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Endangered Species

turkey-121

Today I applied for a spring turkey hunting license in Michigan. Not sure how this will pan out, as there is still much to do before the hunt, if I do get to go.

Let’s look at the list: need to get drawn (apparently, the odds are good); need to renew my passport; need to fill out some forms to transport a firearm into the USA; and, I need to see if there are restrictions this year as to whether I can actually bring a turkey back into Canada from the states. Last year, a few friends hunted in the mid-west, were successful, but were not allowed to cross the border back into Canada with their birds. The problem was an outbreak of avian flu in the states – another wildlife health and disease issue. Anyway, it’s something I need to delve into and find out what the score is. No sense spending all that time and effort to travel and hunt and not be allowed to bring back a tasty bird (if I’m fortunate enough to harvest one!). On the other hand, I’ll have a chance to meet up with some old friends I haven’t seen in a while.

If I can’t harvest a bird that I can bring home from Michigan, I can still hunt in Ontario. Maybe I can do both, as the area I’m looking at going in Michigan isn’t far from Sault Ste. Marie, where there’s a healthy wild turkey population to the east, and a hunt on nearby St. Joseph’s Island. I’ll have to see how events unfold . . .

I really enjoy turkey hunting, but I find it somewhat distressing that a disease issue is once again a factor as to whether I can harvest, transport and consume my (potential) catch.

On my last post, I discussed chronic wasting disease and the fact there was a little bit of good news on that front. Not much, but a little. Despite the bad news about avian flu, most of the wild turkey story is good news. Growing up, there were no turkeys in Ontario; they were extirpated in the 1800’s. Today, turkey numbers in the province (progeny of wild birds captured from neighboring jurisdictions and then live released) are closing in on a 100,000.

There could be more. In northwestern Ontario, I think wild turkeys would do well in the agricultural areas around Fort Frances and Rainy River. After all, there are wild turkeys in parts of adjacent Manitoba, where the weather is similar, if not a bit more harsh. The problem is the government in Ontario, or at least some individuals, believe that because northwestern Ontario is outside the known, historical range of turkey, wild turkeys don’t belong. It’s a consideration which can make sense (one doesn’t want introductions of wildlife made willy nilly), but it’s not as if wild turkeys are exotic to North America.

What seems to have gotten the short shrift in this line of thinking is the fact that the agricultural lands of northwestern Ontario today bear little resemblance to what the landscape – and its associated faunal assemblage – looked like prior to European colonization. And outside of some sort of apocalyptic, catastrophic event(s), there’s no going back to the way it was. That’s nothing but a pipe dream, adhered to only by a small and radical fringe of extreme environmentalists.

However, it is what it is and with no close by Ontario turkeys, turkey hunting for me, at least for the foreseeable future, means going on a considerable hike.

All in all, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just could be better.

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Lately, while driving around, I’ve seen lots of turtles digging out holes on the shoulders of the roads to lay their eggs. Most of them are painted turtles, but there’s also a fair number of large snapping turtles. These are the only two species found in this area.

People must be looking out for them, I’m happy to say, as I haven’t seen very much in the way of road kill. Some years there is a lot of turtle carnage on our local roads. But it’s still early in the year. Turtle egg-laying will last another month.

Painted turtles are smaller and seem to be more common, but I think the snapper biomass is substantial. Some of these turtles are huge; easily over 30 cm across their carapace and weighing over 6 kg.  Snapping turtles, like many turtle and tortoises, are long-lived – it’s believed their life-span is well over a hundred years. As a group, turtles haven’t changed much over the past 200 million years, so one has to suspect they are reasonably well designed and suited to their lifestyle. They certainly look prehistoric.

Not surprisingly, there’s not a lot an adult snapping turtle has to fear – outside of humans and their vehicles. Some people like to eat snapping turtles (painted turtles can’t be harvested) as they supposedly make a good soup. I’ve not tried it, but have to think that whatever the taste, large snapping turtles likely have high concentrations of elements and toxins that can’t be good for you. That’s what happens when you live a long time.

Interestingly, despite the fact snapping turtles have been listed as a ‘special concern’ species under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act,. 2007, hunting them is allowed. It’s a kind of a weird situation; the regulation on harvest and possession are listed in the hunting regulations summary, but to harvest a turtle (they are in a category called ‘game amphibians and reptiles’) you need to have a valid sport or conservation fishing license. Both residents and non-residents of Ontario (most of the snapping turtle harvest in this area has been by Americans) can harvest turtles. The season is open all year – with a daily bag limit of 2 and a possession limit of 5. If you harvest a snapping turtle one must complete and submit a mandatory Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF) questionnaire (both online and printed versions are available). But like all mandatory hunting reports the OMNRF requires one to fill, it’s mandatory in name only. There has never been a charge laid with respect to failing to do any mandatory report, be that for bear, wild turkey, wolf or snapping turtle. So at least at this point in time, it’s a useless and toothless regulation.

There’s a large snapping turtle in the beaver pond in front of our house and it’s been there for many years. Snappers are scavengers and hunters and will eat just about anything they can, including frogs, snakes, goslings and ducklings. Lil rescued a duckling from it’s jaws once a few years ago, but I imagine it’s got a few we are unaware of. Maybe it’s one of the reasons all the geese and ducks left the pond this year shortly after the young fledged.

Sometimes, if it’s a cold year, the eggs a snapper lay won’t hatch that year, but might the year following – if the nest isn’t found by skunks, raccoons, crows, ravens, mink, marten or otter. Although the turtles cover the hole with sand and gravel, I suspect the scent trail gives it away. Or the crows and ravens, which spy on everything, simply wait for the turtle to leave before helping themselves to a meal of fresh eggs. Lil over-wintered a cache of eggs one year that someone stumbled across while doing some construction work, and had good success in getting them to hatch out. Unlike adults, young turtles are preyed on heavily by a host of meat-eating birds and animals.

Female snappers can hold sperm from males they’ve mated with for several seasons, “using it  as necessary”.

Snappers got their name because they snap – unlike many turtles, they are too large too hide in their shell, so instead they use their might to hiss and snap at animals they perceive to be a threat. They don’t have teeth, but have a powerful beak, and one doesn’t want to get bitten.

I like turtles, even the somewhat hideous and kind of scary snappers.  With a bit of luck, turtles might be around for another 200 million years. They’ll probably out last us.

trumpeter

About 100 years ago, trumpeter swans were on the verge of extinction. It was thought there were less than 200 in all of North America, done in largely by unregulated hunting and, in some areas, habitat loss. Around 1960, about 2,000 swans were found in Alaska. Today, they are widespread across much of the USA and Canada, and they number in the many thousands, and are still increasing. It’s a really good news story.

In Ontario, trumpeter swans were considered to be extirpated until restoration efforts began in 1982, following successful restoration efforts in the USA that began in the 1960’s. The first successful hatching of trumpeters in 200 years in the province was believed to be in Wye Marsh in southern Ontario in 1993, but that observation had to be revised because unknown to government biologists, trumpeters released in mid-western USA states had traveled north and started nesting and producing young in the Kenora area of northwestern Ontario as early as 1989. This information was provided to me by a commercial bait fisherman, and was subsequently verified by Lil and I.

Today, there are well over a hundred nesting pair in northwestern Ontario, and I don’t know how many in southern Ontario. Lots. As I mentioned in my last post, it was quite delightful when four birds roosted for the night in the small pond beside the cabin I was staying in with friends, near Kemptville, which is just south of Ottawa, the nation’s capital.

They are a huge bird, weighing up to 30 pounds, or about 14 kgs. They are called trumpeters because that’s their call, and once you’ve heard it, you won’t forget it.

One of the problems in early restoration efforts was lead poisoning. The birds were picking up spent pellets from waterfowl hunters, and the adult birds were having difficulty reproducing. But efforts to ‘shake’ the marsh the birds had been released in (to sink the lead pellets), and the ban on lead shot for the purpose of hunting waterfowl, eventually worked and the lead pellets that remain in marshes have largely sunk out of reach of the swans and other dabbling types of waterfowl. Reproduction these days is quite good, and at least in the Kenora area, swans with up to seven cygnets have been recorded.

Interestingly enough, the trumpeters have never been classified in Ontario as a Species at Risk.  In my opinion, the way species at risk are identified and managed needs a total re-think. It’s mostly, again in my opinion, a piece of legislation that is used more for political purposes than as a management tool. I’ll discuss this more in future posts.

So welcome back, trumpeter swans. We’re glad you’re home.

 

 

 

Sask-1

I heard some disturbing news this week about ‘farmer attitude’. Most of us hesitate to be overly critical of farmers or anything to do with farming, as farmers provide us with food, which all of us need. Farming is also what let us evolve from being simple hunters and gatherers, so farming is really the hallmark of modern civilization. We need farmers.

Still, there are problems and issues with respect to farmers and farming. For example, in Canada, there is virtually no original tall grass prairie left. Before the plough, though, Canada had millions of hectares of tall grass prairie; native tall grass prairie was so high, you apparently had to stand on a horse to see over it. Now it’s all wheat, canola, sunflower seeds and other crops. Further west, in the short grass prairies, there’s more rangeland – a lot of it’s too dry for crops – but it’s still mostly farms and ranches.

Of course, that’s not so much the fault of farmers, but government policy, which over the years encouraged every hectare to be ‘put to good use’. Along the way, tens of thousands of wetlands have also been drained. As a result, the Canadian prairies have more species Threatened and Endangered with extinction than any other biome in the country.

Despite the problems, there’s still a lot of wildlife in the prairies, and over the years I’ve been spent a lot of time there hunting big game, upland birds and waterfowl. During that time, I’ve watched landowners – farmers and ranchers – continue to drain wetlands and cut down patches of trees, shrubs and hedgerows to put more land into production.

One result was a bit of cowboy poetry. This one is called ‘Stubble Rap’. I wrote it years ago, and was reminded of it this week, so I thought I’d share.

Stubble Rap

When you’re living on the prairies and you see a slough
You’ve got to ditch it, drain it, burn it too
You can’t leave the prairies wild and free
It’s especially important
To remove every tree

Can you ditch it, can you drain it, can you burn it?
Can you fence it, can you plant it, can you spray it?

Put away the tractor
A combine won’t do
It takes a backhoe to drain a slough
Then you plant some wheat
Some canola too

You fear the heavy rain but you don’t want drought
If the hoppers come you spray them out
And if you’re really lucky come the harvest moon
You’ll be another wealthy farmer
From a town like Saskatoon

Can you ditch it, can you drain it, can you burn it?
Can you fence it, can you plant it, can you spray it?

You can ditch them, you can drain them, you can burn them black
But rain, sleet and snow will see the sloughs come back
Precipitation is the farmer’s foe
Always on the backhoe
Always on the go

Can you ditch it, can you drain it, can you burn it?
Can you fence it, can you plant it, can you spray it?

barry-3

The spruce grouse is sometimes called the ‘fool hen’, because it isn’t much afraid of humans. Knowing what we now know about humans, I think such behaviour really is foolish, although it’s silly to blame the spruce grouse for its genetic disposition. Most wildlife that has little contact with humans aren’t too afraid of us, because for tens of thousands, often millions of years, we weren’t much of a threat. Only for a few thousand years, and sometimes only for the past couple of hundred years, have humans become something every living thing should fear. But in the evolutionary scheme of things, a thousand years is akin to the blink of an eye. Not a lot of time to adapt. Plenty of time to go extinct.

Fortunately, the spruce grouse is in no way threatened with extinction, although it hasn’t yet adapted to the threat of humans, unlike most of the members of the grouse family. What’s saved it is the fact it is found across a huge swath of North America, preferring northern conifer dominated forests where human populations are low and thinly distributed. Plus, it’s not a colonial bird, not the best tasting and has a reasonably high reproductive rate. All in all, spruce grouse populations are healthy. They are included with ruffed grouse in Ontario insofar as daily and possession bag limits for hunters are concerned (5/day; 15 in possession).

Interestingly, while it’s called the spruce grouse, it is actually much more closely associated with jack pines. During the winter, the needles of jack pine are the staple diet.

I haven’t seen any near our house for a couple of years now. I haven’t shot them, and that’s about all I know. Our property is not the best spruce grouse habitat, though, as it’s mostly young mixed woods with a prominent poplar component, habitat more suitable for ruffed grouse.

Dr. Kandyd Szuba, who studied spruce grouse in eastern Ontario for her MSc., found that in northeastern Ontario, there could be as many as 80 spruce grouse per square kilometer– before the nesting season! This was in prime jack pine habitat – in mature, lowland black spruce, there were seldom more than 10 birds/km2 before nesting season. Still, that’s quite a few.

Apparently, egg eating red squirrels seem to be the biggest threat to nesting spruce grouse, with northern goshawks being the biggest predatory threat to juveniles and adult birds. There are a lot – I repeat, a lot – of red squirrels on our property. Plus I do see goshawks on occasion. Usually I see them swooping after Lil’s pigeons. Some years the goshawks have taken quite a few pigeons. Maybe they took some spruce grouse, too.

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Seeing as it’s almost Christmas, it seems timely to say something about Santa’s reindeer. It’s a story about caribou in Ontario, something published a couple of months back in Ontario Out of Doors. This is the unedited version. It’s likely different than what you read about caribou elsewhere.

Caribou occur across northern portions of Eurasia and North America and all caribou (and their domestic counterpart, reindeer) are the same species (Rangifer tarandus). In North America, there were originally 6 sub-species, but one is now extinct. From Manitoba east, all caribou are the woodland caribou sub-species (R. t. caribou).

Early in 2005, the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre compiled information on cervid (deer) populations from wildlife agencies and estimated there were 3.9 million caribou in the country, compared to about 3.2 million white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose combined.  Since then, populations have fluctuated somewhat, but it’s likely caribou numbers are still roughly equal or greater than the total of all other cervids. Back in 2005, it was thought there were about 21,000 caribou in Ontario – recent surveys suggest there are close to 30,000 in the province.

But in Ontario, there is no licensed caribou hunt. The last year licensed hunters could take a caribou here was in 1928. Why is this?

I believe the present policy of no licenced hunting of caribou in Ontario is a reflection of historical management actions coupled with a more recent trend favouring protectionism.

In her book ‘Canadian Wildlife and Man’, Dr. Anne Innis Dagg chronicled that in Ontario until 1946, big game management consisted mainly of setting open and closed seasons and bag limits, enforcing those regulations and paying bounties on timber wolves, coyotes and bears. In her opinion, that strategy wasn’t very effective, in large part because the government had few biologists on staff and little attention was paid to the biological basis of management.

With respect to caribou, the Ontario government of more than 100 years ago did know that caribou had ranged across the province as far south as Lake Nipissing, but range occupancy steadily receded after European settlement in the 1800’s.  By the early 1900’s caribou had had largely disappeared from the southern half of the province and concern over this led to the closure of the hunt for non-natives. However, no one really knows how many caribou there used to be on southern ranges. Brian Hutchinson, a former biologist with Parks Canada who had caribou conservation as one of his files, said “Many of the assumptions of caribou range in the early 1900’s are just that – assumptions.”

Once licensed hunting ceased, not much was done for years with respect to caribou management, despite the more modern, post ’46 approach to management.

What did occur? A provincial population estimate of 13,000 was made in 1965 from aerial surveys conducted between 1959 and 1964, and between 1951 and 1986 there were five reviews written on the status of caribou. In 1967 a report was published suggesting caribou numbers in the province were well below carrying capacity (based largely on lichen abundance, the staple winter food). In 1975 some habitat management initiatives began.

Hutchinson notes that aerial surveys of caribou are notoriously poor with respect to estimating numbers, which is why biologists mostly use ‘range occupancy’ as a surrogate for population.

In 1989 the MNR wrote a ‘background to a policy’ paper on woodland caribou which recommended the re-evaluation of the sport hunting closure and suggested that native peoples could derive economic benefits from marketing such a hunt. MNR’s Wildlife Branch spent considerable effort to produce a caribou policy which included the possibility of a licenced hunt, but the policy was never approved.

In recent years, MNR has focused on trying to manage caribou habitat to retain and restore populations on southern ranges. There has been emphasis on monitoring and research and two huge provincial parks, Woodland Caribou and Wabakimi, were created largely to protect caribou and caribou habitat.

Although all caribou in Ontario are the same sub-species, some biologists believe a finer level of classification is required for management. As such, woodland caribou that live in forested habitats have been labelled the forest-dwelling ecotype.  Woodland caribou that live on the open tundra, but migrate into the forest – usually to over-winter – are said to be the forest-tundra ecotype. Aboriginals in northern Manitoba also refer to the northern herds as migratory.

However, there’s no clear distinction between the two, as some caribou are known to hang out with the tundra-forest animals, sometimes for years, and then become forest dwellers at a later stage, or vice-versa. And genetic analysis has been arguably non-conclusive in terms of providing a clear distinction between herds and ecotypes.

Despite these issues, the forest dwelling ecotype has been identified as a Species at Risk (SAR) in Ontario, with a status of Endangered. This is consistent with the status of forest dwelling woodland caribou nationally – COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, declared the forest-dwelling ecotype as a nationally threatened species in 2000, based primarily on their perceived vulnerability and changes in range occupancy.

Regardless of what one thinks of management by ecotype, there are about 20,000 caribou in Ontario that live mostly on far northern ranges and are not managed as a SAR. This means licenced hunting is possible and does, in fact, occur – in Manitoba – where they regularly migrate.

Dr. James Duncan, Wildlife Branch Director of Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, believes the Manitoba licensed hunt, which is restricted to northern herds, is sustainable and would be willing to share their knowledge and experience with Ontario.

Mark Ryckman, Senior Wildlife Biologist with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, says the OFAH supports protection of caribou on southern ranges, but would be open to seeing a hunt in the far north.

It seems to me there is no valid reason why Ontario couldn’t have a licensed caribou hunt. There doesn’t appear to be a sustainability issue, and even if the number of tags available were small, important economic and social benefits would still be accrued.

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Out west, one f the animals that I look forward most to seeing is the pronghorn antelope. The pronghorn is the only surviving species in the family Antilocapridae, and is found only in North America. All of the other members of the family became extinct prior to the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, which occurred about 12,000 years ago. In the early years of the last century, it looked as if pronghorns might join their brethren in the ashes of extinction, but  conservation oriented management efforts eventually helped to reverse the decline in antelope numbers. These days populations fluctuate between 1/2 to 1 million, up from their low of between 10-15 thousand when many feared they’d go Dodo. In Canada, almost all pronghorns occur in south-eastern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan. Here, at the northern limits of their range, it’s winter that is the main factor that limits populations, although hunting is also an important consideration. Saskatchewan does not allow non-resident hunting of antelope, while Alberta does (same is true with respect to pheasants, elk and for the most part, mule deer). However, hunting in both provinces is well-regulated, and tags are limited. In Alberta, it usually takes nine to 12 years – or more – to draw a tag for a buck antelope. I’ve been applying annually for 12 years, and have been drawn once, three years ago. The winter following the year I drew a tag was very harsh, and many pronghorn perished. Even though many antelope migrate south into the US to escape the worst of winter, lots of animals failed to return north the following spring. Antelope season takes place mostly in October in Alberta, and where we were bird hunting the season had been closed for a couple of weeks. We noticed that there were few big bucks in the herds of antelope we observed, although we did see one nice one (that’s the one in the picture) and a number of smaller bucks. Wildlife managers in Alberta have said they recognize the quality (i.e., horn size) of male pronghorns isn’t on par with what they’d like to see, at least in some areas, and there is some effort being taken to find out exactly why that is. About the only practical thing to do would be to allow hunters to take even fewer bucks, so as to let more males reach an older age. In so doing, biologists believe the ratio of bucks to does should be kept about 1:5. That means that in Alberta, as elsewhere, there are usually more doe;fawn permits available than there are buck tags. As in deer, good (trophy) horn size usually occurs in animals four years old or older. “Average’ horn length on an adult ale is about 12″; a 14” is ‘real nice’. Some female pronghorns also have horns, but they’re small (usually shorter than the ears). They’re small animals, with males weighing only up to about 65 kg (140 lb). Females weight about 25% less. They are gorgeous. In Alberta, I regularly see them alone, in small groups as well as in herds of many dozen. Because they are small, they don’t do much damage, if any, to fences (which they’d rather crawl under than jump over), nor do they compete much with cattle for food. As such they are tolerated, even liked, by ranchers. That’s a good thing. Real good.