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In Ontario, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), is undertaking a review of the present moose management program. It’s the latest in a long list of moose management reviews that have been done over the years.

The moose is the largest member of the deer family in the world. They are an important game animal in no small way because they are highly edible. They taste good. The harvest of a single moose can provide the meat needs for a few people for a year. And bulls grow large antlers, which provide hunters with a trophy and fond memories of past hunts.

Ontario has about 100,000 moose, give or take. Numbers go up and down; right now, they have been on a downward slide in most of the province for several years. People are worried about the moose population – hence the review. The MNRF review is scheduled to occur over the next couple of years.

I’ve written about the plight of moose on this blog, in magazine articles and recently published in the journal Alces a case study that was a review of deer and moose over the past many decades in Ontario’s Kenora District.

I don’t know what the terms are for the new moose review, but here’s what I think are the issues; it’s pretty much what the issues always are:

  • hunting
  • predation
  • disease and parasites
  • habitat

With respect to hunting, there’s much that could be done to help rebuild moose populations. Some of what’s recently (e.g., drastic reduction in adult tags, shortening of the calf season) been done might be helping to re-build herds in some Wildlife Management Units (WMUs), but problems remain.  For starters, I think that harvest strategies that are applied mostly across the province don’t work the same everywhere – for example, seasons and bag limits need to be more flexible and be tailored more closely to suit local conditions. I’m not the only one who believes we are still shooting too many cows and calves in some WMUs. Few, if any, other jurisdictions that manage moose allow the level of hunting for cows and calves that Ontario does.

The biggest hunting problem, though, is cultural. Few hunters believe the MNRF is doing, or has been doing, a good job of moose management. They lost faith in the system and many hunters are so frustrated they are openly flaunting the rules. More than 60 moose were seized by MNRF Conservation Officers during the first couple of weeks of the hunt. Typical offences were shooting a moose for which the hunter(s) had no valid tag, perhaps in a WMU where the tag did not apply, or shooting in an unlawful manner or place (e.g., shooting from a boat, on a road or at night).

People are doing unlawful things and have lost faith in the system for many reasons. One big one is how the draw or tag system works.

In Ontario, a hunter needs to buy a moose licence to be eligible to apply in a draw for a tag. A tag is usually valid for either a bull or a cow, in a specific WMU. In a few WMUs, a tag is also required to harvest a calf moose. In many WMUs with a moose hunting season, there is both an archery only season and a general gun season.

Everyone who buys a moose licence can hunt moose. Party hunting is allowed. There are some caveats, but basically, if a group of several hunters goes moose hunting, anyone in the party can shoot a moose as long as someone in the party has an adult validation tag.

If no one has an adult validation tag, then hunters can only hunt calf moose. The moose season in most of northern Ontario is 8 or 9 weeks in length, but the calf season is only open now during about two weeks of the moose season.

Rather than get into more details at this point, I think it’s worthwhile to look at a couple of what I and many others think are fundamental problems with the system as so far discussed.

First, everyone can buy a moose licence which allows everyone to hunt moose. But as described, to hunt an adult moose, a hunter must have an adult validation tag. A validation tag is available through a draw – some validation tags (typically about 12-14% of the total available in the province) are allocated to the tourist industry (outfitters) and can be purchased from the outfitter. Most resident hunters opt for the draw, as non-residents, for the most part, can hunt only through a tourist outfitter. As a result, a moose hunt through a tourist outfitter is pricey.

The basic problem with the draw system is that a hunter must purchase their licence before being eligible to enter the draw. The draw is random, with two pools – a preferred pool (Pool 1) and a non-preferred pool (Pool 2). To be in the preferred pool, one had to have applied previously and have been unsuccessful in drawing a tag.  First time moose hunters are in the non-preferred pool as are moose hunters who drew a tag through the draw in the previous year.

Some hunters are lucky and frequently draw an adult validation tag; others might go 10 or more years without drawing a tag. There are some wrinkles to the system, but that’s the essence of Ontario’s moose draw system.

The simple pool that can result in going years without a tag coupled with the need to buy a moose licence before knowing whether you actually will get a tag has resulted in a great deal of discontent among Ontario moose hunters and is one of the major factors why hunters have lost faith in the system.

Other jurisdictions with a draw for big game animals, including moose (such as Alberta and Wyoming, to name a couple), charge a modest fee to enter into the draw, but don’t require you to buy a licence unless you get drawn and are eligible for a validation tag. In Alberta, every time you apply for a tag, but don’t get one, you get a point. The way that system works is that hunters with the most points get a tag.

For example, if there are 10 tags in a WMU and 50 people apply and have been applying every year, one gets a tag every 5 years. If more tags become available (e.g., because the moose population increased) and the number of applicants remained the same, it might take only 4, or 3 years to draw a tag. If the population dropped or moose hunter applicants increased, it would take more years to get a tag.

But it allows the hunter with a relative amount of certainty to see where and when they are likely to get a tag. A hunter can apply to whichever WMU they wish; some will take longer to get a tag, some less – but the hunter has much better certainty about the chances of getting drawn. Plus, one doesn’t have to dish out the expense of a licence every year, which is a plus to hunters worrying about costs, which over time, can add up.

Ontario justifies its system partly on the basis that all hunters can still go hunting – party hunting is allowed and everyone can hunt calf moose.

Few jurisdictions provide these opportunities and for good reasons. Party hunting can be quite effective and killing calf moose has been shown to be an impediment to maintaining moose populations. Other jurisdictions tend to have much more restrictive party hunting regulations than what’s allowed in Ontario. It was also once thought that the hunter kill of calf moose would have little or no impact on moose population growth, because the hunter harvest of calf moose would be what biologists call ‘compensatory’. In other words, if hunters didn’t kill calf moose, wolves, or bears or other causes of mortality would, and at the end of a year the number of calf moose that survived to be one year of age (and require an adult validation tag to be harvested by hunters) would be the same.

However, that theory has been thoroughly debunked. Except where the hunter harvest is relatively low and moose productivity high (e.g., areas with excellent habitat conditions and relatively low numbers of wolves and bears), hunting calf moose is additive mortality. It makes sense – adult moose were once calves; kill too many calves and where do the adult moose come from? Not the cabbage patch.

There’s lots more that can and could and should be done to improve the management – and numbers – of Ontario’s moose herds.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be discussing many of them.

In the interim, I think we need to fundamentally change the way the draw system works. Sticking with the same system and expecting things to improve is insane. We need a system that hunters can support. Without the support of hunters, all is lost.

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I recently returned from a mule deer hunt in Alberta. On the last day of the season, I was able to fill my tag with a nice buck, with help from my good friend and hunter host Glenn.

Unfortunately, I don’t know whether the deer will be edible.

In this part of Alberta, north of Medicine Hat and close to the Saskatchewan border, mule deer have a high incidence of chronic wasting disease, or CWD. Our friend Rob, who often hunts with us, has had his last two harvested mule deer from the same area (2017 and 2018) test +ve for CWD; he’s had a total of 3 +ve CWD mulie bucks over the past 5 years.

CWD is a prion disease thought to have originated from scrapie in sheep, but no one knows for sure. Prions are very weird, in that they are a ‘bent’ protein, not a virus or bacteria; so they are not a living entity in the classic sense. My friend Brian thinks they fall into the realm of ‘magic’, as they defy reason. There is no cure and once an animal is infected, the disease is always fatal. Apparently, the incubation period is a minimum of about a year, sometimes more than two years in mule deer, before clinical signs begin to develop (drooling, body tremors, loss of weight).

Worst of all, it seems you can’t get rid of CWD from the environment. It survives in soil and vegetation for upwards of a decade and even autoclaving won’t destroy it. Magic.

There is fear that as it becomes prevalent in a deer population, extinction of infected herds is a possibility. Game departments in a number of states and provinces are limiting movement of hunter harvested deer by enacting legislation that makes it unlawful to move around or import unprocessed carcasses. That means the animal must be de-boned and antlers on the skull plate cleaned. It’s hoped this reduces the rate of spread of the disease as these parts harbor most of the prions.

Where CWD is prevalent, or where there are worries it might show up, it’s either mandatory or recommended that the head of a harvested deer is submitted for testing, dependent on the jurisdiction and specific area the deer was harvested from.

It’s often said CWD is unlikely to jump the species barrier, but if it came from sheep, and is known to now occur in mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, moose and caribou/reindeer, that claim doesn’t seem to hold a lot of water.

As of yet, it has not been diagnosed in humans, but the World Health Organization recommends against consumption of a CWD infected animal.

Trying to stop the spread and rate of infection of this disease is more than a challenge. There’s just not enough known about the disease.

For one, it seems old, mature mule deer bucks are much more likely to get infected than younger bucks or does of any age. In Alberta, whitetails on the same range as mulies have a very low rate of infection as well, although in other jurisdiction, for example in Wisconsin, whitetails in ‘hotspots’ do have high rates of infection. Free-ranging elk don’t seem to be particularly vulnerable to infection. Moose can become infected, but it’s rare. Reindeer in Norway were recently found with CWD (how did it get there? Previously, it had only been documented in the USA and Canada, at least as far as I can tell. CWD is not as yet a problem in Canadian or Alaskan caribou.

In elk, some specific genotypes don’t get the disease, but these animals, apparently, are rare in the population and exhibit other traits that make them undesirable. One such elk in a US compound has survived for years in a pen where all other elk that have been placed there over the years became infected and died. Her name is ‘Lucky’.

Other than trying to restrict movement of hunter harvested carcasses, the other method game agencies have used to try and stop the spread of the disease has been to de-populate deer in the area deer were been found to be infected (the Norwegians killed 2500 reindeer when they detected the disease in a couple of animals). This action seems to work in early stages, when only one or two animals have been found with CWD; but once it’s established, de-population is probably a lost cause. Killing all the deer to try and stop the disease from killing all the deer seems  . . . pointless, comes to mind.

In Alberta, the rumour is that mule deer management practices are going to change, perhaps as early as 2019, to try and contain the disease. Presently, mule deer are managed mostly through a draw, which directly limits harvest levels. This management practice has been in place for many years and resulted in Alberta substantially improving the overall quality of the buck harvest – a lot of bucks were able to live long enough to grow a big set of antlers.

But if it’s old bucks that are most likely to get and spread the disease, the thinking is that maybe it’s time to reduce the average age of mulie bucks. The easiest way to do that would seem to be to relax harvest restrictions by managing mule deer with a ‘General’ license; e.g., getting rid of the quota system and simply requiring hunters to buy a mule deer license/tag that’s valid during the open hunting season. More hunters, a higher harvest, fewer mule deer overall and far fewer old bucks.

That might work, except maybe not. In south-east Alberta, where CWD is most prevalent, there are large acreages that are more or less mule deer sanctuaries, and wouldn’t be affected by an easing of hunting restrictions. First off, there’s CFB Suffield; it’s 45,836 ha in size and right now, only open to limited elk hunting. There are also numerous large ranches (often these ranches are 10’s of thousands of acres in size) that either prohibit or severely restrict hunting, so any liberalization of hunting of mule deer would have little or no impact on those areas.

On the other hand, what are the options?

One thing for sure, more research effort is required. Unfortunately, because CWD impacts mostly on game animals and the hunting community – and hasn’t caused human illness or death (yet!!!) it’s a low priority for governments everywhere.

Still, there’s hope. Very recently, a bulletin from the Wildlife Society said “researchers found that high levels of major compounds in soil organic matter — humic acids — degrade CWD prions. When prions in soil were exposed to high concentrations of humic acids, researchers found lower levels of them. They also noted lower levels of infectivity in mice that were exposed to soil with higher levels of humic acids.” That’s good, and welcome news.

But more work is needed. Now.

In the meantime, I’ll be waiting for the results of testing on the mule deer I tagged.

Fingers crossed.