around in the muskeg chasing ‘ol ringtail.

Wolf (including coyotes) hunting has some issues as well. I like the fact wolf hunting requires a separate tag – others might not – but regardless, it still looks to me like a half-way measure. That’s because you need to have a valid small game licence to hunt wolves, in addition to the wolf tag itself. That isn’t a big deal for residents, as most resident hunters have a small game licence, and even if you have to buy both because you don’t hunt small game, it’s only just over $30 to get you out the door and off chasing wolves or coyotes.

But it’s a different story for non-residents. Not only is the cost of a non-resident wolf licence (2012) $263.93, the cost of a non-resident small game licence is $112.46, for a total cost of $376.49. But at the end of the day, the cost isn’t really the issue. As the saying goes, if you want to play, you have to pay.

What’s stupid in my opinion is how wolf tag validity is intertwined with big game hunting (deer, moose, elk and black bear) in much of Ontario. According to Section 77 of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1977, it’s not permissible to hunt wolves with a rifle of greater calibre than a .22 rimfire whenever there is an open rifle season for big game, unless you also have a valid big game licence (in parts of southern Ontario, where there are fewer wolves and a lot more coyotes, the calibre minimum is upped to .275. There are also restrictions, everywhere, on the size of shot in shotguns when wolf or coyote hunting during concurrent big game seasons).

In other words, if you are deer hunting and tag a deer, but the deer season is still open, you can’t hunt wolves, at least not on your own, with a rifle that’s appropriate for wolf hunting – a high powered, centre fire rifle. And that applies to both residents and non-residents. It’s particularly stupid when it comes to non-resident deer hunters, many who’d like to hunt wolves during the deer hunt. Not only do they have to pay a good buck for the privilege of wolf hunting, they can’t do it after they’ve tagged a deer. It’s led to a lot of problems with respect to marketing of wolf hunts to non-residents by outfitters, as well as enforcement headaches. During the deer season, most non-resident wolf hunters are apparently shooting first, and buying a wolf tag later.

Presumably, the law was brought in to prevent poaching of big game by ‘wolf’ hunters. It may have been a valid concern when wolves were simply included on the small game tag, but given the cost of a wolf tag – especially for non-residents – these days the regulations, including calibre restrictions,  don’t appear to me to be necessary or warranted. Rather, they seem to be plain stupid.

Hunting is generally recognized to be a very safe activity, but that wasn’t always the case. The introduction of mandatory hunter safety training is largely credited for making hunting one of the safest of all the so-called leisure activities.

Along with hunter training, other pieces of legislation, such as mandatory wearing of hunter orange during big game firearms seasons, are also credited with improving safety of the sport.

Now we all know that Aboriginal and Treaty rights exempt most Aboriginal and Métis people from the majority of hunting and fishing regulations, such as seasons and limits on applicable Treaty and traditional hunting areas. However, I’ve been told by several law enforcement officers that safety regulations, such as shooting down or across roads, apply to everyone.

Well, that’s only partly right. First, it is necessary for anyone who wishes to possess a firearm have at least a federal Possession Certificate, and dependent on age and other factors, it may also mean having to take the Canadian Firearms Safety Course.

But there is no mandatory requirement for Aboriginal or Métis hunters to take the Ontario Hunter Education Course, or special safety training like the course most of us have to take to hunt wild turkeys. Nor do they have to wear hunter orange when hunting big game during firearms seasons. I can understand not having to take the Ontario Hunter Education Course on Treaty lands, but hunter orange seems to me to be related only to safety concerns. Problem is, the hunter orange ‘rule’ applies only to licensed hunters. If you aren’t hunting under the authority of a license, the legislation doesn’t apply.

I’ve seen Aboriginal moose hunters in Ontario dressed in black on a couple of occasions, which I found disconcerting and alarming. It certainly didn’t seem to me to be a very safe way to moose hunt.

The lack of safety regulations seems to be at least partially implicated in the accidental shooting of Peter Kosid in November 2012, when he was archery hunting deer on the Grand River reserve. He was shot with a rifle by Stan Jonathan, a Six Nations hunter, who was also hunting deer. Jonathan was charged with criminal negligence causing death.

While accidents can happen anytime, anyplace and to anyone, it seems to me that there have been a number of hunting accidents and fatalities in Canada in recent years involving Aboriginal hunters following hunting practices prohibited for licensed hunters, such as night hunting big game.  It may be traditional, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Dumb laws aren’t found only in hunting world. Fishing rules and regulations also have their fair share of stupidity.

On Eagle Lake, just to the south of Dryden in northwestern Ontario, it’s illegal to fish “at night”. This regulation was brought in more than 20 years ago when there was a concern too many big walleye were being harvested at night. At the time, the daily catch and possession limit for walleye was six, there were no size limits and ‘catch and release’ thinking was in its infancy.

Given the reduction of daily catch and possession limits of walleye on Eagle to four fish, none between 46-58 cm in total length and only 1 greater than 58 cm, as well as the large scale change in angler ethics and attitudes, the retention of no night angling – for any species – seems stupid. Angling at night for many species, like bass and muskie, in addition to walleye, is effective and fun. I really can’t see it being a sustainability issue today – and it isn’t anywhere else in Ontario, as far as I know. I hear the main driver for retaining the rule on Eagle Lake is that (some) tourist operators don’t want to see the regulation changed because it takes their guests off the lake and helps to keep them from getting lost at night.

To top it off, the Ontario recreational fishing summary doesn’t define what ‘night fishing’ is. Fellow OOD editor Drew Myers tells me he asked the Dryden District MNR what the actual time restrictions are with respect to ‘night’ on Eagle Lake. He told me “No one seemed to know”. The hunting regulations in Ontario say you can’t hunt from ½ hr after sunset till ½ hr before sunrise – but the only reference I can find to restrictions on angling hours in the fishing summary is in reference to baitfish – it’s possible to dip for baitfish only during daylight hours, which according to the summary is “after sunrise and before sunset”.

Which means I can’t use a dipnet to scoop up crayfish after the sun goes down, something I used to do on warm summer nights on some of the sandy beaches of Kenora on Lake of the Woods.  It was a great way to load up on the big Rusty Crayfish there that I used to take home to boil up and chow down on with my favourite beverage. But I can’t do that anymore, either.

Crayfish, crawfish, or crawdads, whatever you want to call them, are great table fare. If you like lobsters, you’ll love crayfish. They’re a popular item at restaurants specializing in Louisiana, Cajun style dishes. However, the crawfish I’ve eaten in Ontario restaurants aren’t near as scrumptious as the fresh home-caught crawdads I used to feast on until the rules on capture and transportation of crayfish changed a few years back.

As I said, during the summer months I used to enjoy an occasional meal of Rusty Crayfish caught fresh from Lake of the Woods. Rusty Crayfish, unlike most other species of crayfish, are very large – often 4” (10 cm) in total length, with very large claws. Large is important, as even a large crayfish with large claws isn’t much more than a tasty morsel. It takes at least a dozen or so large individual ‘dads’ to make a meal.

But the Rusty Crayfish isn’t native to Ontario. It’s an alien invader, very prolific, and quickly displacing native species in lakes and rivers where it’s been introduced, most likely by anglers inadvertently dumping unused bait at the end of the day. To keep the Rusty from spreading, it’s now illegal to transport crayfish overland (Conservation Officers have told me that’s in reference to ‘live’ crayfish, but that’s not what the Fishing Summary says). They must be used on the water body where captured.

Problem is, for safe and enjoyable eating, crawfish should be put in cool water for at least several hours so they can purge, and like lobster, are best cooked by tossing them live into boiling water until they turn bright red.

I can sort of follow the logic of the current regulations – although not the ban on night dipping – but who uses 10cm long crawdads with large, pincer-like claws that can hurt bad, as bait? It’s . . . you know . . . stupid.

I’ve also pretty much given up on catching my own leeches, which I’m sure is the intent of the current leech regs. There’s no other reason why you’re only allowed to use one leech trap ‘no more than 45 cm in any dimension’ unless the intent is to discourage people like me from capturing my own bait. I’ve trapped leeches, and been out with people licensed to take them commercially. In my experience, a single leech trap – a couple of small sheets of aluminum scrunched together holding a piece of meat for bait – usually catches no more than a few leeches, so if you can only use one trap, you need at least a couple of days trapping to have a enough to take fishing.

While you’re also only allowed to use one minnow trap to catch minnows, it’s common to catch two or three dozen minnows – or more – in an overnight set.  I’m okay with that – leech trapping, not so much.

On my bucket list is a desire to catch and eat a sturgeon. That’s going to be a lot harder to do now, ever since the lake sturgeon was designated to be a Species at Risk (SAR). In Ontario, it’s now illegal to keep a sturgeon under the authority of fishing licence. In some fishing zones, where the sturgeon is listed as a Species of Special Concern, you can still fish for them, but it’s no longer permissible to keep any.

On Lake of the Woods, the lake sturgeon population has been recovering nicely over the past few decades after being almost wiped out from commercial overfishing in the early 1900’s, but it’s recently been identified to still be in such poor shape (Threatened) that you aren’t even allowed to practice catch and release. Interestingly, Minnesota, which also has a large chunk or Lake of the Woods, doesn’t think the sturgeon fishery is in near as bad a condition as does Ontario. They’ve designated those same fish as a Species of Special Concern. So in the spring, when the sturgeon run up the Rainy River to spawn, we Canucks have to be content to watch American anglers catch and keep thousands of pounds of sturgeon on their side of the river, less than a stone’s throw away, while we sit in our boats twiddling our thumbs.

Or, we could, according to Phil Talmage with the Minnesota DNR, go over into Minnesota, buy a non-resident Fishing Licence and a $5 special sturgeon tag, fish the US side of the river, and harvest one sturgeon.

It’s a similar story with respect to caribou.

You can’t hunt caribou – no open season – in Ontario under the authority of a hunting licence. On the southern portion of their range, occupied by the non-migratory, forest dwelling ecotype, they’ve been identified as a SAR and designated as Threatened, which means hunting is out of the question. However, woodland caribou more to the north (technically, all caribou in Ontario are the woodland sub-species) are more numerous, and aren’t believed to be at risk. Minimum population estimates for these northerly herds run around 15,000, although recent surveys by the MNR suggest that number is low, and 25,000 plus is probably more representative. But still, no licensed caribou hunting.

Population estimates of caribou are difficult, as they roam over thousands of square kilometers. In fact, Ontario’s northern caribou herds are actually a shared resource with Manitoba . . . which has an annual hunt for those same woodland caribou. Even non-residents can hunt caribou in Manitoba, although not in the WMU immediately adjacent to Ontario.

It’s not as if caribou as a species (and there is only a single species of caribou in North America) are in trouble at all. While numbers do rise and fall, often dramatically, a few years ago the number of caribou in Canada were estimated to be a little under 4 million, roughly equal, or slightly more, than the total combined populations of white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose. You read that correctly.

And recall that Ontario does have a licensed hunt for elk. Total elk population in Ontario? Less than a thousand.

As you can see, there does seem to be more than a few stupid fish and game laws in the province. I highlighted only a few. There’s more. A lot more.

Fortunately, many don’t do real harm – hunting Arctic Foxes in southern Ontario isn’t a threat to the fox population – but I think many of these dumb pieces of legislation reflect badly on the outdoors community, including fish and wildlife managers.

It also brings into question the appropriateness of other rules and regulations.  For example, there were 34 WMU’s, including WMU 13, with open season for huns last fall. Seasons were from 6 days to 8 weeks in length, with a uniform daily limit of 8 and a possession limit of 16. While I did find an old, 1980 article by Pat Madigan in the Angler and Hunter extolling the virtues of hun hunting, which back then was “fast becoming one of the top gamebirds for Ontario hunters”, I haven’t heard much about huns since. I know there are still some in the Ottawa area, but for many years now, when OOD staff have done their annual province-wide game forecast, there’s not much on the gray partridge to report. It’s more than a remote possibility that the seasons and limits for this great gamebird aren’t just stupid with respect to WMU 13.

It’s of no great comfort, but stupid fish and game laws can be found in just about any jurisdiction that exists. In Manitoba, for example, I was told it’s illegal to put out food plots – because food plots are considered to be bait, and you can’t bait deer in Manitoba. So you could be charged for hunting in a ½ acre food plot of alfalfa, but it’s okay to hunt deer in a farmers’ 1000 ha field of sunflowers . . . or alfalfa.

Like Tom Hanks reminds us in the movie Forrest Gump, “Stupid is as stupid does”.