Monthly Archives: March 2014


Some people refer to white-tailed deer as ‘woodland rats’. And there are good reasons for the analogy; whitetails, like Norway rats, can be numerous, they scurry about and they harbor a plethora of diseases and parasites. Still, I like them.

But the disease part is very worrisome. There are two diseases in particular that I have to deal with that can only be described as ‘bad’.

In eastern portions of their range, many deer herds have infection rates of a parasite called the menigeal or brain worm as high as 80%. The worm lives happily in the brain of a deer, but if worms find their way into caribou, moose or elk, it results in sickness and often death. The worm survives by shedding eggs out the deer via feces, which are fed upon by snails and slugs. When these invertebrates crawl up on vegetation, some are inadvertently eaten by deer, returning a new generation of brain worms to the host. When there are lots of deer and snails, it’s highly likely almost every individual cervid will eventually eat an infected snail. It doesn’t do the whitetail deer any harm, but the other species aren’t so lucky.

I’ve never heard of a human with brain worm, and I don’t know if it’s even possible to get infected.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is another disease that’s worrisome. This one, though, is somewhat less discriminatory as to who survives: no one, at least as far as is known to date. Any whitetail or mule deer, moose or elk that gets infected, dies. Caribou with the disease have yet to be found, but likely only because they have not as yet come into contact with it. Humans don’t get CWD, at least not so far as is known.

The problem with whitetails and this disease is mainly the fact whitetails are so numerous and widespread. They’re everywhere, mixing with mulies, moose and elk (actually, they aren’t everywhere. But they do have a large range of distribution, much greater than mule deer, moose or elk). Only caribou in the far north have greater range occupancy than whitetails. There is little to no range overlap with deer and caribou – when this has occurred, caribou lost out quickly and completely.

This winter will reduce whitetail populations considerably across a huge swath of North America. For moose, elk and maybe even mule deer and caribou, that’s probably a good thing.

But like rats, many whitetails will survive. They survive severe winters by finding people willing to feed them, or finding some hidey-hole safe from predators where they’ll just sit tight and try to wait it out. Or something.

The white-tailed deer is a survivor. Just like the Norway rat.


Last night, on the Agenda, (a provincial public affairs show on a provincial TV station) the topic discussed was the proposed pilot spring bear hunt in Ontario. This year, there is going to be a limited spring hunt, after it was cancelled 15 years ago.

It was, I thought, a good show. You can see it here:

The first part of the show was an interview with the Minister of Natural Resources. OK, but the 2nd part, with panelists, was much better.

I knew two of the panelists – Dr. Josef Hamr is a friend, and I have worked with Mark Ryckman. Both are biologists. There was also a politician, another person who has had a lot of dealing with bears, and the moderator.

As I said, I thought it was good show. However, there were a couple of things that weren’t talked about much, if at all, that I would have liked to have heard them discuss.

First, no one mentioned (that I recall)  that the bear harvest can be controlled by limiting the number of tags, or seals, in a given Wildlife Management Unit. This is done for many game species, although in Ontario, not directly for bears. But it is an option. Because this aspect of management was only touched on, I could see how it might have led one to conclude there is a real danger that the spring bear hunt is mostly about killing more bears, and reducing the bear population. With a limit on the number of tags and/or seals, the number of bears harvested in an area can be directly controlled, no matter what the length of the hunting season.

Secondly, with a spring and a fall hunt, with all hunters for the most part baiting, there will, in the long-run, likely be a shift in bear behaviour. Over time, bears that don’t go to bait piles will be more successful that those that do (go to a bait pile, you get shot. Not as likely if you avoid a bait pile). This will have an effect even in towns and cities, especially if so-called nuisance bears are trapped and relocated to the forest. By both shooting and trapping over bait, bears will either learn to avoid bait piles, or selective pressure will reward those bears who, again, avoid bait piles.

So if you watch the show, keep in mind the two points I’ve brought up. At the least, I think it adds a bit more context to the issue.

I was very happy that the show didn’t degenerate into an irrational, emotional shout fest. It was one of the better public discussions I’ve seen on this subject.


Animal Behaviour is an interesting discipline; think of it as in-depth analysis of the how, what, where and why of the movements animals make. For a long-time, the prevailing wisdom was that animals weren’t capable of thinking – they were basically auto-matrons responding to stimuli, and did not experience feelings like fear, dread, happiness or love. Only humans had feelings like that.

We’ve come a long way in the last few years and today, most people believe many animals do, at some level, have feelings. This means many animals are sentient.

I have to wonder what the feelings are of the animals who are sentient and struggling to survive what’s been a very severe winter across much of temperate North America. Where I live, I think  the local deer herd will decline by at least 50%.

The deer, it seems to me, are being rather stoic about it. They just suck it up, and try to get through it the best way they can.


Updated Mar 16

As I said in my last post, I was working on tabulating the results of our elk monitoring in the Lake of the Woods area. Finally finished.

Here’s the results from a cumulative total of 790 days of photo monitoring at 11 sites:

140 elk; 20 moose; 207 deer; 30 bear; 33 wolves; and 17 large animals I could not identify.

We are hoping our MSc. candidate can examine the data further, looking at habitat relationships as well as trying to better estimate the actual number of different animals that can be identified. Our focus is on elk, but nothing lives or dies in isolation.

Now, many, many of those large mammals photographed were the same animal. But they were observed during different events, so got recorded as an animal sighting. But that’s a big challenge, trying to identify who’s who.

It was cool to see things like several bouts of fighting elk, as above; and the pack of 7 wolves that streamed by a camera one night.

Lots of fun.


Critter cams, or whatever it is you want to call the cameras available for monitoring or ‘watching’ wildlife, are all the rage with hunters. But they are also a great tool for biologists and anyone else who is engaged or interested in wildlife management.

After retirement, I have stayed active with respect to trying to keep tabs on our local elk herd. In 2000 and 2001, we brought and released 104 elk from Alberta into northwestern Ontario, as the animals were once extant (they existed) in this area.

We have 7 ‘critter cams’ and are using them to monitor the elk herd. After a rough start, the elk seem to be holding their own, although the critter cams show there are a lot of big predators – bears and wolves – so their future is by no means assured (there are also other issues, like poaching). We think the habitat is suitable, but there are a lot of variables. The pics from our cameras will hopefully help in answering at least some pieces of the puzzle.

Interestingly, the elk seem to be the animals who have the biggest interest in the critter cam itself. We have many eyeball shots of elk – like this 6X6 bull – but very few similar shots of any other mammal. The other species sometimes see or acknowledge the camera – especially the bears – but only the elk take real interest in them.

In addition to elk, we have lots of pics from 2013 of of bears, wolves, white-tailed deer, moose, foxes and snowshoe hares, as well as a few shots of birds like jays, sparrows, crows and even a hawk. No shots in 2013 of cats, even though lynx are common. Bobcats are rare but there, and while cougars are present, there are not many. And that’s an understatement.

Using these cameras is a lot of fun and provides us with valuable information, such as reproductive data (are the elk cows producing offspring [yes they are!])? and relative abundance of predators.

The biggest pack of wolves we recorded in 2013 was 7 – mostly, the wolves were either alone, or with another adult.

I’d also like to say that the native Ontario elk – the eastern elk sub-species – which recent research suggests was not really a sub-species at all – is extinct (so if we accept the eastern elk wasn’t a sub-species, elk were merely ‘extirpated’ from Ontario). The re-introduced elk have not been recognized by the province as a species at risk. Total elk population in Ontario, all from re-introduction efforts, is about 1,000. Some have been here (mostly in the Sudbury area) since 1932.

When I summarize the data from 2013 Lake of the Woods release site (soon), I’ll post it, and provide some more commentary.

prairie chicken-1

One thing about having to put up with living in the eye of the polar vortex, there’s time to think. It’s too cold to do much else. Hunkering down, I wondered how many of the few ruffed grouse that were around the house earlier in the winter were still alive. The lynx might have gotten a couple. Maybe once it warms, we’ll see if any birds start showing up to bud in the grove of white birch our house sits in. But first, it has to warm up. It has to.

At least ruffed grouse, as a species, are doing well. Not everywhere on their range, of course, but they remain common to abundant over vast stretches of the boreal forest. In some places, especially to the south where hardwoods dominate, they seem somewhat in trouble. If you’ve read, or get a chance to, ‘Redruff, the Story of the Don Valley Partridge’, by Ernest Thompson Seton, outlines some of the problems this grouse faces. I like Seton, as his narratives can be interpreted on a number of levels, and the classic story of Redruff, the ruffed grouse, does a particularly good job of illustrating how humans can, and do, simply overrun and irrevocably change things.

But there’s still lots of ruffed grouse and ruffed grouse habitat in Canada. Enough to allow for generous, regulated harvests. That’s great, as ruffed grouse is of one of, if not the best tasting upland game bird, anywhere. The flesh is light in colour, very delicate and in many households, like ours, they’re esteemed.

There are a number of other species of grouse in Canada, and some aren’t doing near as well as the ruffed grouse. Sage grouse have recently been provided with an emergency order by the federal government, which is intended to keep the birds from disappearing here and hopefully help restore their numbers, at least to some degree.

The order says, among other things, the following:

“The intent of an Emergency Order is to impose obligatory restrictions designed to protect the Sage-Grouse and its habitat on provincial and federal crown lands in Alberta and Saskatchewan with no restrictions on activities on private land, nor on grazing on provincial or federal crown lands. Our goal is to achieve the best protection for the Sage-Grouse while minimizing impacts on landowners and agricultural producers.”

We’ll have to wait and see how well that works out. There’s not a lot of sage grouse left – only somewhere between 100 and 200. And we all know governments have decidedly mixed track records when it comes to wildlife restoration projects.

The outlook is even worse for the greater prairie chicken. Although there were estimated to be a million of them in Canada in the early 1900’s, none have been seen since the late 1980’s. In 2009, they were declared to be extirpated from Canada. They still survive in the USA, including Minnesota and North Dakota, states which are immediately adjacent to southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where the best prairie chicken habitat in Canada once existed.

What went wrong? I think it can be summed up by simply stating the long grass prairie ecosystem, where prairie chickens thrived, was transformed, especially in Canada, into an agricultural sea. The habitat they needed, was no longer there. All gone.

Enough is known, I think, to restore prairie chickens to the Canadian landscape (prairie chickens and farming can and do co-exist), but society isn’t willing to make the effort nor pay the cost to see that happen.

There are many other, more burning issues, on the environmental plate. That means taking on giant agriculture because of the plight of the prairie chicken, isn’t on the main menu.

Too bad. I like chicken.