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Behaviour

The column I submitted, which was edited and published in the 2020 Ontario Out of Doors Hunting Annual. As usual, this is the unedited version – except I noticed in reading the mag column I had the directions of deer movement into northwestern Ontario opposite of what it should have been (east vs west) I fixed that here. The other difference is the editor added ‘Coues Deer’ to my mention of the Key Deer that Canadian snowbirds might be familiar with. I don’t know how many Arizona snowbirds are familiar with the Coues Deer, but maybe they are.

Anyway, the deer season here opens on Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, which is next weekend.

Deer numbers are WAY WAY down from a few years back, and there are not a lot of big bucks around, let alone deer period.

But, I’m optimistic I’ll see at least a few. Probably. Hopefully . . .

At any rate, here’s the column.

I have captions for these photos, but I have no idea how you can see them!!! Before WordPress changed their format, the caption was visible simply by moving your cursor on the photo. Now, that doesn’t work. The captions are ‘lost’ . . .

However, if you click on the photos, I’ve provided captions in the ‘comments’ section. That was the only way I could figure out how to do it.

In recent years, many of us have read and heard a lot about the ‘Algonquin Wolf’, ‘Non-migratory, Forest Dwelling Woodland Caribou’ and other animals that some think are unique species, sub-species or ecotypes. However, when it comes to the White-tailed Deer, most assume all whitetails are the same, except, perhaps, for the diminutive Key Deer of Florida, familiar to many Canadian snowbirds. But for most, a whitetail is a whitetail, no matter where it’s found.

And, maybe, that’s true. As I’ve written before, in the world of taxonomy, there are lumpers and there are splitters. Lumpers tend to view species with often quite different physiological, biochemical and behavioral differences – like the white-tailed deer – as ‘plastic’, characteristics which enable it to survive and thrive in a wide ranging set of environmental conditions. But wherever they are and whatever the differences, they’re first and foremost a White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

Splitters put greater emphasis on differences and identify groups with unique sets of characteristics as sub-species, ecotypes or simply populations. In general, many believe sub-species are new species ‘in the making’.

At any rate, most biologists agree with the concept of sub-species even if they argue amongst themselves what is and isn’t one. To that end, it’s generally acknowledged that “no less than 30 sub-species [of White-tailed Deer] are recognized in North and Central America”.

Ontario is home to two of these sub-species. In most of the province, the deer people are familiar with is the Northern Woodland Whitetail (O.v. borealis). However, along a thin strip of northwestern Ontario, adjacent to the Manitoba border – in the Kenora and Fort Frances areas – the sub-species is believed to be the Dakota Whitetail (O.v. dakotensis). This is also the sub-species of the Canadian prairies and the northern plains of the USA.

The Dakota deer was first observed and scientifically described in 1856 in – no surprise – North Dakota.  Dakota deer are renowned for their massive body size and huge antlers. The current Boone & Crockett world-record typical whitetail – taken by Milo Hansen in Saskatchewan – was a Dakota deer. Of particular interest to Ontarians are the top two B&C non-typical Ontario deer – both came from that strip of northwestern Ontario said to be the home of the Dakota whitetail.

When I first moved to Kenora as the District Wildlife Biologist for what was then the MNR, there was much talk in town as well as the office about ‘mule deer’. Mule deer were invariably monster bucks with racks so much bigger than ‘normal’ deer that they had to be mule deer, because, ‘as everyone knew’ mule deer were much bigger than whitetails.  Since then, over many years, I’ve examined untold dozens of deer from northwestern Ontario – bucks, big and small, young and old and none were mule deer. But some were definitely gigantic. And that goes for both antlers and body size.

Many of these brutes had racks of great mass that were often unusually craggy and adorned with multiple tines of all shapes and sizes.

It’s not unusual for bucks 4 ½ years old and older from the Kenora and Fort Frances areas to field dress out at 220 plus pounds. My biggest bodied buck – a 10 + year old Methuselah – weighed a hefty 260 pounds field dressed. To do a shoulder mount, the taxidermist had to use the form from an elk.

Behavioral differences in sub-species are often documented. As I wrote in a recent column, deer in the northwest gave wildlife officials headaches for years when it came to policies regarding deer yard management, because deer there don’t ‘yard’ like they do in the rest of the province. Of particular interest is that even in areas where they do congregate, they seldom hole up in cedar swamps.

Another characteristic of the Dakota whitetail is a coat that is lighter in colour than other sub-species.

While there is little doubt that there are subtle differences between deer in the extreme northwest as compared to the rest of the province – and elsewhere – do these differences warrant sub-species classification?

Some of the difficulties with answering this question lie with changes that have happened in the years since most of these deer sub-species were initially identified and described.

For one, deer, like many North American game species, were greatly reduced in numbers during the carnage that occurred after Europeans began to colonize the continent and up until modern game laws began to be implemented in the early 1900’s.

In many areas, deer were virtually wiped-out, so one solution was to trap, transport and translocate deer from areas of abundance to areas where they were scarce or gone. Not much attention was paid to which sub-species was being moved where, so there was a considerable mixing of gene pools.

In addition, habitat alterations have occurred on a massive scale and continue to this day. Deer often have been able to take advantage of those habitat changes and so the range and distribution of deer – everywhere – has been affected. Deer are thought to have been absent from all of northwestern Ontario prior to the very late 1800’s.

Did Dakota deer expand east into Ontario and the Northern Woodland deer expand west? There is no ‘gap’ in the range distribution between the two sub-species. 

Regardless of the sub-species, the White-tailed Deer is not only a challenge to hunt – they’re a challenge to study.

I haven’t blogged for many months. I’m sure most will understand when I say ‘there have been a myriad of reasons’ for my yap gap.

My last post was – posted – before the Covid madness had descended. The pandemic has changed every-bodies lives, everywhere in the world and continues to do so.

There’s a lot of talk about what the new normal is going to be, the one that emerges after all this period of change settles down, but who’s to know when that will be, or what it will look like. A phrase that I keep going back to is one about how the only constant in our lives is change. Every day is a new day, also comes to mind.

Except for a swath along the equator, most of the world sees constant, seasonal change. Even equatorial regions have alternating wet and dry seasons. No two seasons are ever exactly the same, although patterns and trends may be clearly evident.

Since my last posting, the ice and snow that covered our field, marsh and forest has melted away, replaced by many shades of mostly greens. A blue pond now compliments the summer skies. Goslings and ducklings have come to be and fawns now need be aware of bears as well as wolves. It’s summer!

Anyway, thoughts about the consistency of change that comes with the seasons is an underlying premise of this blog. Things are always different than they used to be, although trends are clearly evident..

The posting has been published. It’s my latest column in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. 

As per my practice, the posting is the unedited version of the column. I know the two are always a bit different, but I seldom compare the two and if I do, it’s only a very cursory look. Editors edit – that’s their job and most are good at it.

I’ll keep posting. There was a time when I posted about once a week – well, I can’t do that anymore.

Until next time, stay safe.

 

What Goes Up, Does Come Down

By: Bruce Ranta

I heard the hunter before I saw him. When we met on the trail, he looked at me, somewhat perplexed, then blurted out “They’re extinct!”

We were hunting moose – moose weren’t ‘extinct’, of course, but it did seem that way. Neither of us had seen a fresh track or any other sign of moose.

Unfortunately, the lack of moose didn’t surprise me. Moose on my stomping grounds close to my Kenora home had been on a steep decline for several years – and not just where I liked to hunt. Moose populations had been on a similar downhill slide in much of northwestern Ontario, neighboring Manitoba and Minnesota, as well as further afield, in places like Vermont and New Hampshire.

What was going on?

There were many theories. To sort it through, Dr. Murray Lankester, a parasitologist with Lakehead University and I analysed data pertaining to moose and deer in the Kenora area going back, in some cases, over 100 years. We concluded that several factors were driving forces behind moose (and deer) population fluctuations.[i]

For one, we found that both moose and deer populations surged in the aftermath of large, landscape scale disturbances, namely fires, large blowdowns, clear-cut logging and spruce budworm epidemics.  Deer abundance was also tied to winter severity – long, cold and snowy winters knocked deer down – short winters without much snow saw big upticks in deer numbers.

In the 1990s, deer and moose numbers swelled in tandem. Winters were mild and food was abundant. Even a bad winter in 1995 didn’t have much of an impact on deer – the woods were full of easy to reach and nutritious arboreal lichens growing on millions of balsam trees killed by a spruce budworm outbreak. The same thing had happened 40 years earlier.

When deer became super-abundant, moose numbers began to plummet. Brain worm appeared to be a factor. The parasite has no discernible impact on deer, but is deadly on moose. When deer densities get above 4-5 deer/km2, the disease becomes problematic to moose.

Deer densities rose to at least twice that level.

Exacerbating the problem was the weather – a series of wet summers made conditions ideal for terrestrial snails and slugs, the brainworm’s conduit for the disease.

High deer numbers also led to skyrocketing wolf numbers.

The quantity and quality of moose browse declined precipitously with a slowdown in logging and the maturing of burns and blowdowns.

In short order, the moose population crashed.

Deer eventually depleted the supply of arboreal lichens. Winters turned cold and snowy. Wolves were everywhere. Deer too, crashed.

Today, there aren’t a lot of moose or deer in much of the Kenora area (except in the city where deer are relatively safe from wolves and people feed them).

With deer numbers down, will the moose recover?

Maybe, although with only low levels of logging and no recent large forest fires or blowdowns, moose habitat is presently sub-optimal.

Deer have continued their downward spiral owing to a spate of snowy winters and continued predation by wolves. With few deer, wolves will eventually crash. Then, with at least a few mild winters – deer might stage a comeback. The next spruce budworm epidemic will help, but that’s still a few years off (budworm outbreaks occur about every 40 years).

The fact is, ups and downs are normal in many populations of wildlife.  Stable populations, especially in seasonal climates, are the rarity.

What happened in the Kenora area isn’t exactly why moose – or deer – numbers have gone up or down elsewhere. Still, there are parallels and commonalities.

Food availability is commonly linked to population changes, as is weather, the abundance of predators and human hunting pressure. Diseases are also problematic, especially during population peaks.

Across North America, some populations of barren ground caribou have recently shown dramatic declines. Although somewhat alarming, it’s not unprecedented. Northern herds have a history of spectacular ups and downs. In Alaska, the caribou population dropped by more than 50% in the late 1970’s. In Quebec/Labrador, the caribou population jumped from less than 200,000 in the late 70’s to around 1 million in just 20 years. They have recently plummeted to only a few thousand.

In winter, caribou eat lichens, a very slow-growing plant, almost exclusively. Although over-grazing lichens isn’t the only issue they face (wolves, hunting pressure, disease and parasites and the weather are also important), food does matter.

After being reduced to paltry numbers (and extirpated in eastern Canada), wild turkeys, aided by re-stocking and re-introductions, underwent a huge expansion in range occupancy and population. But in the USA, turkey numbers peaked about a decade ago, and have since declined – again, not unexpectedly – ‘new’ or reintroduced populations often flourish, subside, then have years of – you guessed it – ups and downs.

While wildlife population ups and downs can’t be curtailed, they can be managed.

As OFAH Wildlife Biologist Keith Munro says, “We really need to take a big picture approach to wildlife management. Rather than focusing on a single factor that may be affecting a wildlife population, we need to consider the whole system which includes, but is not limited to, harvest (both licenced and rights-based), predation, competition between species, diseases, parasites, and habitat”.

But no matter what we do, what goes up – does come down.

[i] To read the entire study, see Ranta, B., and M. W. Lankester. 2017. Moose and deer population trends in northwestern Ontario: a case history. Alces 53: 159–179. https://alcesjournal.org/index.php/alces/article/view/227)

 

I haven’t posted in a while . . . been busy doing renovations to the house, among other things.

It’s been a relatively nice winter. The snow hasn’t piled up too deep, not overly cold and today it’s sunny! But hey, it’s a northern Ontario winter, which means that although there’s been snow on the ground since the end of October, there will still be snow on the ground a month from now. It gets to be a drag.

There are not many deer left in this part of the world. A few hang around the house, which is nice. And while there are still timber wolves lurking about, their numbers are down. How could they not be? Few deer and even fewer moose. Maybe they are Farley Mowat wolves, surviving on mice. 

Anyway, here’s my most recent column published in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. It’s the unedited version, as per usual.

What’s a Deer Yard?

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Year round,we have deer in our yard, but our yard is not a deer yard. A deer yard is an area where deer concentrate during the winter months.

In Ontario, deer yards can be as small as a few hectares or cover tens of square kilometers – they have been talked about, described, managed and mismanaged for at least 100 years. Today, deer yards are more properly referred to as ‘deer winter concentration areas’.

White-tailed deer have been described as ‘yarding up’ for the winter ever since the days of early settlement, when knowing where deer were was critical information – especially during winter, when food and money were often scarce.

Deer biologists have long believed deer living in the forest, on northern ranges where winters can be long, cold and snowy, yard up for two main reasons: ‘energy conservation and as a defense against predators’.

Deer have relatively long legs, but by the time snow depths hit 50 cm, movement is severely restricted. Conifer cover intercepts snow and deer can move around under conifers with relative ease.

But, when deer from any given area are concentrated under conifer cover, food availability becomes an issue. Problems are exacerbated because browse is not that abundant under heavy cover and deer yards that are used year after year – a common behavior – tend to become over-browsed. Eastern white cedar, a tree that provides both food and cover, often has a distinct browse line, where there is no greenery below the reach of the deer.

To cope with deep snow, food shortages and potential predators, deer in forested areas make trails, use windswept ridges, frozen lakes and rivers, snowmobile trails and even plowed roads.

In the forest, conifer cover is a critical component of a deer yard – it’s usually where deer spend most of their time – but other, adjacent habitats are also important.

Deer don’t exist only in the forest. They also thrive in mountains, prairies, agricultural lands and, increasingly, in urban areas. Wherever they are, especially if winters are snowy, deer generally use habitats differently in the winter than during other times of the year.

For example, in southern Ontario, where forest cover can be limiting but snow cover often is not, deer still tend to concentrate in certain areas during the winter months. A winter concentration area might be a park, ravines, a string of woodlots or something else – anyplace where there’s resting, hiding and escape cover, abundant food and a dearth of predators.

In northwestern Ontario, deer yards used to be a problem with the old Land and Forests and later, the MNR. Managing a deer yards was problematic because the consensus was that deer in northwestern Ontario ‘didn’t yard up’. Since they didn’t ‘yard-up’, forestry and wildlife habitat management prescriptions weren’t applicable.  Deer did – and still do – concentrate their winter activities in certain areas, just not in what could be described as a ‘yard’.

Management issues around identification of deer yards were largely resolved with the adoption of deer winter concentration area concepts.

In Ontario, a mapped winter deer concentration area is information useful in land use and resource management planning on both private and Crown lands. All levels of governments, and agencies like the OFAH, have policies and directives that recognize deer winter concentration areas as a value.

Deer winter concentration areas are constantly changing. With time, forest fires, insect infestations, severe winds, floods, logging, and infrastructure development of all kinds change the landscape. Predation levels rise and fall.

Concepts and definitions of deer winter concentration areas are important, but it’s still okay to talk about ‘deer yards’. Just be sure to make it clear what you’re talking about . . .

The Loring Deer Yard

Situated in the wilds somewhat below the French River on the Pickerel River system, east of Hwy. 69 and west of Hwy.11, The Loring Deer Yards has been one of the largest and longest lasting deer yards in Ontario.

It was first identified as a deer yarding area soon after deer in central Ontario became common, around the turn of the 20th century.

Severe winters, especially in 1961, wiped out tens of thousands of deer in the province, alarming many who loved deer and deer hunting.

Logging, which had seemed to coincide with surging deer herds in forested areas, was on the wane. The Dept. of Land & Forests was led to believe that by replicating logging efforts, the deer population south of North Bay could be rejuvenated.

By the late 1970’s, the Loring Deer Yard was an official MNR program. Bulldozers and snowmobiles were used to build and maintain trails to help deer move through deep snow; browse and later, other deer foods like pellets were provided; and, wolves were trapped to reduce predation.

Studies were done and results published. Policies, directives and reports were written.

There wasn’t a deer manager or biologist who didn’t know about the Loring Deer Yard and who hadn’t heard about Ernie Bain and Paddy Stillar.

By 1988, management efforts had doubled the size of the Loring Deer Yard. In some winters, it held as many as 20,000 deer.

But, time brings change. MNR(F) adopted new policies and directives. Active deer yard management efforts declined. Eventually, trail-making and feeding was a role for volunteers. Predator (wolf) control was discontinued.

In recent years, deer numbers in what was once the best known deer winter concentration area in Ontario, if not Canada, have plummeted.

Is the Loring Deer Yard history? Only time will tell.

January, 2020. Happy New Year!

Winter has set in and the forecast is for a cold spell. But first, some (more) snow.

It was cold early to mid-fall in 2019, but then it turned ‘mild’. Not a snow-melt above the freezing mark mild, but few -200 C bone chillers, the last couple of days a minus 32, but no minus forties at all. All in all, a rather pleasant Christmas and New Year holiday season.

The moose and deer seasons are closed and I stop grouse hunting on Dec. 15. For years and years Dec. 15 was when the moose, deer and grouse hunting seasons used to simultaneously close here in the part of northwestern Ontario where Lil and I live. In recent years, there have been some season length extensions to grouse seasons, but I haven’t taken advantage of them. It seems that once the snow comes, the grouse are hard to find and from my perspective, a 3 month hunt for big and small game that ends Dec. 15 is all I want or need. By then it’s time for get ready for the upcoming holiday season and try and be primed to participate in the festivities.

And so here I am in early January at the beginning of a brand new decade. A hundred years ago we’d be entering what came to be known as the roaring 20’s.

But this is a new time and place. We’ll just have to see where it leads.

As usual for me, this is when I reflect on the hunting seasons that just passed. As I previously wrote, I had a wonderful hunt with Neva, our Wachtelhunde hunting dog and companion.

I didn’t go moose hunting as neither Lil nor I even applied for a tag to hunt an adult moose. In the two Wildlife Management Units we like to hunt, there was only 1 tag available in each unit. One of the tags was for a cow, which seemed ridiculous (if there are so few moose that licensed hunters are provided with only 1 tag, why would it be for a cow?) and in the other WMU, we had no idea where there might even be a moose in a place with both access and where there was a reasonable chance of success. So we opted out of applying for a tag, but bought licences to retain priority for future draws. Prior to the season, and then during the season in a WMU where I was deer hunting, I did see moose.

I didn’t shoot a deer, either. I did have opportunities, but did not have a doe tag and the few bucks I saw I opted not to shoot.

There are lots of places where I see game during the fall hunting season where I can’t hunt. Some of the animals are on protected areas and other properties I have no permission to hunt on; sometimes I see animals I don’t have a tag for; and, there are a lot of animals that are on or adjacent to a road. Around here, you can’t shoot down, across, or from the traveled portion of a road and on some roads you can’t even have a loaded firearm until you are well away from the right-of-way. And on many roads, it can be dangerous to come to a stop unless you can pull off, which isn’t always possible. Often, there is simply no space to stop, pull off or park.

So given all these places where I’m not hunting, I take advantageous of photographic opportunities when I can. As with a gun, there’s still much more seen than shot, and there’s still places where I can’t shoot with the camera – but there’s more spots where I can pull out the camera to try and get a shot than there are spots I can pull out a gun.

I also have to say that shooting wildlife with a camera isn’t easy. Often, it’s harder than with a firearm. For example, shooting ruffed grouse on the fly with a camera is quite the challenge that I haven’t yet mastered and likely never will (although for me, the same is true with a shotgun . . . ). Still, I sometimes score and when I do, it’s a very satisfying feeling.

Similarly, I’m always trying to get good shots of buck deer. Deer are not near as plentiful here as they used to be a few years back, but there’s still some around. The best place to see buck deer though, is in the city. Over the past few decades, deer in northwestern Ontario, like in a lot of villages, towns and cities all across North America, moved in, found suitable housing and are now a fixture in many neighborhoods.

The other thing with the camera is that you can shoot any species at any time with no need for a license or a tag. There’s waterfowl, fur-bearers and basically anything that walks, crawls, slithers, swims or flies can be the subject of a photo shoot.

whiskey-1

But now that we are into January, there’s not near as much life around. Big game hunting is over as it is for waterfowl and upland game birds. With respect to photo shooting, the majority of birds have left, many of the animals have gone into hibernation and most of the deer have lost their antlers. I still see a few grouse – lately a couple come each evening just before it gets dark to bud in the white birches. A few other odds and sods, but it’s not a wildlife viewing paradise by any stretch.

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So the hunting season is a wrap and photo season has transitioned.

Still, it’s a New Year and it’s all good.

Time to go ice-fishing.

trout

The last three fall bird hunts have tended to be  . . . poor.

That’s not really the right word to describe those hunts, but it’s a start.

The issue has been injuries to my good buddy and hunting dog, Neva.

One year, she had a run-in with a porcupine within the first hour of the pheasant hunt in Alberta. It was a full-on face plant of quills and required a trip to the vet, in Medicine Hat, over an hour’s drive away. Never did shoot a pheasant that year . . .

Another year she cut her paw on glass, we presume, on our first ruffed grouse hunt of the season. There was no reason for glass to be there in the bush, but it was close to a forest access road, and way too many people throw their garbage – like beer bottles! – out the window when driving around. Regardless, it was a deep cut, needed stitches, and put Neva out of commission for a good month. By the time she had recovered, there was snow on the ground, which seems to result, at least around here, in the virtual disappearance of the grouse. I don’t know what happens, but once there is snow on the ground, you can go for miles and hardly ever find a bird. So that year was also a washout.

Last year we were on our property, hunting grouse for the 2nd or 3rd time, when Neva flushed a grouse, ran over an old garbage pile, and cut a paw again. Needed stitches, out of commission . . . . .

The fellow who last lived on our property – back in early post-war years, I think – was for the most part a bootlegger. We’ve removed pick-up loads of cans, bottles and iron over the years. There were literally huge piles of cans and bottles all over the place. I know there’s still a couple out there, but I can’t recall exactly where. If I find them, I’ll clean them up too. At least the places and trails where we usually hunt and go for walks with the dogs have been cleaned up. I still worry about shards, though.

So far this year Neva has avoided getting injured. And we had a great time!

We didn’t kill a lot of birds, but we flushed many. I even shot a few woodcock and saw and missed several others. Most woodcock I have ever seen in the Kenora area. A banner year!

Neva was 5 this year. Given her history of hurts, it’s easy to see she hasn’t had a lot of bird hunt time.

ruffed grouse-164

I thought we’d see a lot of grouse on our property as we had seen a number of coveys during summer. However, that wasn’t the case – sometimes we’d be out for an hour and not see a single grouse. I suspect the foxes and coyotes cleaned them up as well as the 10 skunks (10!) Lil live-trapped in the yard.

I haven’t hunted with her for a few days – the deer rut is on and smelly bucks are distracting to a dog that loves to hunt. I have to admit I’ve never seen dogs that like to hunt as much as these Wachtelhundes.

Unfortunately, there’s snow on the ground and I haven’t seen a grouse for days, not even during a full day of deer hunting where birds had been plentiful in early October.

Fortunately, there’s not a lot of snow – yet.

Oh well, it was a great fall, full of flushes and even some shooting. If the weather holds, we might even get to do a bit more of both.

And next year, maybe Neva and I can do some duck hunting.

Neva-13

May 7 and the ice is gone – from most lakes. There’s still ice on the big, deep lake trout lakes and one can still see the odd patch of snow/ice in the bush. Last night it was -80 C, so it’s not as if the blossoms are in bloom. Fact is the pussy willows have only just begun to emerge. No green sheen in the forest yet.

At least the pond in front of the house has been ice-free for several days, albeit most mornings there is a bit of ice along the edges. But that quickly melts off and is long gone by the afternoon.

When there was a mix of open water and ice on the pond, the ducks were in active courtship. The hooded mergansers in particular were really going at it. Lots of fighting and displaying and ‘gronking’, which is the sound of their mating call.

There were also wood ducks, green-winged teal, ringnecks, common mergansers and of course mallards. Very early, a pair of Canada geese built their nest on the beaver house and we expect the goslings will be hatching any day now.

I put up a blind to photograph from and for a few days there was a lot of action for me to try and capture. However, things have slowed down considerably and lately it’s mostly just a group of three drake mallards that come by the blind. Maybe things will pick up once the nights get a bit warmer and things start to green up.

In addition to the waterfowl, there’s been a steady stream of other migrants. Of special note was a pair of willets (first I’ve ever seen) and several rusty blackbirds. And the tree swallows are back – all three nest boxes look to be claimed.

Some deer did make it through the winter. In addition to the three that were almost daily visitors for months, there have been of late a couple of others coming to nibble at greenery on the lawn. Yesterday we noticed a large paw print of a bear on the road only a couple of hundred meters from the house. Maybe it’s the big brown one I saw last spring.

spring-7

Also yesterday, in the morning, we saw from the house a very fluffy, orangy red fox catching some rays. A couple of weeks ago, just when the ice was starting to melt, a coyote – the first we’ve seen on our property –showed up one day, but we haven’t seen it since. Best of all, I haven’t seen a timber wolf for several weeks.

There seems to be good numbers of ruffed grouse as we hear many drumming, not just on our property but pretty much wherever we have been. Neva seems to find one or two to flush on her daily walk, which keeps her happy. I like grouse a lot, so seeing and hearing grouse every day is a good thing.

Lil and I haven’t seen a single moose track anywhere we’ve been. Granted, we’ve not been travelling far and wide, but in years gone by it was common to see moose tracks on our property and here and there on the roads near town. Those days are long gone.

The MNRF released its moose tag quota allocations for the 2019 hunt and, unbelievably, is planning on issuing more cow tags than bull tags across the province as a whole. This despite the fact moose numbers continue to decline and in most WMUs, moose populations are well below their targets. In the WMU Lil and I hunt (06), only 1 tag was issued – for a cow. It seems to me this is complete lunacy, but it’s also what I’ve come to expect from an outfit where I worked for more than 30 years. I’m just glad I don’t work there any more – it’s hard enough admitting it’s where I had a career. I just shake my head.

When I began to write this, on April 8, 2019, the temperature outside was hovering just above the freezing mark and it had just begun a rain/snow mix. Snow still carpeted the ground, although there were bare patches under some of the conifers and on some south facing slopes. The ponds and lakes were still ice-locked, except where there’s current.

Now, three days later, not much has changed, except it’s clear and cold (-60 C this morning), rather than overcast with snow and rain.

Two geese showed up on the pond on April 5th and hung out most of the day, before leaving, but they have since returned, at least once. Last year, geese arrived on the pond the same date. I suspect these early arrivals are to do with claiming the pond as their own in an effort to build a nest and raise some young, something that has been a failure on this pond two years running. Maybe this year will be different and both geese and ducks can successfully hatch and rear some progeny.

The wolves whittled the deer down again this winter, but there are still a few around. The deer population, overall, is a shadow of what it was about 10 years ago and seems to still be on a downward trajectory. As I’ve said before, I don’t think deer herds here will recover until the next spruce budworm epidemic is well underway, something that as far as I know, hasn’t even started yet. Interestingly, I did see a deer chewing on some lichens the other day, but like deer, lichen abundance is minimal.

A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation to the Canadian Institute of Forestry, Lake of the Woods Chapter, on Moose Emphasis Areas, or MEAs. Basically, MEAs are large patches of forest – e.g., 5-10 thousand hectares – where the forest managers try to coordinate the creation and maintenance of good to excellent moose habitat when carrying out forest operations, namely harvesting, renewal and maintenance of wood fibre. Dr. Vince Crichton – Doc Moose – gave a presentation on moose and moose management in general, and there were two other presentations by District Biologists as to how MEAs were actually being implemented in approved forest management plans.

I think there was a general consensus that good moose habitat is a key component of managing moose, but other factors, including predation, disease and human harvest, are also important. Unfortunately, all factors, not just moose habitat, are difficult to control.

For example, starting with moose habitat, successful planning and implementing MEAs require a skillful planning team. But that alone is not enough, as public input needs to be accommodated. In many areas, the benefits of MEAs might not be realized without restrictions on road access (you need roads to practice forestry, but roads also provide access to human hunters and other predators).Meaningful restrictions on road access can be difficult if not impossible, because the public simply won’t accept them.

And good habitat, even with road restrictions, might not be enough. Sometimes, predators can suppress prey (e.g., moose) populations – which in some circumstances might warrant predator control. But these days, any talk of predator control seems to be met with a great deal of derision. Governments everywhere – certainly here in Ontario – have pretty much tossed the option of predator control aside.

There’s not much that can be done about disease, but at least there have been, in this part of the country, harsher, more snowy winters of late, which has reduced (a) deer populations, which in turn has reduced the incidence of brain worm, a major moose killer, and (b) moose tick abundance. Moose ticks thrive when winters are short, but take a hit from early and late snow cover (moose die-offs from severe moose tick infestations are fairly common in some areas). Fewer deer also mean fewer wolves, so again, that’s a good thing. Bears are another story.

Human harvest can be controlled to some degree, but again, there are issues that probably should be addressed, but can’t, or aren’t. These include:

(a) there is little control over harvest by Aboriginals and Métis, who do not require licences to hunt and are generally not subject to road use restrictions. Some Aboriginal and Métis groups and communities have voluntarily agreed to moose harvest limits, but there are no enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance.

(b) despite reductions in the number of adult tags available to licenced hunters in many Wildlife Management Units (e.g., in WMU 6 there was a single bull tag issued last year – to me – and I didn’t fill it), there is still an unrestricted, two week hunt for calf moose. That means anyone with a moose licence can hunt and harvest (one) calf moose in any WMU during the ‘open’ calf season.

(c) there seems to be a mis-guided desire to have a bull:cow ratio close to 50:50. Doc Moose presented evidence that bulls can be substantially fewer in number than cows and still ‘get the job done’. It seems patently ridiculous to lower the number of bull tags and increase the number of cow tags, especially in WMUs where moose are declining and below population targets.

(d) there is also evidence that shows younger bulls are less effective breeders than older bulls, yet in Ontario, there are no restrictions on what kind of bull a hunter can harvest with a bull tag. Cows are less responsive to the clumsier wooing of young bulls as compared to mature bulls and young bulls have both lower sperm counts and lower sperm quality, making conception less likely. In addition, in many WMUs, there has been a tendency to have an early bow season, to allow hunters to call in a bull to the close range a bow hunter requires. As such, bulls are harvested before or during the peak of the rut. Fewer old bulls and harvesting bulls immediately before or during the rut might still let all the cows be bred – at least in those WMUs with a reasonable moose population –  but breeding might not be concentrated during the prime estrus, around the end of September. As a result, calving can be spread out over a longer period the following spring, making it easier for predators that specialize in taking young calves (i.e., wolves and large bears), thus reducing recruitment.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to moose management is cultural. In Ontario, moose management is not the pressing issue it used to be for the government, replaced with concerns such as the plight of species at risk and a desire to deal with climate change hysteria. The perceived indifference to moose by the government is exacerbated by the fact that many hunters have little faith in government actions or policies, resulting in a ‘I don’t give a damn’ attitude. So poaching and a general disregard for rules have, in my opinion, increased (and I’m far from alone in believing that).

While I’m not completely convinced things can’t be turned around, I’m not in the habit of looking at things through rose-coloured glasses, either. The problems are huge and not easily addressed.

MAFA2

Still, outside of moose (and deer) world, life is not all bad.  Spring is in the air, or at least it should be over the coming weeks. I do look forward to the return of the migratory birds and seeing the return of the colour green.

Plus many a BBQ, with a cold beverage in hand, are looming in my future. And that’s a very good thing.

 

A couple of postings back (https://wildlifeperspectives.wordpress.com/2019/01/28/its-piling-up/), I wrote that the snow was beginning to pile up. After that post, it really piled up!

In Kenora, February has so far been the snowiest month of the 2018-19 winter, with a whopping 70.8 cm of the white stuff hitting the ground. Kenora’s normal snowfall for February is 18.6 cm, which means the snowfall for the month was 381% higher than normal.

Obviously, that’s unusual. Up until the end of January, it looked like it was going to be a relatively good winter for the local deer herd, with only about a 30% chance the winter would wind-up being classified as ‘severe’ (based on winter severity indices predictions used by provincial deer managers).

Of course, the only way it could become ‘severe’, was if it snowed a lot and the snow stayed on the ground. Well it did, and so far it has. If you had bet on the odds, you’d have lost.

The last day Kenora had that was above the freezing mark was January 4, when the temperature climbed to a miserly high of 10 C. No melting at all after that and none predicted until March 11, when the temperature is predicted to hit a high of zero.

Right now, the snow depth around my house in poplar stands (which is the kind of forest where snow stations are located to assess winter severity) is 60 cm or more; 50 cm is the threshold that most agree puts deer are in trouble. Fifty cm is about the height of a deer leg, which means more than 50 cm and deer are plowing snow with their chest, which is what I’ve been seeing.

There’s also a rule of thumb that says if you have 50 cm on the ground for 50 days, a lot of deer will perish and does that do survive, will have many stillborn fawns.

How long snow cover lingers will be critical for the deer. The weather forecasters are predicting a big change in weather patterns sometime after the middle of March – much milder temperatures – but if it keeps snowing, and it doesn’t have to snow a lot, there could easily still be snow on the ground into late April.

The deer I see around our house are staying under conifer cover when they can because the snow is not near as deep there. But, there’s not much food under the conifers, either.

In the City of Kenora, the deer are running around on the railway, cleared streets and sidewalks, looking for food, especially handouts. They’ve pretty much eaten all the available browse and what’s left is mostly inaccessible because of the deep snow. It’s illegal to feed deer within city limits – according to the bylaws – but lots of people are ignoring those laws and there is next to nothing being done by way of enforcement. I guess that’s good for the deer; if it weren’t for handouts, the city deer would more than likely be starving.

Deer are adaptable animals. Interestingly, I think these urban deer – a relatively new phenomenon in northwestern Ontario (although Sioux Narrows, about 100 km south of Kenora, has had an ‘urban’ deer population for many decades), will probably be what lets the deer herd recover in future years – at a much faster rate than otherwise would be expected. That’s if the near future sees a series of low-snow winters.

History would suggest there will be those less severe, low snow winters and that deer herds will recover.

On the other hand, deer were mostly absent from northwestern Ontario in the 1800’s. Since there’s no predicting the future – although everyone likes to do that – all we can really do is wait and see how the future actually unfolds.

One thing I can predict with near certainty is that the 2019 deer hunting season in the Kenora area will be rather unspectacular, at best.

I remain hopeful it won’t be a complete washout.


The top two photos were taken Nov 19, 2016. The bottom Nov 6, 2018. Same deer?

It has been a cold autumn, although there isn’t near as much snow as there was at this time last year. The ponds and shallow lakes have frozen over, which usually signals that the winter snowfall will be less, as opposed to more. I’m good with that, as shoveling the drive isn’t my favourite winter pastime.

Moose season is still open and although I have a bull tag, Lil and I haven’t been able to fill it. We were scuppered early in the season by a couple of poachers who were trying to shoot moose for which they had no valid tag. They wound up chasing them away from Lil – she had been sitting by a small meadow near a road and listening to the moose making their way to her, when these nitwits came by, spotted at least one moose from their vehicle, and jumped out after them. The moose ran between Lil and the poachers so she was afraid to shoot. I was a short distance away watching one of two spots – the frightened moose ran through the spot I wasn’t watching.

As I said, scuppered; we didn’t even get ID off the poachers who sped away in their truck after Lil yelled at them.

Then, a couple of weeks later we were headed home and there were 4 moose on the road, one a yearling bull which would have been just fine to tag. But, you can’t shoot from or down a road and the moose were able to escape in the thick bush and flooded timber beside the road.

We had a couple of other close encounters, but lately we are seeing far more wolf tracks than moose sign. The wolves are running up and down all the roads and trails (for miles and miles!), which are keeping (along with human night hunters) the moose deep in the forest, where it’s impossible to hunt them (and there aren’t all that many moose; I have the only adult tag issued for the Wildlife Management Unit we’re hunting).

It is amazing how many wolves there are in this area (timber, or gray wolves, not coyotes). Over the last decade or so, I’ve seen several dozen wolves. During the same time, I’ve seen less than 10 moose.

But although the wolves are for certain killing moose, it was white-tailed deer that were largely sustaining the wolf population over the winter. I would have thought that when the deer population collapsed a few years ago, wolf numbers would similarly collapse, but so far, that hasn’t happened. I suppose there were still enough deer around, but I can’t believe there are now enough deer left for the wolves to make it through this winter.

Worse, last winter was long and the snow was deep. Officially, it was classified as ‘severe’, which should have translated into a further decline in deer numbers.

And the evidence from this fall sure supports that. Driving north 50-60 km to our moose hunting spots this fall, we have yet to cut a deer track in the snow. During our walks for moose, we’ve seen a grand total of 3 deer tracks.

When I went to our traditional deer hunting areas, the picture is still grim. A few days hunting specifically for deer didn’t yield a single sighting. There were tracks – here and there – but very few rubs and I only came across a couple of small scrapes under two adjacent jack pine trees on a pipeline ROW.

Lots of wolf sign, though.

So given the lack of deer everywhere, I thought I might as well hunt deer on our property, given there are a small number of resident does and I figured a mature buck should, or could, show up from somewhere during the rut. We had seen a single spike buck off and on during the summer, but that was one buck I wasn’t prepared to harvest.

I also thought I might get a chance to take a wolf, as they have been regularly chasing the resident deer and are continuing to whittle them down.  In addition, it appears the wolves took our one, resident beaver just before the pond in front of the house froze over. All that work, fixing up the lodge and putting together a feed pile for the winter, for naught.

I watched the small field on our property several mornings and evenings without much luck. I did see, on a couple of occasions, the spike buck and what I assume is its twin sister, but that was about it. No wolves, either.

Then, on Nov. 6, a large buck appeared. I took a couple of photos and then decided I should harvest it. I had never taken a deer from our property (this is our 22nd year there), but I figured it might be the only chance I would get this year, so I took it.

It was a nice buck and the wear class age puts it at 5 ½ years. That’s amazing!

To have survived that long in the midst of such high wolf density is close to a miracle.

What’s also amazing is I think it could be the same deer I photographed two years earlier breeding a doe beside the house. After that, I had never seen that buck again.

Of course, I can’t be sure it’s the same buck. But the photos do suggest to me that it’s at least a possibility.

I do feel somewhat sad about killing it, but at least I know it’s passed on its DNA, which is a good thing.

And I’m still going to be hunting wolves – which were in the yard again last night. There’s just way too many, in my opinion.