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big game

In addition to wolves and coyotes, bears, deer, moose and turkeys have to be tagged in Ontario.

I recently purchased a wolf/coyote tag so I can hunt wolves. Actually, I just need/want the tag to be able to shoot a wolf if it happens to show itself on the frozen pond in front of the house. As I’ve said on a number of occasions on this blog and elsewhere, I don’t hate wolves and appreciate the important role they play in the overall scheme of things. However, there are, right now, lots of wolves around, a holdover from when deer were super-abundant. Deer populations have collapsed, but wolves have hung on.

But with few deer (and virtually zero moose), the local wolves are getting desperate. They broke into a neighbors kennel the other day and attacked a dog; the dog was saved only because the neighbor heard and then saw what was going on and managed to beat the wolf off. Hence the need/want for a wolf tag.

It’s not a wolf licence. Wolves in Ontario fall under the auspices of a small game licence, so to hunt wolves you need a small game licence and a wolf tag. There are some stupid regs associated with this scenario – one can’t hunt wolves with “a rifle with a muzzle energy greater than 400 ft-lbs . . . during the open [firearm] season for a big game species [without] a valid licence for a big game species that a season is open for.” Even if you have a small game licence and a wolf tag. That’s just ridiculous. But, since there is no moose or deer or elk rifle season open where I live right now, it’s not a pressing issue.

Anyway, I had to go down to a licence issuer to buy the tag. It cost me $11.36 and was printed out on a sheet of letter-size bond paper. The tag itself is only a portion of the sheet of paper (less than ¼) and there are instructions where to fold it and cut it out.

As I said, the tag was printed out on standard bond paper.

The Ontario Hunting Regulations Summary says “The term ‘game seals will be replaced by ‘tags’.”

I haven’t asked anyone why the change, but it seems to me it’s pretty hard to claim a piece of paper that can virtually disintegrate if it gets a soaker is a ‘seal’.

Which leads to the question: what is the purpose of a ‘seal/tag’?

Seals have been used by game agencies to ‘tag’ an animal a hunter has the authority to harvest. ‘Seal the deal’, so to speak. A seal was meant to ensure the harvest of a particular species, or type of animal (e.g., buck, doe) was tightly controlled. This is different from how fish are generally managed, where there are simple catch and possession limits (e.g., you can catch x number of walleye every day during the open season, and possess another number. But if you eat, or give to a friend your catch limit, you can go out the next day and do it all again). It’s all about abundance – generally there are lots more fish than there are animals.

Although there are caveats, the simple way to view seals and tags is to understand they are meant to ensure that once one has sealed/tagged an animal, you can’t kill another, unless one has another seal/tag.

In Ontario, and many other jurisdictions, seals have been made from a relatively indestructible material; like plastic, or nylon. Often, they had one side that was ‘sticky’; to seal an animal one had to remove the covering on the sticky side of the seal, attach the seal to the animal (at the kill site), and press the sticky side together. Usually, the time and date of the kill had to be notched into the seal. These two requirements (having a sticky seal that couldn’t be ‘unstuck’ and notching the seal, were designed to keep hunters honest and ensure the seal couldn’t be used again. In addition, seals are/were difficult to copy, so what you got was what you got.

The last few years Ontario has been getting out of having tags ‘stick’, but they were still made out of a mostly non-destructible material, had to be attached to the animal at the kill site, and had a requirement to be notched as to time and date of the kill, again, at the kill site. And they were difficult to copy.

But such seals, even without the sticky (or a wire which also used to be issued that was used to help attach the seal to the downed animal) aren’t cheap, or at least have some cost to them. As such, they’re one place where game agencies, being stretched ever thinner and under constant pressure to trim costs and find ‘efficiencies’, have been focusing their attention of late.

To achieve ‘efficiencies’ – and supposedly to make life more convenient for hunters – Ontario has done away with seals and replaced them with tags. There’s no requirement for tags to be printed on something that’s weather resistant and, except for wolf/coyote tags (I have no idea why there is an exception for these canids), a hunter who is eligible can print off both their licence and associated tags at home.

I’ve heard that there has been advice put out by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) to put tags in something like a zip-lock bag to keep it from being destroyed, but I don’t see such info on the tag I purchased nor do I see anything like that in the hunting summary.

There’s still the requirement to notch the tag at the kill site, but the tag doesn’t have to be attached to the animal if the hunter remains in possession of the animal until it’s brought “to the site of processing and is being processed for long-term storage”. If one isn’t in accompaniment of the animal, or “immediately available to produce the tag for inspection”, the tag has to be attached to the appropriate place on the animal as described by the tag.

Well, I can see problems here . . .

For one, requiring the tag to be notched at the kill site before the animal is moved, and not destroying the integrity of the tag, is going to be a challenge in any kind of inclement weather.

It is an offence to make a copy of any licence or tag, but given they can be printed out on paper and it doesn’t state, in either the current regulation summary or on the tag itself (at least it doesn’t on the wolf tag I have ), in plain language that making a copy is illegal, the tag is a weak replacement for a ‘seal’. And a paper tag is very easy to copy.

There is a code on the tag that can be scanned by a QR reader, and apparently it is encrypted for use by Conservation Officers. However, everything I have heard to date suggests the field CO’s don’t have, at least as yet, the ability to detect whether a tag is an original or a duplicate. Hopefully, that will be sorted out before too long . . .

Still, the tag is on paper, which means the QR code can be easily damaged and thus won’t, if damaged, be of much use with respect to enforcement.

Apparently, the switch from a ‘real seal’ to tags created a fair amount of acrimony within the MNRF owing mostly to problems around enforcement and security. I think I can see why.

To a large degree, MNRF and others in the hunting community are counting on hunters to be supportive of the new system and abide by the regulations.

However, as I pointed out in my last post, hunting culture in Ontario, in my opinion, has moved away from being supportive of what the MNRF is up to, and the incidence of blatant disregard for rules and regulation is high.

I hope I’m wrong and the things will go off this year with minimal problems.

I guess we will soon find out.

 

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

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

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

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

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

  • hunting
  • predation
  • disease and parasites
  • habitat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand, what are the options?

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

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

But more work is needed. Now.

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

Fingers crossed.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lots of wolf sign, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most fires burn the forest in a patchy manner. New growth sprouts quickly after a fire; species like moose fare well in the aftermath of fire. Kenora District is in Northwestern Ontario, a place where fires are omnipresent.

It’s September and nearing the end of what’s been a hot summer in much of the northern hemisphere. A hot summer, with lots of fires, almost everywhere. Because of climate change, the prediction is that the future will bring more of the same. Talking about climate change, at least here in Canada, seems to always be top of mind.

Most of the mainstream reporting on how to prevent a future of more fires appears to be concentrating on fighting climate change. I have seen a few reports suggesting we need to do a better job of planning and prevention, but such reporting is the exception, not the norm.

However, the way I see it, addressing fire management by trying to change the climate is largely a waste of effort, time and money.

We know there’s always been fire and there always will be fire. And everyone agrees that fire is a major force that needs to be reckoned with. But figuratively and literally, we can’t put out every fire.

With respect to wildfires, what I think we need to do is a much better job of integrating fire into land management actions; not an easy task, as everyone is afraid of fire, for very good reasons. I live in the woods so I’m well aware of the fire danger.

Regardless, it’s too bad in all the attention the fires have been getting there’s been very little information on how the fires will change the landscape in their aftermath, or on trying to explain the role of fire in ecosystems. Some of the recent wildfires that I’ve cursorily examined here in Ontario will very likely quickly improve habitat conditions for big game like moose and elk; the impacts on caribou, a species at risk, are more difficult to assess. But in the long run, fire is also good for caribou.

In British Columbia, I suspect some of the fires are burning through beetle infested forests – which could also be forests with tremendous potential to grow big game – but those are items I’m not hearing much about. The reporting is all about the extent of the fires, how much they are costing and the dangers to humans and our structures. And, how it’s all related to climate change.

One message that gets the short-shrift is that most of the areas where these fires are burning – again, almost everywhere in the world – are fire-dominated ecosystems. For example, boreal forests across much of Canada are typified by trees like jack pine, black spruce and aspen. These tree species dominate the boreal forest landscape because their rejuvenation depends on fires. The boreal forest is always burning up. If it ever stopped burning, it would soon begin to look very, very different.

Regardless of what we do we are going to continue to see wildfires; some years will be more an inferno than others.  Despite the fear and real dangers fires present, fire is actually a good thing; if fires were eliminated from the landscape, the environmental impacts could be great.

Fires renew the forest (many trees and shrubs regenerate best in the aftermath of fire) and many species of wildlife depend on young forests for their survival. Eliminating fire would risk putting many species in danger of extinction. Fires also help cleanse the landscape of disease and pestilence (ticks and pine beetle come to mind, but there’s a lot more).

Anyway, it’s impossible to eliminate all fires. And to repeat, it’s not even desirable.

What we can, and should do, is do a better job of managing for fires – growing fire-resistant forests adjacent to towns and cities would be a good start.

Just blaming climate change is…stupid.

The fawn flees for its life; days later, re-united.

The wolf situation continues to vex me.

Looking back, the general consensus is that white-tailed deer populations peaked in this area in or about 2007. They didn’t crash that year – the crash came a few years later, about 2014.

Regardless, since 2007, the numbers of deer have come down a lot.

There are still deer around. Some pockets with reasonably robust numbers can still be found. But there are large acreages where deer are gone where they were once abundant. Whether you’re out on the land, out on a ride, or hunting, you don’t see deer like you used to.

The numbers on our property are not particularly robust. Part of the issue is the fact that there seems to be as many wolves hunting our land as there were in 2007, when deer seemed to be as abundant as a plague of mice.

To wit; the other morning, Lil came into the house saying something big was splashing about in the waters of the beaver pond to the left of the house.

Looking out from off the deck to look for the sounds of the splashings, a fawn soon appeared, swimming frantically.

We suspected it was fleeing for its life, being chased by wolves. We’d seen that scene before.

We watched the small spotted deer swim the length of the pond, then scramble out the far end and race into the cover on the edge of a field. We didn’t see any wolves.

We had a small task to do outside, which took only a couple of minutes. On a hunch, I walked down our laneway to the field, to see if the deer, or the wolves, or whatever, might be there.

Still in the laneway, I stopped near a small building and looked over the field. Nothing. I scanned the length and breadth of the small field again (it’s only about 3 acres) when suddenly, right there in front of me, right in the open, were two timber wolves. It was if they had materialized out of thin air; regardless, there they were. They were big and they were thirty yards in front of me.

I raised both my hands, which caught their attention and then yelled at them to “Go on, get out of here!” Which, quite promptly, they did. In an instant, they were gone.

There was no sign of the fawn.

Over the next couple of days, from the house, I watched a doe, a couple of times, move slowly along an edge of the pond, feeding, standing, looking around, all alone. I also saw, briefly, a pair of young does, but no evidence of a fawn. We feared the worst.

Then on the 4th morning after the fawn swimming, wolf encounter drama, a doe and fawn showed up on the far side of the pond, on a smooth rock opening across from where we watched the fawn during her escape run. We’re pretty sure it was the same fawn, as all spring and summer we had seen only a single fawn anywhere near the house. The fawn had always been near the pond, on the west half of the pond, which is where the doe and fawn were. The pair stayed close together for well over an hour; perhaps they were re-bonding after the recent close encounter of the worst kind – the doe spent a lot of time licking and grooming the fawn.

The literature is quite clear that on northern ranges, where the main deer predator is the timber wolf, high deer numbers only occur when good habitat and mild winters occur simultaneously over a period of several years (e.g 10+). However, high deer abundance cannot be sustained over the long-term; eventually the population crashes, usually in the aftermath of the return of a series of severe winters and deteriorating habitat quality. The rapid decline, or crash, is abetted by heavy levels of wolf predation.

Wolf predation continues to depress the deer population and can be quite effective at preventing its recovery. The deer herd can dwindle to become next to nothing; if there is nothing else to eat (i.e., no moose or elk or caribou) wolf numbers too, will inevitably crash.

How long that scenario plays out can vary, but may take several years. For deer to make a meaningful recovery wolf numbers need to go down and environmental conditions need to improve. Where I live, neither of these have to date occurred (the winters since 2014 have mostly been categorized as moderate to severe by natural resource officials). In addition, there are few moose, deer or caribou in the area, so the wolves are definitely running out of things to eat.

Perhaps they are eating bears, which is a distinct possibility.

Until the last 15 years or so, I’d go years between wolf sightings. Now, I seldom go a month without seeing a wolf, or wolves.

I don’t hate wolves and as a retired wildlife biologist I understand wolves are important in the maintenance of healthy ecosystems.

But in some areas, at times, there can be too many wolves.

I think we need more honest discussion on how to do a better job of managing wolves. For one, I think many of the present policies and legislation that pertain to how wolves are to be managed need improvements.

At this point in time, fewer wolves in the region where I live and play would, I believe, be a good thing. But any suggestion that perhaps we should be actively managing for fewer wolves (or bears) is met by an attitude by many that borders on derision.

Fewer wolves (and bears) now would lead to more deer and moose and would also benefit the wolves themselves. Right now, there seems to me to be a serious imbalance between predator and prey, a situation that simply can’t last. But who knows?

Like Yogi Berra might have said, ‘it’s hard to predict the future, because it hasn’t happened yet’.

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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.