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Seeing as it’s almost Christmas, it seems timely to say something about Santa’s reindeer. It’s a story about caribou in Ontario, something published a couple of months back in Ontario Out of Doors. This is the unedited version. It’s likely different than what you read about caribou elsewhere.

Caribou occur across northern portions of Eurasia and North America and all caribou (and their domestic counterpart, reindeer) are the same species (Rangifer tarandus). In North America, there were originally 6 sub-species, but one is now extinct. From Manitoba east, all caribou are the woodland caribou sub-species (R. t. caribou).

Early in 2005, the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre compiled information on cervid (deer) populations from wildlife agencies and estimated there were 3.9 million caribou in the country, compared to about 3.2 million white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose combined.  Since then, populations have fluctuated somewhat, but it’s likely caribou numbers are still roughly equal or greater than the total of all other cervids. Back in 2005, it was thought there were about 21,000 caribou in Ontario – recent surveys suggest there are close to 30,000 in the province.

But in Ontario, there is no licensed caribou hunt. The last year licensed hunters could take a caribou here was in 1928. Why is this?

I believe the present policy of no licenced hunting of caribou in Ontario is a reflection of historical management actions coupled with a more recent trend favouring protectionism.

In her book ‘Canadian Wildlife and Man’, Dr. Anne Innis Dagg chronicled that in Ontario until 1946, big game management consisted mainly of setting open and closed seasons and bag limits, enforcing those regulations and paying bounties on timber wolves, coyotes and bears. In her opinion, that strategy wasn’t very effective, in large part because the government had few biologists on staff and little attention was paid to the biological basis of management.

With respect to caribou, the Ontario government of more than 100 years ago did know that caribou had ranged across the province as far south as Lake Nipissing, but range occupancy steadily receded after European settlement in the 1800’s.  By the early 1900’s caribou had had largely disappeared from the southern half of the province and concern over this led to the closure of the hunt for non-natives. However, no one really knows how many caribou there used to be on southern ranges. Brian Hutchinson, a former biologist with Parks Canada who had caribou conservation as one of his files, said “Many of the assumptions of caribou range in the early 1900’s are just that – assumptions.”

Once licensed hunting ceased, not much was done for years with respect to caribou management, despite the more modern, post ’46 approach to management.

What did occur? A provincial population estimate of 13,000 was made in 1965 from aerial surveys conducted between 1959 and 1964, and between 1951 and 1986 there were five reviews written on the status of caribou. In 1967 a report was published suggesting caribou numbers in the province were well below carrying capacity (based largely on lichen abundance, the staple winter food). In 1975 some habitat management initiatives began.

Hutchinson notes that aerial surveys of caribou are notoriously poor with respect to estimating numbers, which is why biologists mostly use ‘range occupancy’ as a surrogate for population.

In 1989 the MNR wrote a ‘background to a policy’ paper on woodland caribou which recommended the re-evaluation of the sport hunting closure and suggested that native peoples could derive economic benefits from marketing such a hunt. MNR’s Wildlife Branch spent considerable effort to produce a caribou policy which included the possibility of a licenced hunt, but the policy was never approved.

In recent years, MNR has focused on trying to manage caribou habitat to retain and restore populations on southern ranges. There has been emphasis on monitoring and research and two huge provincial parks, Woodland Caribou and Wabakimi, were created largely to protect caribou and caribou habitat.

Although all caribou in Ontario are the same sub-species, some biologists believe a finer level of classification is required for management. As such, woodland caribou that live in forested habitats have been labelled the forest-dwelling ecotype.  Woodland caribou that live on the open tundra, but migrate into the forest – usually to over-winter – are said to be the forest-tundra ecotype. Aboriginals in northern Manitoba also refer to the northern herds as migratory.

However, there’s no clear distinction between the two, as some caribou are known to hang out with the tundra-forest animals, sometimes for years, and then become forest dwellers at a later stage, or vice-versa. And genetic analysis has been arguably non-conclusive in terms of providing a clear distinction between herds and ecotypes.

Despite these issues, the forest dwelling ecotype has been identified as a Species at Risk (SAR) in Ontario, with a status of Endangered. This is consistent with the status of forest dwelling woodland caribou nationally – COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, declared the forest-dwelling ecotype as a nationally threatened species in 2000, based primarily on their perceived vulnerability and changes in range occupancy.

Regardless of what one thinks of management by ecotype, there are about 20,000 caribou in Ontario that live mostly on far northern ranges and are not managed as a SAR. This means licenced hunting is possible and does, in fact, occur – in Manitoba – where they regularly migrate.

Dr. James Duncan, Wildlife Branch Director of Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, believes the Manitoba licensed hunt, which is restricted to northern herds, is sustainable and would be willing to share their knowledge and experience with Ontario.

Mark Ryckman, Senior Wildlife Biologist with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, says the OFAH supports protection of caribou on southern ranges, but would be open to seeing a hunt in the far north.

It seems to me there is no valid reason why Ontario couldn’t have a licensed caribou hunt. There doesn’t appear to be a sustainability issue, and even if the number of tags available were small, important economic and social benefits would still be accrued.

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For a lot of us in northern Ontario, December 15 is the end of the hunting season. Sure, there’s wolves, varmints and hare that can still be hunted, and even ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and ptarmigan that can be taken in many areas, but over much of the north, the open season for deer and moose ends 1/2 hour after sunset on December 15. That’s it.

For a long time, December 15 was also the last day of the grouse and ptarmigan season, but a few years ago the season was extended to Dec 31st in a number of Wildlife Management Units (WMU’s) to provide ‘additional hunting opportunities’. I don’t know how many opportunities have actually been provided (no one is counting) but I suspect it’s not many. There’s not a lot of grouse to be seen once it gets cold and snowy. Probably the best way to hunt ruffies and spruce grouse late in the season is to spot them when they’re budding in birch, aspen or willow at dawn and dusk, but those birds are potted on a very opportunistic basis – maybe that’s the kind of opportunity managers had in mind when the season was extended.

As far as sharp-tailed grouse are concerned, they aren’t too common and most hunters seldom see them at any time. Ptarmigan are even rarer – I’ve lived in northern Ontario my whole life and have put on hundreds of thousands of kilometers walking, driving and flying across itt and I’ve never ever seen a single ptarmigan. But, in the WMU  I reside in, as well as most of the ones adjacent to it, I can hunt ptarmigan from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31. I have that opportunity.

Anyway, I’m no longer in hunt mode.

The 2014 fall hunt was good. Every hunting season is good, even those years when hunting itself wasn’t great. I wound up with a few ruffed grouse, a lone duck and from my Alberta hunt some pheasants, sharp-tails and huns. Neither Lil or I had an adult moose tag so the end result was I didn’t hunt moose at all. The deer hunt was tough but on Dec. 2nd I shot a nine pointer. It wasn’t Mr. Big, but I’m happy I got one. He’ll be tasty.

The big take-away for me this season is how common and widespread baiting has become for deer. I’m not a big fan of deer baiting; for one, sitting over a bait pail is just not my idea of  a deer hunt. But that’s just personal preference. There’s no doubt it works, and it’s a relatively easy hunt.

Baiting, however, might be increasing predation rates. Wherever I saw a bait pile (mostly alfalfa bales), I saw two things: lots of deer tracks and trails, and a lot of wolf tracks. Wolves aren’t stupid, so you can be assured that they’ll find out wherever deer are concentrating and proceed to chow down on the available venison.

The other concern I have with baiting is the danger of deer dying from their dietary change. There is little to no alfalfa in the forest environment and deer who become addicted to these alfalfa bales risk getting rumenitis. That’s what can happen as a result of inadequate microbial adaptation in the gut. They might eat a lot of alfalfa, but if they can’t digest it properly, death is often the result. I’ve heard of one death already.  Concentrating deer at bait piles also increases the risk of disease and parasite transmission among the deer themselves.

At any rate, in this area, a number of deer were taken over bait this year. It might even have been how most of the deer were harvested.

Not all jurisdictions allow deer baiting (Manitoba doesn’t). Looking at other species, hunters can generally bait for bear (although in some jurisdictions types of baits are regulated and sometimes only scents are allowed) and in many (most?) areas baiting waterfowl isn’t allowed. I don’t know of anyone who baits for moose, but I’m sure it’s been tried. It’s funny how inconsistent wildlife management principles can be.

I suspect the deer hunt will be tough again next year. Deer numbers were down noticeably, and everyone I’ve spoken to says the same. Buddies of mine in eastern Ontario didn’t see a single deer at their hunt camp this year. The harvest was down considerably in Manitoba (early indications were it was down about 50%), and I heard the hunt was tougher in much of the mid-west US.

Even if this winter is mild in my neck of the woods, there are a lot of wolves around, and they’ll be catching and eating whatever they can (even where there aren’t any left-over bait piles). With any luck, this will be the last year of high wolf numbers, which might then let deer numbers start to re-build. But we’re talking several years before there’s likely to be a noticeable improvement in numbers.

The moose situation is even more dire. There are simply none to be found across vast swaths of landscape. There are still some WMU’s with healthy moose populations, but in others they’re right now about as common as Sasquatch.

So the hunt is a wrap. Time to start hunting for Christmas presents.

 

 

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Hunting is about killing. It’s not what it’s all about, but it most certainly is a major factor in the hunting equation. Ontario’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act defines hunting as (a) lying in wait for, searching for, being on the trail of, pursuing, chasing or shooting at wildlife, whether or not the wildlife is killed, injured, captured or harassed, or (b) capturing or harassing wildlife.

But’s let us focus for a moment on killing. After all, when hunting, that’s the end game.

Hunters know there are only so many animals that can be harvested out of any given population. That’s why we have seasons and limits. If we kill more than the population can produce, the population will decline. Keep that up and at some point, there won’t be any left. Owing mainly to unregulated, over-harvest, there wasn’t a lot of big game left over much of North America by the early 20th century. When a clamp down on harvest finally came, populations began to recover.

Recently in Ontario, following a time of plenty, populations of moose and to a lesser extent deer, are in decline. Despite evidence to the contrary, I think senior executives responsible for managing Ontario’s wildlife believe deer and moose will recover, without hunters having to make sacrifices,

It’s not hunters! It’s the wolves! The bears! Climate change! Disease and parasites!

For decades, Ontario deer hunters and managers resisted making changes to the ‘one license, one deer’ way of deer management. Americans clearly demonstrated that when deer populations were low, restricting the harvest of antlerless deer was the quickest and easiest way to see deer populations bounce back. But for years, Ontarians resisted change mightily. Fortunately, change eventually came and today, with a deer management system that regulates the antlerless kill, Ontario deer populations are in much better shape.

So I don’t understand the complaints when antlerless deer quotas and additional seal numbers were lowered following the vicious 2013-14 winter.

But these days it’s moose hunters and moose managers who really seem to be in denial. There is no doubt moose populations have been in decline for years. Maybe predators are a problem, but does anyone really believe Ontario could wage a war on wolves and bears so hunters can shoot more moose? Improving how moose habitat is managed might help, but the magnitude of the undertaking is enormous and will take years to implement. Resolve climate change and disease and parasite problems? No easy solutions there.

As human and hunter populations grow, all hunters are facing a scenario of shrinking supply and growing demand.

Hunters are going to have to work together and be realistic as to what they can harvest. That means licenced hunters as well as rights based hunters.

It doesn’t mean ignoring other management options.

But if we don’t do a better job of reducing our harvest when populations fall – particularly for species like moose and deer – the situation will worsen.

Dead animals don’t reproduce. Dead is dead.