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Monthly Archives: February 2016

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On February 19, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) announced a major expansion of the pilot spring bear hunt (SBH). In short, there’s going to be a SBH much like it was before the cancellation of it in 1999 (the hunt will go on for 5 years as proposed and then be ‘evaluated’).

There are some new restrictions, particularly with respect to bait, namely:

  • Bait must not be placed within 500 metres of a residence unless written permission is obtained from the residence’s owner
  • Bait must not be placed within 500 metres of a public building
  • Bait must not be placed within 200 metres of a right of way for public vehicle traffic or a marked public recreational trail.

The SBH was cancelled in 1999 for almost entirely political reasons. The government of the day, the Harris Progressive Conservatives, were being threatened by the owner of a business called, I believe, Husky Molding, to finance opposition members in swing ridings unless the spring bear hunt was cancelled. Polling at the time suggested the conservatives would lose those ridings; polls also said most residents of Ontario, including resident hunters, weren’t in support of the SBH, or were indifferent to cancellation. However, once it was cancelled, resident hunters had a case of ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone’. Over time, the calls for reinstatement of the SBH grew louder and louder. Resident hunters wanted it, loss of the hunt resulted in a significant loss of revenue for MNRF (formerly, just MNR) and it had a large and negative impact on the northern Ontario tourism industry, so they wanted it. For a while, none of that seemed to matter much, but in recent years several things happened that eventually made the politicians change their minds, and decide it was in their interest to bring back the SBH.

What changed the politicians’ minds were: 1) the continued deterioration of Ontario’s economic situation; 2) a nuisance bear problem in many northern Ontario communities that just won’t go away; 3) the decline of both moose and deer populations; and, 4) growing dissatisfaction with the party in power (in this case, the Liberals).

Let’s address these:

  1. Bringing back the SBH will pump, potentially, millions of dollars (and mostly US dollars) into MNRF, the tourism industry and the Ontario economy in general. That’s a good thing.
  2. I don’t think it will do much to address the nuisance bear problems, since there have always been nuisance bears (the nuisance bear problem might be reduced if bear populations get really whacked, but that might lead to an even bigger problem; see below). When there’s a food shortage (i.e., a failure of the blueberry crop), bears migrate to wherever the food is, like towns and cities, as lots of people have gardens and there’s almost always garbage somewhere. Removal of these bears by shooting and/or trapping/relocating bears in built-up areas will remain problematic. On the other hand, the government can claim they’re ‘doing the best/all we can’, positive from their perspective.
  3. Killing more bears (and wolves, which is also being ‘addressed’, see my Jan. 1 post ‘Missing the Mark’) might increase moose and deer calf and fawn survival to a small degree, but wildlife biologists believe the recent declines in moose and deer have lots of issues, including over-harvest, disease and parasites, weather (including climate change) and deteriorating habitat quality. Revenue to the MNRF from the sale of bear licenses, however, will help make up for at least some losses from the declining sale of moose and deer licenses (the MNRF budget is heavily dependent on license sales).
  4. How much bringing back the spring bear hunt helps the electoral prospects of the Liberals is debatable. It might make hunters happy, but may not translate into votes.

Personally, I think the return of the SBH is okay, maybe even a good thing, but I’m not entirely satisfied with the ‘new’ hunt for the following reasons:

  1. When the spring bear hunt was cancelled, the fall bear hunt was increased in length. It used to open (before the SBH was cancelled) September 10 over most of northern Ontario; after the SBH cancellation, the fall hunt opening was moved to August 15. With both a spring and fall hunt, the open season is now longer than it’s ever been in recent times. In addition to having to be concerned about camouflaged bear hunters in the blueberry patch in August (which many, including me, have never been too appreciative of), there’s the following point ‘2’;
  2. There’s still no quota on the bear harvest. Although the current harvest is well below what is believed to be sustainable, the number of bear hunters that could flood in, especially from the USA, is virtually unlimited. The result could be a significant over-harvest in some areas. Where I live, that was a big issue in the years immediately before the cancellation of the SBH;
  3. Although you can’t shoot a mother bear in the spring if it’s accompanied by cubs (or the cubs themselves), most places don’t have the same restriction in the fall. However, cubs often spend the 1st winter with their mother. I have serious doubts that small bear cubs orphaned in August have much chance of survival (the data that says it’s OK to orphan cubs in the fall is skimpy); and
  4. While mandatory reporting of black bear harvest is in effect, Ontario has never laid charges with failing to fill out a mandatory hunt report. In governmentspeak, it will be  “a challenge” to keep harvest levels to what’s sustainable, based on available data, especially at the Wildlife Management Unit level.

How this all plays out, who’s to know? My biggest concern is that if there is a large influx of non-resident hunters and the bear population over the next 5 years gets hammered, there’s a good chance of a huge hue and cry and the SBH gets cancelled once again. Given the lightening speed of communication via social media – coupled with the fabulous currency exchange rate that favours American hunters – I believe the potential for an onslaught of bear hunters is very real.

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These days you hear and read a lot about how government departments, agencies and other businesses are making decisions that are based on science. They call it ‘science, or evidence-based’ decision making. Like most of what you see or hear, there’s a kernel of truth there, but often not much more than that.

Since this is a blog about wildlife, I’m going to limit my comments to that subject. But if you think about what’s going all around you with respect to social, economic and other matters, I’m sure you’ll come to the same conclusion. In other words, a lot of talk, but not much walk.

Back to wildlife. . . I’d like to see the science behind a ruffed grouse daily limit of 5, possession limit of 15 . . . because there is none. Studies done decades ago that concluded hunting has little impact on grouse numbers have long been debunked. Hunting does have an impact, especially where the landscape is highly fragmented, hunting pressure is on the high side, and predators abound – like much of southern Ontario. Ruffed grouse numbers across a large swath of the south of this province have been poor for years, but daily bag and possession limits are the same everywhere, and seasons are long (interestingly, they’re the longest in the south! I guess the philosophy is there are so few grouse and the birds are so wily, you need a lot of time to chase after them, especially to have the hope of bagging enough for a hearty meal).

If we go to the opposite end of the spectrum (biomass wise) you get a moose season (again, in Ontario) that has virtually unlimited calf hunting (everyone who buys a moose licence can hunt and kill a calf, although the magnitude of this problem was sort of recognized and the length of the wide open calf moose hunt changed last year. Now, the wide open moose calf season is only two weeks in duration across the core of the moose range, as opposed to the 11 weeks it used to be). But cow moose, even if they accompanied by a calf, can still be hunted during the ‘general’ moose season. Here’s an instance where the science has shown that orphaned calf moose have little chance of survival in areas where wolves are common (and wolves are common over almost the entire moose range in Ontario), yet the science is given short shrift. It’s no way to address declining moose populations.

So instead of really getting at the heart of the issue (i.e., reducing or eliminating the harvest of cows and calves where moose populations are severely depressed, and not letting bulls be killed prior to the rut – which is also going on), the management solution that’s set to be implemented is to ease up on wolf hunting restrictions, hoping a higher wolf harvest will lead to fewer wolves, less predation, and therefore more moose. That might work, but again, the scientific evidence that it will, is darn skimpy. Working against the plan is the fact that in the past, when wolves in Ontario could be hunted with no limit (under the new proposal, the season limit will be two wolves) and people were allowed to pursue them and shoot them from airplanes, wolf numbers in Ontario remained robust. And killing lots of wolves to provide more moose for hunters isn’t exactly something that a large portion of society views favourably.

There are lots of other examples of wildlife being managed despite what the scientific evidence suggests is the prudent course; enough, I’m certain, to fill a large book.

But instead, let’s just look at one more.

It’s as close to irrefutable as I can imagine that unregulated hunting – anywhere – can lead to serious declines in populations of wildlife. Occasionally, as in the case of the great auk and arguably the passenger pigeon, hunter harvest was the primary cause of their extinction. Other species in North America, including elk, antelope, bison and wild turkey, were almost hunted to extinction, but survived. Fortunately, herculean efforts by dedicated conservationists prevented these and other animals from going extinct and restoration efforts – including highly regulated hunting – have seen populations rebound dramatically.

But over large swaths of Canada, the magnitude of unregulated hunting is now rapidly expanding and wildlife is once again under the gun. It’s a huge threat to wildlife and it’s happening despite evidence provided by science; the issue is being ignored in favour of narrow, legalistic, guilt-ridden social concerns. What I’m talking about, of course, are rights-based hunting privileges.

In most of Canada, based on the Supreme Court of Canada’s interpretation of Treaty, Aboriginal and Métis Rights, as enshrined by Canada’s constitution (which came into effect in 1982), Aboriginal and Métis people can hunt (and do a bunch of other things ordinary Canadians can’t do) with little or no regard to provincial or federal regulations. Yes, there are some restrictions (for example, the geographic area where ‘impunity’ applies may be restricted to a Treaty area, where Treaties have been signed), but by and large there are: no requirements to have a hunting license, no bag limits; no specific hunting seasons for the species in question; and, no need to follow a number of other regulations that apply to the general hunting public (for example, in Ontario only licensed big game hunters need to wear specific types of clothing, i.e., hunter orange; and, only licensed hunters can’t night hunt).

In essence, these ‘rights-based’ individuals are outside the law and their activities (in this case, hunting), can’t be managed or regulated by the provincial and/or the federal authorities charged with managing wildlife on a sustainable basis. In theory, Aboriginal and Métis people can manage themselves, but there are, for the most part, no legal mechanisms in place to ensure that happens and also nothing to enforce compliance. Besides, many or even most people and communities with these rights don’t want or think there is any need for restraint. Given that all hunters, whether licensed or rights-based, have access to all the modern marvels of technology (e.g., 4X4s, ATVs, GPS, 10 million power candlelight spotlights, etc.), it’s easy to see there needs to be regulations that limit the hunter kill.

It’s a large and growing problem with no solution in sight. The likely outcome, I think, is that many populations of wildlife will be hunted down to low levels, like they were by European colonialists, before everyone ‘wakes up’ and realizes a regulatory framework for all people, regardless of their race, needs to be in place if wildlife is to survive and thrive.

It’s interesting how history repeats itself. It’s also interesting how people who profess to be committed to science/evidence based decision making can so easily turn a blind eye to reality when the fog of being politically correct consumes the soul.

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pic: a flying squirrel

One of the more popular and interesting (for a number of reasons) developments in wildlife world in recent years are trail cameras; cameras that can be left out in the woods and take pictures of whatever comes by. These cameras are not only really popular with hunters; wildlife managers and researchers like them too. They’re also used by those who are simply curious as to what lives in the fields and woods near them. Finally, trail cams are very useful for security purposes.

We (I and fellow volunteers) use them to aid in monitoring of an elk herd we introduced to the area in 2000 and 2001. The elk have had their share of problems – especially poaching and predation by wolves – but the animals have hung on and are holding their own. The really bad winter of 2013-14 set things back some, but last winter and this winter have been more moderate and should help the herd get back on track and resume growing.

During the summer, we usually change the cards once a month in each of the seven critter cams we have (we don’t put them out in fall or winter; again, for a variety of reasons). It’s astounding what gets recorded. Sometimes there are in excess of 10,000 images – from a single card – to sort through. Granted, there are lots and lots of images of nothing more than leaves waving in the wind, but we’ve recorded images of the majority of species one would expect to see. Photos of elk (including huge bulls engaged in great fights), deer, moose, bear, and wolves abound, but we’ve also got pics of grouse, flying squirrels, mice and voles, lynx, hares, foxes and a whole lot more. No cougars, though.

My spouse and I also use trail cams on our property (232 acres of mostly woods) to monitor the wildlife, particularly to spy on the deer. Every year the trail cam sees deer we never see with our eyeballs.

Still, I have to admit I have mixed feelings about trail cams, especially their widespread use by hunters. Trail cams let hunters know what’s out there as well as the habits of their quarry. Some trail cams even have Wi-Fi capability, so in some locales, hunters can live-stream what’s happening to the internet, or have it rigged so that when an image is taken, it pops up on one’s computer instantly. Hunters use that information to then set-up ambushes knowing they are in the right place, and also know the best times to watch.  Often bait is used to further the advantage in favour of the hunter (some jurisdictions have restrictions on baiting, but in Ontario, only waterfowl and turkeys presently have baiting restrictions).

In the past, it took a great deal of time and effort to hone the skills required if one wanted to be a good hunter and woodsman (which includes women!). Of course, it still takes skill to master the intricacies of technology, but being a good techie doesn’t equate in my mind with being what I think a hunter is or should be. I sometimes think using all this technology to aid in the hunt just isn’t ethical.

Maybe I’m just an old fart with old ideas the world no longer has much a use for. I’m OK with that – my main worry is the animals we share the planet with. There is no way they can evolve fast enough to keep up with the technological changes going on. It seems legislation is also having a hard time staying on top of constantly changing technologies.

I suppose given all the issues facing wildlife and wildlife management, trail cameras are probably only a minor worry. And I have to admit, using trail cams sure is a lot of fun.