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Most of us rely heavily on our eyesight just to get through the day.

Unsurprisingly, having good eyesight is highly appreciated by hunters. Hunters search for game – mostly, but not exclusively – with their eyes.

Some people – and some hunters – have much better vision than the average person. With superior vision, they tend to quickly see a heck of a lot of stuff that others can’t see without considerable difficulty.

Most of us are familiar with vision that’s rated as ‘20/20′. Someone who has 20/20 vision generally doesn’t require corrective lenses. What 20/20 doesn’t say, but tends to imply, is that having 20/20 vision means having great vision. With corrective lenses, my eyesight is 20/20.

Put simply, all 20/20 vision really means is that if you have it, you can see clearly at 20 feet what should normally be seen at that distance.

Some have much higher rated and better vision than 20/20.

For example, those who have 20/15 vision – not that uncommon – can see things clearly at 20 feet that someone with 20/20 vision needs to be 15 feet away to see clearly.

Having 20/20 vision and being able to see clearly what one should ‘normally see’ doesn’t add up to much. People with extra-ordinarily good eyesight have other attributes that provides them with eyesight that’s superior to the average. They might have better peripheral vision (they can spot things off to the side of what they are focused on), better depth perception (everything’s clear in 3D), colours are brighter, crisper, clearer and so on.

Most people have reasonably good vision. But, some have it (much) better than others. Regardless of how good – or poor – your vision is, your vision is generally better when you are young. As one ages, eyesight tends to fade. That’s no big surprise.

Obviously, it’s a boon to have great vision if one is a hunter.

But ‘search image’ is also important. Search image is the ability to spot what it is you are looking for – in Africa it was any number of antelope, birds like sand grouse – really a myriad of birds and animals – wherever they might be. Hunters with a great search image can spot their quarry hiding in the shadows, sitting in the sand or slinking through the forest; those without a good search image often miss out.

Put excellent eyesight and a great search image together and you have the makings of someone who can be, at the least, an extraordinary game spotter.

Unlike vision, which is what it is – unless modified with surgery or with corrective lenses – developing a search image takes time and effort.

On my recent trip to South Africa and then Namibia, I had the luck to hunt with PH’s who had fantastic eyesight and absolutely astounding search image capabilities (PH stands for Professional Hunter: these are accredited hunters and foreigners MUST hunt with a PH in these countries).

Wik and Colin, the PH’s I hunted with in South Africa (https://www.game4africa.co.za/), were in their 20’s and could spot game like there was no tomorrow.

As described in a recent post of mine, Wik found me a once-in-a-lifetime bushbuck, which I (eventually) shot. One thing that really struck me was that I had a really hard time seeing it when I was trying to find it in the scope. A couple of times I had to look again with my binos – I could see it well with the binos – but looking through the scope I initially couldn’t pick it out.

The problem wasn’t the scope – it was a high end Swarovski – it was the fact I was reduced to using one eye at 230 m. which didn’t provide me with the depth perception – 3D – the binos did. Everything looked flat and the bushbuck faded into the scene. Just in time I finally got my eye to focus and things worked out. I had not experienced that problem before and took it as another sign of my eyes, like the rest of me, are ageing and can’t do things near as well as was the case 20 years ago.

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A day later we went on a hunt for mountain rhebuck. Once again, Wik showed off his astounding sighting abilities.

“There’s a good-sized group over there”, he told me, pointing to some cover several hundred meters away.

I couldn’t see anything.

“I can see their ears,” he explained.

All in all, there were about 20 animals in the group.

At some point the group spooked. As we tracked after them, they broke off in different directions and, lucky for me, a mature ram made a mistake and came to within about 130 m of us and stopped broadside to stare. That one, even with my old eyes, I could see clearly; I made sure the Sako 7MM mag did its job.

Back at the lodge, the phrase “I can see their ears” was repeated often that evening as we lounged by the fire.

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Wik – “I can see their ears”

One nice touch at the lodge was the large cleared fields out front. A ‘no hunting’ zone, one didn’t need great vision to watch the animals come and go. Zebra, eland, wart hogs, monkeys and guinea fowl were regular visitors. One evening, a large group of Cape buffalo came out to graze. What a sight!

A few days later we were in Namibia in pursuit of eland with Westfalen (http://www.westfalenhuntnamibia.com) and Onduri Hunting Safaris  (http://www.onduri.com/). It was dry dry dry and the animals seemed very spooky.

On the 2nd day, Helmut, one of the PHs, spotted eland at about 800 m, on the far side of a savannah. NiCoo, out tracker, said there were several animals in the group. Neither were using binos when they spotted the animals.

At first, I didn’t see any. But eland are huge, and finally I did see a couple of spots, which I could confirm as eland with the help of my binos.

Our stalk was successful and I took a very large, old bull eland.

My hunts were successful, but I owe a lot to young eyes that were coupled with a great search image.

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Spotting Bushbuck: there’s one inside the circle I’ve drawn on one of the photos. It’s a bit more visible in the blow-up photo. Kudu were everywhere. Note the sharp horns on the Bushbuck! Rocky was quite pleased with himself following the chase and fight.

I recently returned from another fabulous trip to Africa. Like last time, this was a two-legged journey – but this time, our first stop was in South Africa.

In South Africa, Drew, Brian and I stayed with Game4Africa (https://www.game4africa.co.za/), owned and operated by the Coetzee Brothers, Wikus and Colin. We were in the region known as the Eastern Cape, an area well-known for it abundance of game, particularly Kudu (the best chance of getting a Kudu anywhere in Africa, according to the Wik and Colin).

For Drew and I, the focus was Bushbuck.

The Cape Bushbuck (Tragelaphus sylvaticus) or more commonly, the Bushbuck, is a smallish antelope with large males weighing slightly more than 50 kg. Females are smaller and don’t have horns.

Bushbuck, are one of the four African antelope with twisted horns, the others being the Kudu, Eland and Nyala. Although it’s the smallest antelope of the group, the Bushbuck has a well-deserved reputation for having a nasty temperament. They will turn on and fight predators – including human hunters – when wounded and cornered. The horns are very sharp.

On day one, Brian and I hunted with Colin close to the main lodge, while Drew went further afield with Wik. Colin, Brian and I scanned heavy cover in steep hill country, but had no luck in seeing our main quarry. Before the morning was over, though, we had word that Wik and Drew had been successful and Drew had shot a very nice Bushbuck.

For day two, the decision was to head back to the general area where Drew had been successful the first morning. The morning was cool and in the hills, there was a stiff breeze. Despite having donned a heavy shirt, a fleece-lined hoodie and warm gloves, it was hard to keep comfortable. Scanning the hillsides hundreds of meters distant through binoculars was tasking, as my eyes kept watering and smearing my glasses.

Finally, after what seemed like a couple of hours, someone, Wik or Drew, spotted and Bushbuck and Wik said we’d have to try and make our was down the hillside to get within range to try for a shot.

What a climb (down)! We wound our way down on game trails a couple of hundred meters; often we seemed to be going almost straight down and it took quite the effort to keep balance and not fall head-over-heels down the ravine. I was thankful for my good boots and their solid grip, and the thought that I’d have been snookered if I’d opted to bring the other pair of hunting boots I had contemplated bringing, kept popping up in my mind.

Finally, we found ourselves on a bit of an opening with the Bushbuck still way below us. Wik asked me if I could see it and through the binos, I could. I had difficulty locating it through the scope, though, and then couldn’t keep steady on the steep slope. Wik did some speedy adjustments and we found a way for me to sit down and just as the Bushbuck took a step and was about to disappear under the canopy, I squeezed off a shot. There was a solid ‘thwack’ and the Bushbuck was gone.

“Two hundred and 30 meters. Good Shot!” said Wik.

Wik radioed for his tracker and his dog Rocky, a solidly built Jack Russel Terrier. Apparently, Jack Russel’s are favoured by many African hunters in tracking down antelope and have a reputation as being the breed to deal with Bushbuck.

It took a while, but eventually Wik’s tracker, carrying Rocky, found us. Wik pointed out where we had last seen the Bushbuck and down the ravine the tracker went, still carrying compliant little Rocky under his arm.

At some point we started following. We saw the tracker get to the spot where the Bushbuck had been shot and he let Rocky go.

Almost immediately Rocky started barking and growling and we could heard barks and grunts from the Bushbuck as well. We couldn’t see either Rocky or the Bushbuck, but did catch glimpses of the tracker running about in circles, apparently trying to get to the Bushbuck and dispatch it, which, eventually, he did.

“It’s over!” said Wik.

We got down to the Bushbuck, the tracker and Rocky, who was splattered in blood and seemed to be very pleased with himself.

The Bushbuck was a magnificent animal with long, sharp, heavy horns. Apparently, it was a once-in-a-lifetime Bushbuck. Actually, it was quite similar to the one Drew had taken the day before, the main difference being mine was slightly wider.

Bushbuck can be quite common, but are often found where cover is thick and the terrain steep (like where we were), which can make for tough hunting. Wik and Colin thought we did well in part because of the weather (cold nights, sunny mornings) and the lack of a moon during the night. This resulted in the animals being more apt to be in openings than the norm.

Drew attributed our success to us being great hunters (sarc!).

Two great Bushbucks in two days. Thanks Wik!

And thanks especially to Rocky!

Here’s my un-edited copy of my last column in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. Enjoy!

On a recent trip to Africa, the first full-day of hunting was a wash-out for my buddy Brian and I. The reason? The scope on our rented, bolt-action .30-06 Savage had loosened during the morning sight-in and was way off when Brian tried to take first a gemsbok and later, a zebra. Fortunately, neither animal was wounded – clear misses – and we solved the problem the next morning.

As a rule, I don’t borrow or lend firearms. I learned that from dad, who’d had horrible experiences lending and borrowing firearms.

While Dad’s advice has stood me well, there are a lot of good reasons to borrow, or lend, a firearm.

For one, travelling with a firearm is generally a hassle. Airlines tend to discourage travelling with firearms through bothersome and cumbersome regulations and often substantive, tacked on expenses. And, when I have taken one on an airline (to date, always within Canada), I’ve noted most ticket handlers have little to no experience with the firearm rigmarole, which is both frustrating and time consuming. Because of these omnipresent stumbling blocks, I highly recommend anyone taking a firearm on a flight to be at check-in early. In addition, phone the airline you are flying with well in advance to enquire about their firearm policies and let them know you will be bringing one.

Crossing the border into the USA, or any other country, is even more problematic. Every country has their own system and as a rule, they are not user-friendly. Again, check what you’re going to be up against well in advance of a planned trip.

To avoid the trouble, extra attention, paperwork and other regulations when travelling with a firearm, I’ve found it makes a lot of sense to borrow, or rent, when I get to my destination. I’d like to use my own firearms, but often, it’s just not worth the headaches.

However, borrowing is not without matters of its own.

For example, the last time I went to the US turkey hunting, I planned on borrowing a firearm from my friend Randy. That turned out to be a bit of a schmozzle.

First, it took a lot of phoning around to see if it was even legal for me to borrow a firearm. Michigan DNR didn’t know (not even the Director); eventually, someone from Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said I could.

At the border, I got a thorough interrogation when I informed them the purpose of my trip was a turkey hunt – and no, I didn’t have a firearm. “What are you going to do? Beat them with a stick?” asked the Customs agent.

The most common issues with borrowing and renting firearms are to do with safety, handling and condition of the firearm. One way to minimize problems is to request, well before leaving on the hunt, to have at least a couple of firearms to choose from.

Before using a borrowed gun, check for signs of mis-use. Avoid firearms with a cracked stock, loose, or missing parts, a safety that doesn’t work, or any other obvious fault. Check the action and ensure it’s smooth. Check the bore of the barrel for obstructions. Cycle a few rounds through it without firing.

Once you’re satisfied a firearm is safe, you need to do some shooting.

During the shoot, wear clothes you intend to hunt in. Does the gun feel comfortable? Is it too long or too heavy?  Test fire from a bench – with the same cartridges you intend to hunt with – to sight-in as well as getting a feel for what the trigger-pull is like.

Assess recoil by trying some shots while standing or kneeling.

After each shot and especially at the end of shooting, check to ensure nothing has loosened (like scope mounts!).

Still, despite everything you do, problems can arise.

On the last day of my African hunt, I shot a red hartebeest that didn’t go down immediately. But the action jammed and it took both me and my (required) Professional Hunter guide, to eject the spent shell. I don’t know whether it was the result of a fouled chamber, or improperly re-sized re-loads. Fortunately, the shot had been good and the hartebeest was down.

Despite the many potential negatives, there are positives from borrowing firearms. It can be a chance to try out a make, model, calibre or gauge, or a load new to you.

One firearm I rented in Namibia, a bolt-action Remington 700 in .30-06, was fitted with a  Trijicon 2.5-12.5 X 42 scope, a scope I was unfamiliar with, but would now consider for use here in Ontario. On my Michigan turkey hunt, Randy lent me his Thompson Center Encore with 12 gauge barrel and T/C Turkey choke. The scope was a Truglo red dot; ammo was ACTIV brand Penetrator nickel plated turkey load, 2 ¾”, #4 shot, 1 ¾ oz. It was all new to me – but it worked great and I bagged a nice tom with a single shot at 25 m.

Also in Namibia, Brian and I had the opportunity to hunt with firearms fitted with suppressors, commonly called silencers. What a hoot! Firing a .30-06 that was no louder than a .22 short and with similar recoil was amazing. The suppressors did add considerable weight, but given we were using shooting sticks (held by the PH), that wasn’t an issue.

In summary, there are pros and cons to using borrowed firearms.  Use due diligence and chances are the experience will be an enjoyable one.

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.

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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.

 

 

Last fall, I went mule deer hunting in south-eastern Alberta, perhaps for the last time. As an explanation as to why this hunt might have been my last mule deer hunt there, I offer the following story:

I first applied for a mule deer tag in Alberta as a Canadian resident, which requires a resident guide (or as Alberta calls it, a hunter host), in 1998. I was finally drawn in 2002.

I was successful on that first hunt, as I have been each and every time I’ve been drawn. Generally, it takes three or four years of applying to get a tag. Although I apply in the same pool as resident Albertans, I have only been able to apply for an antlered mulie, which is A-okay by me. Over the years, I’ve taken some nice bucks.

The same year I was initially drawn for a tag, Alberta documented its first cast of chronic wasting disease (CWD), in a farmed elk.

From then, the infection rate grew quickly, and bad news it was, as one of the areas where the disease took hold was the area I was hunting (we stayed, and have continued to stay, at a ranch north of Medicine Hat. We’ve become good friends with the rancher family).

In an attempt to stop the disease, the Alberta Fish & Game did a cull in the area we hunt in 2006.

Since then, things have gotten much worse on the CWD front.

The first thing we noticed, after the cull, was that there were a lot fewer mule deer on the ranch.

A few years later, the deer numbers increased somewhat, but there was a new wrinkle – it became mandatory for hunters to drop off the heads of harvested deer to be tested for CWD. Then I couldn’t transport a deer back to Ontario unless it was de-boned and the skull cap and antlers cleaned.

Although CWD has not – yet – been known to infect humans, health agencies recommend animals known to be infected to not be consumed. So there was a waiting period after harvesting and butchering the deer before it was possible to enjoy eating it.

Still, our deer were, for a few years, always negative for CWD. That changed in, I think it was 2013, when Rob’s buck tested positive. Since then, Rob has had two more bucks test +ve and there have been others in our hunting party who have taken mulies that have come back as CWD +ve. Not good.

And it’s only getting worse. Check out this link for the history – and see the spread – of CWD in Alberta from the date of discovery to date https://www.alberta.ca/chronic-wasting-disease-history-in-alberta.aspx .

For a number of reasons, including the CWD issue, I hadn’t applied for a mule deer tag the last couple of years, even though I had enough priority points to draw one. But in 2018 Glenn and I decided I might as well apply and if drawn, do the hunt, as things were “unlikely to get better, and you never know – maybe the ‘hunter host’ system will change with a new government”. It’s possible that for a non-resident Canadian – like me – hunting mule deer with friends using the hunter host system might not be an option in the future.

Anyway, I applied, got drawn and did the hunt with Glenn. On the last day of the season, Dec. 1, I harvested a nice mature mulie buck.

A couple of days later, on the way home, we dropped off the head for CWD testing in Jenner. I took some of the choice cuts home to Ontario, put them in a freezer bag, labelled them, froze them and . . . waited for the results of the CWD tests.

As I already said, CWD is not known – as yet – to infect humans, but the World Health Organization and Fish & Game agencies caution against consuming an animal known to have CWD. CWD – so far specific to members of the Cervidae (deer) family, has been documented in the following species: white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, moose and reindeer. CWD is one of a group of fatal diseases referred to as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). The group includes bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE (“mad cow disease”), which can be passed on to humans. In humans, this BSE is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Basically, if you get variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob, your brain is eaten away and you eventually die.

While waiting for the results of the CWD test on my deer, an article appeared in Deer and Deer Hunting magazine (https://www.deeranddeerhunting.com/deer-scouting/deer-behavior/controversial-research-bacteria-not-prions-cause-cwd (a magazine I have written for) on CWD, reporting on a researcher (a Dr. Bastian) who thinks CWD may actually be the result of an infectious ‘super-bacteria’. It’s interesting – and offers new hope in terms of dealing with the disease in the future – but so far, no one has replicated Dr. Bastian’s research, so he’s out alone in the field with respect to his theory. I believe part of the ‘problem’ is that there are relatively few people doing basic research on CWD, so not many are even trying to replicate his results.

At any rate, I was still waiting when Rob forwarded me another article https://mountainjournal.org/story-482 that bluntly suggests CWD is bound to, at some point, infect humans. The paper also says that it’s really impossible to sterilize your hunting utensils if you’ve cleaned a CWD infected animal and that prions – the infective agent – are almost indestructible and could infect whatever your now contaminated utensils come in contact with. They (prions) have been found to be taken up by vegetation and can get picked up and spread around by vehicles. There’s a lot of very scary stuff in this article.

So here I am at home wondering if I’m going to have to throw out my hunting knife and meat saw. I have no idea what to do with the skull cap and antlers of my buck if it’s CWD+ve – seems to me it would be shedding prions wherever I put it –  and because I usually do the final cleaning by sanding off any remaining bits of dried flesh – all I can envisage is inhaling airborne CWD prions. All these thoughts tend to sicken me . . .

Then, On March 11, I get an email and a magic call from Alberta Environment and Parks . .  .my deer tested negative! I can eat the deer, keep my hunting knives and saws and clean and mount the antlers!

Great news indeed!

But I really don’t think I want to go through that kind of an ordeal again.

As CWD continues to spread, there’s a lot of thinking us big game hunters are going to have to do. Although a number of writers and others are working to try and minimize the dangers of CWD, I’m skeptical. This is a huge issue, possible a huge health issue, that could see lives lost.

Oh, and one more thing. If a deer gets CWD, that deer always dies, usually within 2-3 years. There are worries it will, eventually, decimate infected herds. Alarming population declines have already been documented in some CWD endemic areas in the USA.

CWD. It’s a bad thing.

Left to Right, top: Black-faced Impala, Rocky Mtn Elk; White-tailed Deer; Dr. Vince Crichton and the Tom Degare Buck (#2 Ontario non-typical from NW Ontario, taken in 1945); Middle: Pronghorn Antelope with one sheath removed; elk antler, showing pedicle which protrudes somewhat like a flat horn; Kudu; Sable (top); White-tailed Deer in velvet; Moose, chewing on velvet

First, as an aside, I have noticed that some of the buck white-tailed deer in the City of Kenora still have their antlers. Normally, deer drop their antlers in December in this part of the world, but the good conditions in the city (snow-cleared roads and walkways and handouts from people) have delayed shedding. Also, since my last post, it has snowed quite a bit more here in northwestern Ontario. Looks like another hard winter as far as the deer are concerned. I will continue to post updates as the winter progresses.

The following is an article I recently had published in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. This is the unedited version, with bonus photos!

Antlers fascinate hunters and have since time immemorial.  Antlers of huge stags have adorned the walls of medieval castles and European hunting lodges for centuries.

Antlers are commonly called racks. They can also be called bones, crowns and some call them horns. But horns and antlers are not the same.

According to the late Dr. Tony Bubenik, the evolution of antlers can be traced back about 40 million years.  They’ve been different from horns for a long time.

Today, antlers are found only on deer. There are many kinds of deer all around the world; all are in the family Cervidae. There are fallow deer, axis deer, a group of deer called the muntjacs and others.

Here in Ontario, there are four species of deer; the white-tailed deer, moose, elk and caribou. All are native, although elk were extirpated in the 1800s, and have been re-introduced. Like deer everywhere, all Ontario deer species grow antlers.

Over the centuries, humans have done a lot of introductions of deer to areas where they never existed. People tend to like deer – it helps that they taste good and can be trophies to hunters – and so as people moved around the world, they brought with them their favourite deer.

Antlers are grown – and shed – on an annual basis.  Unlike antlers, horns are permanent structures that aren’t shed, ever.

Horns occur in a large group of animals. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and forms. Typically, horns don’t show any branching. Its common that both males and females grow horns.

Sheep, goats, antelope, bison and domestic cattle, collectively known as Bovoids, all have horns.

Other groups of animals, like rhinos and giraffes, also grow horns.

Antlers are most commonly found only on males; with some exceptions (caribou females sometimes grow antlers).

During the growth phase, antlers are one of the fastest growing cellular structures in the animal kingdom.  New growth can often be seen on a daily basis.

Antlers grow from knobby protuberances on the skull called pedicles. Normally, there are two pedicles, one on each side of the head.

Growing antlers are covered in a skin covering called velvet, which is extremely sensitive. On moose and caribou, there can be vivid stripes of colour in the velvet, called ‘marbling’. In velvet, antlers are warm to the touch, as they are highly vascularized (full of blood vessels) and, if damaged, can bleed profusely.

The end of the antler growing period is a time of mineralizing and hardening of the spongy antler. Once the velvet is gone, what’s left is hardened antler made of bone.

In Ontario, all deer species begin to grow their antlers in late spring. By late August and into September, the velvet is shed. It falls off quickly, usually aided by thrashing trees and shrubs. Velvet is nutritious; I once watched a moose swing its head to catch dangling strips of velvet to eat. Antlers are shed sometime during the winter or into spring.

In general, healthy, mature male deer have the largest antlers.

Antlers are often described as palmated – think moose – or cervicorn, as found on elk, whitetails and caribou. Cervicorn antlers have an obvious main beam with points.

One of the largest racks ever was found on the extinct Irish elk, an animal that ranged across Eurasia. It was about 2.1 metres (6.9 ft) tall at the shoulders, a little bit taller than a big bull moose.

It had a spectacular rack. Some Irish elk had crowns measuring over 3.6 m (12 ft) from tip to tip that weighed up to 40 kg (88 lb).  The species went extinct less than 8,000 years ago, coincident with a die-off of many deer species, including a number of moose ancestors, some of which had racks that were more than 8 feet across. No moose today have a rack like that.

Climate change is thought to have been a major factor in this multi deer species die-off.

The moose, elk and caribou that roam parts of Ontario today might not have the massive bones of bygone deer, but deer racks today can be pretty darn impressive.

An Ontario moose can grow wide, palmated racks with a spread of over 4’ and weighing more than 40 lbs. The main beam of home-grown elk and caribou antlers can exceed 4’ with many long, sprouting points. Big buck white-tails, with antlers that look like a tree, occur across much of the southern half of the province.

Hunters generally classify deer antlers as ‘Typical’ or ‘Non-Typical’, also called ‘Atypical’.

Each deer species have antler characteristics that are unique. One characteristic of all typical antlers, regardless of the species, is the similarity of the right and left antler – they are virtual mirror images of one another.

Non-typical antlers usually remain paired, and can appear to be mirror images, but they have points that differ substantially from those of a typical with respect to number and placement on the main beam.

Very large non-typicals can be quite bizarre, with lots of points, bumps, burrs and great mass.

Many antlers are ‘in-between’, in that they are mostly typical but have one or more non-typical points.

Older animals tend to have bigger antlers than younger ones and also are more likely to be a non-typical. Very old animals commonly sport antlers that are substantially smaller than the antlers it had during its prime. Genetics, habitat quality and other factors, including weather and injuries, can influence antler growth.

For deer, antlers have a number of uses, notably impressing females and intimidating males during the rut. They can be formidable weapons during fights with rivals or when confronted by predators.

Like most hunters, I like deer antlers; all species, all shapes and all sizes.

Sidebar

Interestingly, pronghorn antelope, an animal restricted to the western plains of North America, have unique horns that, is some respects, are antler-like. It has permanent horns covered with a sheath that not only has a branch, but it’s shed on an annual basis. African antelope, animals like kudu, gemsbok and impala, don’t shed the sheath of their horns and their horns don’t have branches.

When a pronghorn sheds its sheath, very obvious, visible horns remain on the head.

giraffe-72

When antlers are shed, all that remains are short, flattened protuberances called pedicles.

Those flattened horns on these Giraffe look sort of like a pedicle to me.

My brother sent me a photo of his woodpile – Jan. 26, 2019 – see his photo in the bottom line of photos. He lives on the French River, south of Sudbury. Lots of snow there, more on the way. The other photos are some I’ve taken over the years; bottom right shows a very poor condition deer after a long, cold snowy winter, same as the large photo in the top left.

With the recent spate of snow and cold, I looked at an article I wrote for Ontario Out of Doors magazine in late 2017 and decided to post it on my blog. So although it’s a year old, the information remains relevant. Given that snow this winter has come late, deer might still have a good go of getting through the winter, but, maybe not. Rule of thumb says 50 cm of snow on the ground for over 50 consecutive days, deer mortality from the rigors of winter spikes. Which means it all depends on how long winter lingers. Last winter, it lingered, and deer numbers in much of northern Ontario, especially in the north-west, where I live, took a hit. Again. Over the past 6 or 7 years, there have been several hits.

I don’t think this year in the north-west will be particularly hard on deer, but weather is only one factor, as wolves are licking up the remaining pockets of deer. Outside of Thunder Bay and the smaller cities – all of which now have urban deer herds – deer are not doing well. I don’t think deer will do well until we get another spruce budworm outbreak, which is still a few years off (see my posts on lichens for an explanation and the relationship between deer numbers and arboreal lichens in northern forests).

BTW, I grew up in Sudbury and there were very few deer there in my childhood. There still is not a lot. Most years, the Sudbury area gets a lot of snow. Lots of snow during most years does not make for a healthy herd of deer.

Hope you like the article.

Snow, the Silent Killer

Pat Karns, a respected and well-liked biologist stationed in Minnesota, years ago called winter ‘the Grim Reaper’. He made the case that cold, snowy winters are a primary driver behind deer population fluctuations in the northern forested areas of the USA and Canada. When it was cold and snowy and the winter long, deer might die in droves. Karns made those observations decades ago, but it’s still true today. Deer – and other birds and animals – have evolved to cope with cold and snow, but a severe winter will have consequences. While there are management options available to help wildlife populations get through winter, there’s only so much that can be done. Snow can be a deadly killer, and Ontario gets snow. Some years, Ontario gets a lot of snow.

Wildlife managers in provinces and states where snow and cold are prominent aspects of the weather calculate estimates of winter severity, including input to models used to manage the deer harvest. For example, winter severity is included in the annual calculation of the number of antlerless deer tags and additional seals issued.

Scientists, biologists and other researchers have a long history of looking at the effects of winter on wildlife. Americans like Louis Verm and John Ozoga were winter and snow severity pioneers, but Ontarians like Robin Hepburn and Dennis Voight were also instrumental in devising methods that gave us winter severity indices that agencies like the MNRF use to assess winters impact. Dependent upon the system used, deer managers generally categorize winters as mild, moderate or severe. Sometimes very bad winters are called ‘extreme’.

Whatever system is used, the value generated to categorize winter severity is typically a combination of snow, temperature and time. In Ontario, the system commonly used is called the Snow Depth Index (SDI). To calculate SDI, a snow course – a forested site where snow depth is measured in cm at 10 stations over the duration of the winter – must be maintained. An SDI is obtained from each snow course from the weekly, average, snow depth measurement; the over-winter SDI is the cumulative total of the weekly average snow depth readings.

Ontario has maintained snow courses since 1952. In most years, dozens of snow courses are run, mostly across the deer range of northern and southern Ontario.

To assess winter severity, MNRF usually looks at a number of snow courses in a particular area. When averaged together, a value of <590 is indicative of a mild winter; 591-760 is moderate and >760 is severe. Severity can vary across the province.

Once a winter has been categorized, values pertaining to recruitment and mortality can be estimated. In Ontario, SDI suggests >40% of the fawns would be lost at birth following a severe winter.

During a severe winter, deer can also die of starvation, exhaustion or succumb to high levels of predation and might result in a loss of ½ the herd. A series of severe winters can reduce deer numbers by as much as 80%.

Mark Ryckman, Senior Wildlife Biologist with OFAH, said “Parts of Ontario experienced back-to-back severe winters beginning in December 2013. We’re just now starting to see deer populations bounce back.”

Other winter severity indices that have been used in Ontario include the Passmore Snow Severity Index and the Ontario Winter Severity Index. In the Great Lake States region, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota each use unique, but similar winter severity indices; all indices are based on field measurements of snow and temperature over time.

SDI is a simple yet effective way to measure winter severity despite the fact it doesn’t measure snow crusting (and whether deer can walk on or break through it) or use any measures of temperature or wind. These factors can be of note – it’s obvious deer will benefit by  walking on snow rather than breaking through or wading through it to get to food – and a pleasant winter day of mild temperatures, sun and no wind is no doubt preferable to overcast, cold and windy weather; all factors some other indices incorporate.

The reason SDi is so effective is that while it focuses on snow, it indirectly is incorporates other factors. For one, if there’s not much snow on the ground, cold isn’t a big factor, as deer can easily access food. If there is a lot of snow, but it doesn’t cover the ground for months on end, most deer – and their unborn fawns – can survive. But for lots of snow to stick around, there needs to be extended periods of cold (that keeps snow from melting) and extended snow cover keeps deer off their best foods (generally small plants in fields and on the forest floor), with or without a crust. So the bottom line is that a long period of more or less continuous snow cover is indicative the winter was long, cold and snowy.

SDI provides information that’s invaluable to Ontario’s deer managers, but it can also be used to assess the impacts of winter on other species, including moose and turkeys.  Although moose are huge, they do run into trouble when snow depths of around 100 cm exist for several weeks, which isn’t that unusual in the vicinity of the Clay Belt and other areas north of Lake Superior. In the south, turkeys kept from foraging in open fields or the forest floor for long periods because of continuous snow cover can experience high levels of mortality.

Snow. It really is the silent killer.