Archive

big game

cards-16

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.

moose-5

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.

swallows-23

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.

ruffies-2

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.

The hunting season, for white-tailed deer and grouse, in my area ended ½ hr after sunset yesterday (correction:grouse season is still open; it now closes at the end of December. But I have never hunted past Dec 15, which is when the season used to close.)

It was a rather uneventful day. I didn’t go hunting and hadn’t been for several days. For the second straight year I didn’t harvest a deer. I did have opportunities; more than last year. I saw at least 4 different bucks. Yearling bucks were the youngest and smallest; the other bucks were at least 2 ½ years old and the largest one might have been 3 ½.

I took a number of ruffed grouse and a few spruce grouse this autumn (plus some pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge in Alberta). I hunted with my dog Neva here and in Alberta, and a bit with Lil and our other dog, Dory (near home). Dory’s front legs have never worked properly so she’s had that handicap all her life. But Neva seems to have brought her joy and Dory now enjoys being able to hunt with us, even if it’s only for a very short time during an outing.

The moose hunt also ended, but my moose hunting this year was restricted to the week I flew into the wilds of Manitoba; zippo on that hunt. I did have a tag for moose hunting in Ontario, but I wasn’t interested in hunting a calf because I don’t believe in calf hunting (not like it’s being done in Ontario); and, I didn’t have an adult tag on my moose license – nor did any of my normal hunting buddies.

The highlight of my hunting season was in early September. Saw a magnificent bull elk on a misty morning. There is no licenced hunt for elk in Northwestern Ontario, but someday there might be. Elk were re-introduced in this area in 2000 and although there have been some setbacks, there are a few herds around that seem to be doing OK. There’s been some encouraging reports of late, so ‘fingers crossed’.

The last few days of the hunting season have been cold and windy; into the minus twenties in Celsius – ‘silly arses’ – degrees. Too cold for me to want to go hunting.

There were not a lot of deer around anyway; most days when I went hunting I didn’t see a single deer. But tracks and dropping and rubs and scrapes showed there were deer scattered about and twice we saw deer along the highway driving to our hunt spot, or coming home after the hunt was done.

I saw almost as much wolf sign as deer sign. Everywhere I went there were fresh wolf tracks. On a few occasions we could hear them howling, sometimes quite close by. On a hill my buddy Deryk and I have hunted for years, there was very little deer sign (none on the hill itself) but we counted at least a dozen piles of wolf crap. More than once we saw wolves.

When it gets cold and snow covers the ground, the ruffed grouse just seem to disappear. I hadn’t been shooting any lately, not just because it’s been cold, but more important, many places now convenient to hunt might be areas where trappers are working; some trap sets could easily be tripped by an inquisitive dog and that would be the end of that. We had been letting Neva hunt grouse on many of our almost daily walks on our property; I just hadn’t been trying to shoot them. I like seeing the grouse and if they stick around, we can continue to ‘hunt’ them all winter, or at least on some nice days when there a few birds out and about.

Now that deer and bird hunting is over, I think it might be time to hunt wolves and get ready to do some ice fishing.

Maybe combine the two.

And maybe dream of an elk hunt.

deer-decoy-1

As usual, it’s been a busy fall hunting season. Results have been mixed. Regardless, I’m enjoying the hunt.

I saw a nice, big bull moose with a big rack in northern Manitoba, but only the cow presented a target. We saw the moose after we had actually finished our hunt, about a kilometer down the lake from camp, after lunch when we were just starting to pack up. Jumped in the canoe but never did catch up or see the bull again; just the cow.

Licensed hunters in northern Manitoba can only harvest a bull. For the duration of the 5 days we hunted, I tried calling mornings and evenings; never had a response. There was moose sign around, mostly tracks and antler thrashed bushes, but the woods around me were quiet. It was a bit on the warm side and winds were calm; overall it seemed to me that the calling conditions were good.

There’s much synchronicity in how the rut plays out, so we may simply have been hunting during a lull. My friend Gary Gehrmann, a professional hunter, emphasizes to his guests who are planning to hunt moose, or black bear, that two weeks is the time you need to have an excellent chance of being successful. His clients are a pretty satisfied bunch.

Of course, not all of us can book two weeks for a moose hunt. Life is busy. So, bottom line, no moose this year.

Then there was the bird hunt to Alberta. Everything went well.

Around home, I’ve been grouse hunting off and on from the start of the season, which began in the middle of September. There seems to be quite a few grouse around, so I’ve had some success. Neva has really enjoyed chasing grouse around. For a couple of weeks, as many as five grouse, but usually no more than two at a time, came every evening to munch on crab apples in the tree beside the house and kitchen window. But, the grouse, with the help of the gray jays, blue jays and red squirrels, finally ate all the fruit.

Deer hunting has been tough. Seems to me, and others I’ve talked to, that there are fewer deer than last year yet more hunters (particularly non-resident, Americans). Because last winter was mild, the wildlife managers assumed deer numbers would be up and handed out a lot of extra antlerless permits to resident hunters. I don’t think they accounted for the still high wolf numbers that have continued to decimate the remaining deer. With deer numbers relatively low and wolf numbers high, I think the wolves will keep killing deer until there are very, very few, left; only then will wolf numbers collapse. Talking to some trappers, it seems that has started to happen in some areas.

Over about two weeks of deer hunting (not all day events, but several hours in a day), I’ve seen about a half dozen deer. All except one have been on our property, where I’ve spent about half my hunting time. Half of those deer are the does that we see in the yard almost every day, so they really don’t count. A few years ago, it wasn’t unusual to see more than a dozen deer during a day of serious deer hunting almost everywhere I went.

Two of the deer on our property were bucks. The first was a 9 pointer, one that Lil and I have since seen several times over the past few days. He’s been chasing does; one day he was chasing a doe past my decoy, gave up on the real deal, and went and sniffed out the decoy. Should have stuck with the live doe, although it’s likely he gave up because she wasn’t in estrus.

The 2nd buck, a 6 pointer, figured the decoy was his and quickly succumbed to the emotional roller-coaster of love. After close to two hours of courtship, including a couple of mounting attempts, I had to chase him off. I felt sorry for him. He seemed somewhat distraught. The decoy was covered in deer slobbers when I picked it up and put it away.

Yesterday, I saw my first deer hunting off property. It was an 8 point buck. An easy shot, but I like hunting and didn’t want to end it yet. The season is open (just for residents; the non-resident season ended Nov. 15) to the middle of December and the weather forecast for the next two weeks indicates reasonably good hunting conditions.

I’d like to try setting up my decoy somewhere else, but on public land, watching a decoy could be dangerous. There are still a lot of resident hunters with unfilled tags burning holes in their pockets. Obviously, the decoy is lifelike.

Even if the winter is again mild, the outlook for deer hunting in this neck of the woods doesn’t look to be particularly good for at least a few more years. Deer numbers are definitely down, there are still a lot of wolves around, hunting seasons are long and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry shows no inclination to do much of anything to aid the struggling herd. Hunting seasons with firearms are 5 weeks for non-residents, 11 weeks for residents; plus there’s another week prior to the start of the gun season for archers and muzzle loading enthusiasts (all hunters). Licences are unlimited, there are no guide requirements for non-residents and hundreds of extra tags for antlerless deer (resident hunters only) have been issued annually, a trend likely to continue. Let’s not forget a sizable, and growing, segment of the local population can hunt using Aboriginal and Treaty Rights. Finally, the wolves have more protection these days than they’ve ever seen before.

But the white-tailed deer is a resilient creature. They’re always full of surprises. Today was no exception; more on that later . . .

velvet-1

The antlers of all the Ontario cervids have, by now, been free of velvet for weeks. The crowns are now hardened bone, slowly shrinking as they dry.

Antler velvet is a hairy skin that is a component of growing antler bone. It’s very sensitive as it covers a mass of blood vessels and nerves that will quickly transform into a crown of antlers. Antlers are said to be one of the fastest growing tissues found in the animal world.

On whitetails, the velvet is shed quickly and, it seems, in private. I’ve never witnessed a buck shedding its velvet; only once I saw a buck that had obviously just shed its velvet (the buck in the photo). Fresh red blood still smeared the whitish bone. I once watched a bull moose losing its velvet; it used the dead, overhead branches of a large spruce to rake its antlers and as the velvet sloughed off, the bull would shake its head, grab velvet in its mouth, chew it off and eat it. Velvet is high in nutrients and minerals; it’s seldom allowed to go to waste.

Most hunters are fascinated by antlers and in many cultures antlers are considered to be a trophy and a memorable part of the hunt. There are a number of organizations that maintain records of large antlered specimens and there are also various standardized methodologies used to ‘score’ or rank antlers. One of the best known is the Boone and Crockett Club (B&C) that uses a scoring system with the same name. The club was founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt, who was president of the USA from 1901 to 1909.

In England and Europe, the antlers of stags, notably those of red deer, have adorned the walls of castles and homes of nobility for centuries.

Antlers – presence or absence, plus size – are often an integral part of how members of the deer family are managed by game agencies everywhere.

B&C categorizes antlers as being either ‘typical’, or non-typical. Typical antlers reward size and symmetry; in other words a great typical buck has ‘perfect’ antlers, the large antlers are a mirror of each other and have no unusual or abnormal growths of points other than what is considered to be normal for the species.  Non-typicals are just that. The biggest antlers are usually non-typicals.

For the antlers of a white-tailed buck to be listed (declared a bona-fide trophy) in the typical category by B&C, it must be measured by a certified B&C scorer and have a net score of at least 170. Most trophy typical whitetails have 5 points on each antler, although some have 4 and some more than 5. The present world record was shot by Milo Hansen in 1993 in Saskatchewan. It is basically a 6X6 with two small points on the right antler; it has a net score of 213 5/8ths.

Before a set of antlers can be officially measured and scored, there must be a ‘drying’ period of at least 60 days after the harvest of the animal. Particularly large antlers may shrink a few inches in that 60 day drying period; shrinkage could continue for a few years, but once the deer has been officially scored and measured, that’s the score, regardless if it continues to shrink (marginally) over time. Antlers are measured without velvet.

An elk antler from an animal that roamed Minnesota prior to their extirpation in the mid-19th century was recently found in the bottom of a lake in that state. A large antler, it was hollow; apparently it had developed full size but not yet full ossification. It probably wound up in the lake early in the fall. How that happened is by no means clear, but if it was deposited in early fall, it must have been associated with the death of the bull, as elk antlers aren’t shed until March or April. The inner, softer, developing portion deteriorated over time in the water, but the outer core was still intact. Maybe it was still in velvet.

Another interesting antler factoid.