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big game

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A free-range Red Hartebeest, hunted and harvested on a cattle farm.

A good comprehension of the answers to the question ‘who owns the wildlife’ is fundamental in understanding how wildlife is managed around the world. Despite the vast number of people, communities, corporations, agencies and governments that that have vested interests and ownership of wild animals, there are only two broad approaches under which wildlife management practices can be categorized, namely public versus private ownership of wildlife.

In North America, the model generally followed is public ownership. That is, the government owns the wildlife, regardless of whether the animals live on public (e.g., federal, state or Crown land) or private land. Under this scenario, government is largely responsible for monitoring and management of wildlife. This happened mostly because the early European colonialists came from countries where wildlife was owned by royalty – Kings Queens, Earls and such – and common folk had little access to wildlife, unless they were poachers. So when they came to North America, the people were bound and determined not to see that system happen again.

However, at first there simply were no laws. Even when governments were created and game laws were passed, most were quite lax. As a result, many populations of wildlife, especially those that were exploited for their meat, hides or feathers, saw catastrophic collapse; some, like the passenger pigeon, went extinct. Bison, which once numbered in the tens of millions, almost suffered the same fate. Beavers were almost gone. Large predators (e.g., wolves and bears) were wiped out over vast tracts of land. The slaughter was intense, especially in the late 1800’s – by the early 1900’s, wildlife was in a sorry state in much of the USA and southern Canada.

Fortunately, saner minds prevailed and actions were taken before it was too late. The banning of commercial hunting was a key in the recovery of many species. Over the past 100 years, there have been great strides in conserving and restoring many populations of wildlife in the USA and Canada. Proponents of the North American approach to public ownership of wildlife claim it’s a model that works and they’re largely right.

Still, all is not rosy with respect to wildlife management in North America. Large predators like wolves and bears remain absent over large expanses of their former range as the public simply won’t or can’t tolerate their presence. The same is true of other game species; for example, it’s unlikely that free—ranging bison will ever be seen on the prairies again. Herds of free-range bison and activities like grain farming are for the most part incompatible, so bison today are found only in selected places like parks and protected areas, or on private, fenced in lands.

Interestingly, bison, elk and other animals are today being commercially raised – by private interests – and their meat and other parts sold for profit. In fact, there are a growing number of private lands in both Canada and the USA that are fenced in and where hunting and access are limited for a wide variety of wildlife species.

It’s unclear as to what wildlife management in North America will look like in the future. While federal and provincial governments are still mostly responsible for wildlife conservation and management, there is a shift in Canada and the USA to give individuals and other private interests more responsibilities and rights to use wildlife, including Aboriginal governments and communities.  There’s little doubt changes are looming and how wildlife will be managed and allocated in the future, may have little resemblance to what we have today.

The second model by which wildlife today is managed has private interests owning and managing wildlife. Governments still have a role and may still have wildlife ownership in places like National Parks, but elsewhere, where land is owned by private interests, landowners also own the wildlife. That’s the situation in Namibia, where I recently hunted.

Writing in HUNTiNAMIBIA 2017, Dr. Chis Brown of the Namibian Chamber of Environment showed changes in wildlife numbers in Namibia from about 1770 to 2015. At the start of that time period, it’s thought there were around 8-10 million animals in the country. Numbers declined steadily until the 1960’s, when the animal population was estimated to an all-time low of about a half million.

In the 1960s and 1990s, rights to use wildlife to support a multi-faceted business model were given to farmers. As a result, farmers (for the most part livestock – cattle – farmers; in North America the equivalent would be cattle ranchers) could provide trophy hunting, sport hunting and use wildlife meat for food, including for sale. Surplus animals could be captured and sold. Some landowners have moved on from cattle farming and wildlife is now the primary source of income and the priority with respect to land-use decisions.

In 2015, wildlife numbers in Namibia were estimated at 3 million, the highest since the 1960s.

As one would expect, Namibia sees their wildlife model as a success. South Africa has a similar model and is also largely successful

Again, not all is rosy. Many farmers don’t like predators like lions, cheetahs or leopards for the same reasons wolves and bears aren’t liked by North American farmers. There are also concerns that the widespread use of game-proof fencing cuts off large scale movements of wildlife, an adaptation many species evolved with to survive in an arid environment prone to drought. Other issues involve world trade sanctions for species like elephants and rhino, which need to be managed – but any efforts to manage such huge species are also very costly. Namibia is one of the few places left on the planet with wild populations of cheetahs and black rhinos, but the country is finding it difficult to maintain them because of the actions from the rest of the world with respect to hunting and sale of wildlife, are more a hindrance than a help.

Public vs private ownership of wildlife; two very different approaches to how society provides for the management of wildlife. Both have strong points; both have weaknesses. I suspect that as time passes, we’ll see the two systems increasingly converge.

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I just returned from a safari in Namibia, Africa. A tremendous trip, but grueling to get to. We had got a good if not a great price for airfare, but paid for it with lengthy wait overs in Toronto and Amsterdam. Long distance flying in economy is not fun at all. We were packed like sardines in an Airbus 330 and a Boeing 777, both of which hold over 400 passengers and didn’t have a single spare seat on the flights over. But it was worth the pain, believe me.

We saw white rhinos, elephants, lions, hippos and all kinds of plains game like impala, zebra, kudu, sable and much, much more, in addition to birds and others, including a deadly black mamba.

Four of us took the trip and for three, it was our first to Africa.

We hunted plains game – with great success – and did some sight-seeing, including a trip to Etosha National Park. We did not hunt ‘the Big Five’, namely elephants, leopard, lion, cape buffalo and rhino.

One issue? It was cold! I never thought I’d be in Africa and be cold, but most mornings the temperature was only a couple of degrees above the freezing mark and once there was frost in some low-lying areas. It generally warmed up during the day, but I was never uncomfortable because of the heat. By 3:00 pm it would begin to cool noticeably and by 5:45 pm, it was dark.

Of note, we saw several rhinos, including cows with calves and none had been de-horned  to protect them from poachers. While there is some poaching, it’s apparently not the problem it is in many other African nations, including neighboring South Africa.

There were also black rhinos where we were, but our party did not encounter any. Black rhinos prefer thick brush, so are less likely to be seen. One of the outfitters we stayed with told us black rhinos were also much more belligerent and caused way more trouble than the white rhinos, which are relatively docile. At least as docile as you’d expect from a living tank. While the whole trip was wonderful (with some moments of anxiety, for sure), I have to say rhino sightings were always a highlight for me. Especially given the fact they weren’t mutilated.

Over the next while I’ll provide some insight as to what I learned from my African safari (especially with respect to game management) and share my thoughts. And I’ll be posting more photos.

Right now, I’m still ‘unwinding’.

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Lil and I applied for a moose tag the other day. The chances of getting a tag look slim. In Kenora District, where we live, the 3 WMUs have a combined quota of 3 bull moose, one for each WMU. There are more tags to the east, but because of that – and it isn’t like there are a whole bunch of tags – the demand still far outstrips the supply.

It still seems weird to me that only 1 bull tag (no cow tags) is allocated in those WMU’s, but there is a two week calf season with no quota on the number of calves hunters can take. And 1 tag sounds fishy to me. Even if the population was only 10 moose, taking 1 bull would still allow the population to grow, and I know, and the MNRF knows, there’s more than 100 moose in WMU 6.

Of course, Aboriginals, including Métis, have no seasons or limits on moose, or anything else for that matter. So licensed hunters are the ones that suffer, and it may not do the moose population any good, depending on what happens with the native harvest. It’s no way to manage wildlife.

It also seems to contradict our Prime Minister, who proudly says “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian”.  Err, not really, not when it comes to rights and freedoms, which is what that mantra is supposedly all about.

Oh well, not much I can do about that. Sadly, the number of people who want to address the issue is small in this country. Someday it’s going to be a big issue and resolving it won’t be pretty.

Meanwhile, Lil and I have been entertained by the ducks in the beaver pond out front of the house. Most days there are buffleheads, ring-necks, mallards, green-winged teal, wood ducks and hooded mergansers there, in addition to a pair of nesting Canada geese. No sign of the blue-winged teal yet. And the only shore birds I’ve seen are a solitary sandpiper and a couple of common snipe (and we’ve heard, of course, a number of peenting woodcock). But it’s early yet, so we’re sure to see some other species in the weeks to come.

A peregrine took a run at the pigeons that frequent the yard the other day, but didn’t appear to get one.

Oh, and the timber wolves are still around.

Lil was outside when the dogs started barking like craze, so she walked down to the end of the driveway – less than 100 meters – and saw some fresh wolf tracks on the road. Soon, the dogs were barking like crazy again, and when she checked, saw another set of wolf tracks. That’s when she called me to have a look.

We went out to the road and were looking at the tracks and it seemed they had been chasing a deer. I looked up and exclaimed –“There’s a wolf now!” It crossed the hydro line and walked out on the road, and then another one came out on the road a bit behind. They didn’t seem to be bothered by us; ambling off slowly when we yelled at them.

A couple of days later some deer showed up and one had a huge patch of fur missing off its side with noticeable scabbing. We thought the wolves would get it that night, but it’s been around for several days now. Some of the deer that were almost daily visitors during the winter months have disappeared, though. Of course, that doesn’t mean the wolves got them – they could just be dispersed since it’s almost fawning time.

Still no sign of moose.

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Spring is in the air. Yesterday was a very nice, late winter’s day (actually, the 1st day of spring), although by evening the wind was howling, the temperature was plummeting and snowflakes were being blown around. But earlier, it had been a nice day.

It’s been a weird winter. For the first time since I’ve lived here – over 35 years – most of the winter saw the snow with a hard crust, the kind you can walk on. In fact, I’ve looked at snow records for this area that go back to 1955 and see no indication of a winter with similar snow conditions.

I don’t know how that’s going to play out for the local wildlife, but I’m inclined to think not too badly. During our daily walks with our dogs, we are regularly seeing snowshoe hares, ruffed grouse and deer. On the other hand, there aren’t near as many hares as there were earlier, a testament I’m sure to the hunting success of the lynx, marten and fox, the tracks of which we regularly encounter, but seldom see.

And while there remains a small herd of about 7 deer on our property, we note they are regularly harassed by wolves. We haven’t seen any wolves of late, but every few days their tracks show us they are still nearby. Neighbors have told us the wolves have killed at least a few deer in the past weeks near them. It’s a concern that in our drives away from town, we see few – very few – deer tracks. No signs of moose at all.

With so little big game, it’s hard to see that wolves didn’t suffer. Wolves can’t thrive on a diet of mice and hares. Research has shown that each wolf needs about one adult deer every 20 days over the course of winter just to survive. But wolves are, if anything, survivalists. I admit I’m amazed there are as many wolves as there are. When the deer population crashed four winters ago, I would have thought the wolf population would have followed suit no more than a year or two later.  Still, it’s only a matter of time.

Despite the recent melting, there’s still a covering of snow on the ground and it’s still dense enough to support one’s weight. Like I said, yesterday was nice; it was sunny for most of the day and the temperature got to about +80 C.  Last night it dipped to -150 C and isn’t supposed to get above the melting point again for another couple of days.  There’s a lot of ice on the local lakes – more than two feet on the lake where Lil and I went fishing yesterday, so ice-free days are still off a bit (yes, we did catch some fish. Tasty speckled trout, as a matter of fact).

On a gloomy note, I received a report last week on the state of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in North America, the prion, brain-wasting disease now found across wide swaths of North America that’s killing off white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and even moose. CWD continues to spread and once established in an area, seems to be impossible to eliminate. Once an animal is infected, death always follows. Some of the models being used to predict the outcome of this plague suggest that local, perhaps widespread extinctions are possible, if not probable.

What a mess.

Oh well, it’s spring! No time to get depressed. Plenty of time for that later.

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Wildlife has been in the news quite a bit recently.

Some of it has been revolving around Parks Canada and worries about a suspected onslaught of visitors this summer. Then there was the good news story about the return of bison to Banff. There’s bound to be a continued focus on Canada’s national park system as Canada celebrates its 150th Anniversary since Confederation.

Moose made it to national radio one morning on ‘The Current’ (see – http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/the-current/segment/11611043). The show managed to mix in some cultural relevancy and worrisome declines in Canada’s moose population. It was Ontario focused, although a moose expert from British Columbia provided the western perspective and there were light ties to national implications.

The moose story got rolling when the Wildlands League, a chapter of CPAWS (the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society), put out a press release calling on the Ontario government to ‘ban’ the hunting of calf moose by licensed hunters (here’s a link to their site –  http://wildlandsleague.org/project/moose/).

A slew of articles, interviews and broadcasts that followed were basically successful in discussing the fact that in Ontario, as well as some other parts of Canada, moose are in a steep population decline. Mentioned, but much less discussed, was how in other parts of Canada, moose are thriving. But whatever, there are concerns about what needs to be done to address moose decline. Exactly what should be done, though, has become the bigger problem.

Legal, but largely unregulated night hunting by Aboriginals, often called jacklighting when it’s done by poachers, also made the national news.

In this case it was mostly because the new Premiere, Brian Pallister, suggested the night hunting that has been going on in the province, particularly in the agricultural south-west, was in danger of inviting a ‘race war’. The progressive press was quick to pick that up and race and identity instantly became the story. The problem of night hunting – elk, moose and often big, trophy whitetails – was sort of lost in the kerfuffle with calls on the premiere to apologize for his incendiary, comment grabbing headlines.

Still, Dr. Vince Crichton, who’s in the midst of this milieu, tells me there are many Aboriginal people, including Chiefs, other leaders and elders, who want and know that something needs to be done. Apparently, the Premiere is also committed to finding a solution.

For the courts, using a 10 million candle power spotlight to light up a field to let one shoot game with a scoped, high-powered, centre fire rife is okay, as long as it’s done in a safe manner. That’s because they’ve made rulings that such a practice respects Aboriginal Rights as specified in the Constitution, in part because the practice is consistent with traditions and appeases spiritual needs.

Night hunting as a traditional practice is legal in most of Canada, although it isn’t allowed in the neighboring province of Saskatchewan.

In Ontario, small game hunting was in the news, but only if you looked for it. Ontario had a EBR posting on small game management proposals that ran until about the end of January, with some of the proposed ‘actions’ to be implemented as early as this fall. That’s means it was on the internet and the public was consulted by being invited to comment on the proposals.

One thing that caught my eye was a proposal that would see the whole province (every WMU) with a 10 pheasant a day limit, with no restrictions on sex, and all that during a very lengthy season.

Obviously the provincial wildlife managers have sided with the deep ecologists, and don’t want to expend time and effort trying to manage an ‘alien, invasive species’ just so hunters can pursue them. Because pheasants aren’t native, they ‘don’t belong’ here and getting rid of them, or at least making sure there’s next to no chance of having a self-sustaining population, is just the right thing to do. It’s one step towards the restoration of the landscape and ecosystem in southern Ontario that was in place in the pre-colonial days.

Not everyone agrees with that approach. But managing for hunters is unlikely to be a priority for the ruling Liberals, who are foundering in the polls, facing an election and trying to boost their popularity.

So Ontario has problems with small game as well as moose. Hard to say what they might do.

All in all, an interesting past couple of weeks; I’ll need to see what happens next. There’s sure to be at least some changes in the weeks and months ahead.

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A barn swallow, not near a barn.

I’m a hunter. I spend a lot of time thinking about hunting. I think I’m from the old school of wildlifers who went to the wildlife management profession because I was and still am a hunter. There are still some of us around.

I recall learning that managing wildlife and hunting was a close tie because in general, the people who were most passionate about wildlife were hunters. If you didn’t hunt, there were better things to do than spend a career trying to manage wildlife.

The reason the people who were managing wildlife in the early days – and for a long time afterwards – is rooted in history. Lots of people knew there was a wanton slaughter of wildlife going on, but it wasn’t going to stop until hunters themselves put a stop to it. And that’s what happened.

Hunters demanded new rules and regulations, because they knew hunting was a problem.

Over time, the management of wildlife became increasingly complex. But for a long time, the focus was the management of game animals and hunters. And most Provinces and States maintained Game Departments.

Some of the first changes began a few decades ago when Game Departments started to see themselves merged with other departments or agencies with environmental responsibilities.

Once that happened, the tide turned away from hunting, hunters and game.

Hunting, though, is still a problem.

And it’s not getting the attention it needs, in part because hunters don’t have near the clout they used to have in government wildlife management circles.

The focus today is on non-game species, often species identified as a ‘species at risk’ (which suggests that unless something is done, that species could become extinct . . . go the way of the Dodo).

These days, the majority of employees in wildlife management agencies are non-hunters and many studied non-game species during their formal studies in college and university.

A consequence of having a lot of people involved in non-game management – and a lot of interest to be involved in that field – is it creates pressure for non-game departments to grow and expand their budget. That’s just the way government works.

There can be consequences. One that many of my colleagues and I see is a growing trend to identify and categorize more and more species as being ‘at risk’, even if they really aren’t.

Let’s look at the barn swallow as an example as to the point I’m trying to make.

To start, guess where barn swallows nest?

Barns! However, the kind of barns barn swallows like – big and airy with haylofts – no longer dot the countryside. They’ve been falling down for years and aren’t being replaced. Fewer barns, fewer barn swallows.

But barn swallows don’t just nest in barns – before the days of barns, they had to have been nesting in other places.

The fact is, there still are a lot of barn swallows nesting and flying around the countryside. Just not as many as there were back when barns were common..

But because the decline – in some places – was large and is still on-going, the powers that be have decided there must be a problem. In Ontario, the barn swallow is listed as being threatened with extinction. COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, also lists it as Threatened.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, though, one of the most prestigious institutions in North America in bird studies, says this about the barn swallow:

“The Barn Swallow is the most abundant and widely distributed swallow species in the world. It breeds throughout the Northern Hemisphere and winters in much of the Southern Hemisphere.”

Here’s the link. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/barn_swallow/lifehistory

As a species, the barn swallow is in no danger of extinction. True, its numbers are down – maybe precipitously in some places – but is the species really in trouble? It’s the “most abundant and widely distributed swallow species in the world”.

Lots of money is being spent on barn swallows, wood turtles, whip-poor-wills and many, many more non-game species. A lot of that is a ‘good thing’. But it’s not all good.

These non-game species programs cost a lot of money. Managing game costs money too, but game management also generates a lot of money. Lots. There’s not much money to be made managing barn swallows.

If we did a better job of managing game animals, there’d be more money for all sorts of wildlife management. But managing wildlife, in large part for hunters, isn’t ‘cool’. It’s ‘icky’.

There’s no doubt in my mind game species and hunters are too often getting the short shrift.

Hunters and not a small number of non-hunters, know this isn’t right, but don’t know what to do.

Better game management makes economic, environmental and social sense.

In many areas it even has the potential to improve race relations.

It’s just the right thing to do.

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A New Year is upon us and my best to all.

Here in Northwestern Ontario, we had a very mild fall, up to December, when winter finally came. We now have close to 50 cm of snow on the ground and the temperature has been in the – 20 0C range for much of the past month, including today. No – 400 s, though, which can occur, and is something I really don’t like. Things just start not working and worse, start breaking, at that temperature.

The whitetail deer does around the house are still able to walk around in the snow without too much difficulty. The snow is not quite to their bellies, is light and there is no crust. The deer went into winter in good condition – courtesy of that mild autumn – and barring another big dump of snow soon – as well as a normal ‘end’ to winter around the first of April, should get through OK. A rule of thumb is 50 days of 50 cm of snow and there will be significant deer mortality. Not quite there yet and what is there can be expected to settle several centimeters over the next few days. No major snowfalls forecast for the immediate future.

The wolves have not been around for several days. However, where we went ice fishing for lake trout on New Year’s Day, we saw that there had been 4 or 5 of them out on the ice the previous night.  Given where we were fishing isn’t all that far from home as the crow flies, that’s where the missing wolves might be. With deer numbers way down from previous years, this could be the winter that finally brings wolf numbers down, too.

It’s interesting that once the snow comes, the ruffed grouse seem to almost disappear. I suspect they feed voraciously on buds in tree tops (such as white birch) at dawn or dusk, fill up their crops and then spend days roosting in either the snow or thick conifers, until their food source is exhausted. Then the cycle is repeated. I recall one winter seeing where a grouse had plunged into the snow and stayed there for several days (I saw the plunge hole and recognized it for what it was). By week’s end, I thought maybe it had perished, but when I went to check, the bird burst out of the snow at my feet, startling me, of course, as they are wont to do.

It looks right now that most of Canada is experiencing cold and snow. Even Lala land in Vancouver, British Columbia, has snow and ice on the ground. Many Vancouverites are ill prepared for snow and cold and many don’t even own a snow shovel. I’m sure the carbon tax will help people cope.

There is no getting around the fact that winter is hard on wildlife. Of course, some species are adapted to it, but in areas with regular, harsh winters, the abundance and diversity of species is a pale shadow of what thrives in warmer climes. The winter of 2013-14 in much of the country, including where I live, was horrendously long, cold and snowy, and wreaked havoc on the local deer population. It didn’t do our struggling, reintroduced elk population any favours either. Pat Karns, a former and now departed wildlife biologist in Minnesota, once wrote a paper ‘Winter: the Grim Reaper’, outlining how winter, more than any other factor, was responsible for deer dynamics on northern ranges.

It’s a classic and a ‘must read’ for wildlife biologists and nature enthusiasts alike.