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elk-4

About a month ago a good friend from Alberta forwarded me an article he found written by Angus M. Thuermer Jr., reporting on a a study on Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in Wyoming. CWD is an infectious disease known to occur in white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose and elk. It’s part of a family of diseases known as Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs) where the infectious agent is thought to be a malformed protein known as a prion. Prions are not a bacteria nor are they a virus; they are a very strange and poorly understood entity. There is a human form of TSE called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). To date, no humans are known to have contracted CJD from a CWD infected animal, although there is a variant CJD people have got from eating cattle infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), another TSE. CWD is thought to have originated from Scrapie, the TSE sheep can be infected with.

CWD is a large and growing concern in North America because it’s a relatively new disease (the first known occurrence was documented in the latter part of the last century), it’s spreading and it’s wreaking havoc to deer herds in some areas. There’s no known cure for the dsease and once an animal contracts it the end result is always death. It’s spread into the area of Alberta where I hunt so it’s a particular concern for me and my hunting partners.

Thuermer Jr.’s article said that a study by a University of Wyoming doctoral student Melia DeVivo led her to believe the mule deer herd she was studying could potentially become extinct because of CWD in 41 years. The herd numbered some 14,000 in the early 2000s but had dwindled to half that in about a decade.

There was a lot of information in the article, but a couple of factoids were most interesting. One was that researchers found that deer with different genes react differently to CWD exposure; a key gene found with three combinations of alleles can make a deer up to 30 times more likely to be CWD-positive, depending on which genotype the deer is. That’s good news, because it suggests that over time, it’s possible if not probable that deer herds will become dominated by CWD resistant strains of deer (however, as the researchers point out, the strains that are resistant seem to be relatively rare, which might mean they might not be ‘good’ for the survival of deer in other ways; e.g., deer with the resistant strain might be bad mothers). Still, I think the news there are CWD resistant deer is very good news indeed.

The other good news is that studies have shown that free-ranging elk don’t seem to get high rates of CWD infection, unlike mule deer – and penned or ranched elk. No one seems to know why that is the case. Plus, in 2002, a penned elk herd of 39, purposely exposed to CWD, had all withered away and died or been put down within 10 years – except for a lone cow nicknamed Lucky. Apparently she’s still alive, doesn’t look sick, doesn’t test positive for CWD and has had a calf. So it looks like elk also have natural, genetic or other resistance to CWD.

Interestingly, the area I hunt in Alberta where CWD is problematic in mule deer, also has free-ranging elk (that’s one of them in the photograph) – that haven’t as yet, at least as far as I know, tested positive for CWD. That would seem to be consistent with what researchers have observed elsewhere.

To date, the results of the studies Theurmer Jr. reported on have not been published in refereed journals. That needs to happen; otherwise, these important findings risk being dismissed as mere speculation or musings.

CWD is a terrible disease likely to get much worse before it gets better. For a long time, all the news about CWD was bad. But now there at least appears to be a glimmer of hope that all will not be lost.

And that’s a good thing.

 

 

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The deer season (and moose, for that matter) locally closes here on Dec. 15th. As I’ve been saying, I’m not likely going to shoot a deer, but I have been hunting with friends, who would very much like to fill a tag, as they don’t have any moose or venison in the freezer. For them, time is running out.

We haven’t been seeing much, and most of the deer we have seen have been what we first assumed to be does and fawns. But are they?

This year, I’ve seen some of the smallest antlered yearling bucks I’ve ever come across in my life. I had heard and read of very small antlered deer, but usually ‘button bucks’ are fawns with nubs that have not broken through skin. These deer, though, have tiny, polished, hard antlers. And I do mean tiny. The photo says it all (taken in our yard). At a distance, one would never guess such deer were bucks.

I’m almost positive this is a yearling buck because in August, I saw a yearling buck (it wasn’t a fawn – it had no spots) with what I believed to be its sibling sister in our front yard. It had tiny antlers; they were still in velvet and I recall thinking that they would have to do a lot of late season growing to be even on the small side of what most yearling bucks in this area sport. Seems they didn’t grow.

This isn’t the only deer I’ve seen or heard of with tiny little antlers this year, although the others are not quite as minuscule as the one in the photo. I saw and photographed one in town the other day that might have had an inch of antler on each side, and a good friend told me today he has one hanging around his house that also has antlers that likely measure around one inch. All tiny buttons for sure.

Antler growth on yearling bucks is often used as a measure of the health of the deer herd and the quality of the range.  While the range quality at the landscape scale is in decline mainly owing to the decline in logging activity, all the deer I’ve seen or heard of with the little antlers are from areas where the habitat is still good or, as in the case of the ‘town buck’, where there is ample access to supplemental food. So I think the tiny buttons are mostly a reflection of the severity of the previous two winters.

I suspect the does were in very poor shape when these bucks were born, as the winter of 2013-14 was one of the most severe in terms of snow depth (and cold) since winter severity records started to be kept in this region, which was 1955. To tell the truth, I’m amazed that any fawns were successfully raised following that brutal winter. Last year wasn’t as harsh, but it was still brutally cold and there was enough snow accumulation to spell trouble for the deer, especially fawns.

So even though these deer have tiny antlers now, I think they could still have quite the crown in a couple of years. The fact these deer are even alive (and they do look healthy) tells me they have good genes.

In some circles, the thinking might be that yearling deer with such tiny buttons should be culled, especially if the management goal was to produce large antlered bucks. Given the circumstances, I’d say that in this situation, such a strategy would be a mistake. However, that’s all simply speculation, as there is no management plan for trophy bucks in this area.

But it would sure be interesting to be able to track antler growth of these tiny buttoned bucks in the years to come. Definitely a research need.

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Moose season, when firearms can be used, opened on Saturday, October 10. Lil and I had set up camp the day before and proceeded to hunt daily from Saturday through to the following Friday. October 10 is on the late side of when the season opens (for years now the season has opened on the Saturday closest to October 8, meaning it can open as early as Oct. 5, or as late as Oct. 11. The earlier it opens, the better the chance of getting in on the tail end on the rut, which means it’s possible to call a bull in.

That is how moose managers planned it – let hunters occasionally have the opportunity to hunt moose during the tail-end of the rut, when they’re susceptible to being lured in by a call. Even so, most of the cows will have been bred, and the moose that do respond to the call near the end of the rut are young bulls, who often don’t get a chance to breed because they can’t compete against more mature bulls. To further help in the management of the moose herd, the number of adult validation tags for adult moose are limited.

Starting next year, the season opener is going to be delayed by a week, so for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be next to impossible for gun hunters to call in amorous bulls. Archers are still going to be able to hunt the rut. I don’t like the rule changes, but it is what it is (see my previous posts on changes to the way moose are going to be managed in Ontario).

So this was the last chance to get in on at least having a chance to call in a bull, and we gave it a good go.

Nothing.

A lot of sign from a week or two earlier , when the rut was on, but it was obvious the rut had ended at least a few days before the season opened. And as often happens immediately following the rut, the moose were laying low. It didn’t help that it was hot and humid with a big hatch of black-flies and mosquitoes. We hunted hard, but I didn’t see or hear a thing. Lil actually saw one late one evening; it ran across the road close to our RV but it was late and she didn’t get a good look at it. Seeing it go into heavy conifer cover, there was little we could do to roust it out.

Following the week of moose hunting, I went bird hunting in Alberta. Managed to bag a few pheasants and sharptails, and young Neva performed admirably. But on the last day of the hunt, she got tangled up with a porcupine. That wasn’t much fun for anyone. Luckily I was hunting with Michael, who was a great help in the field in the pulling out of a couple of hundred quills from Neva’s face, nose, lips, mouth, tongue and throat. Ten days later, quills are still poking out on various parts of her face.

Back in Ontario, Lil and I decided to give the moose another go (the season stays open until December 15, but deep snow and cold can make late season hunting totally miserable).

On Wednesday, Oct. 28, we hunted half the day in a light rain.

Nothing. Very little fresh sign.

Friday, Oct. 30, we tried again. Conditions were good; damp, but no rain, a light breeze, temperature just above freezing.

Almost immediately we came across fresh sign. Lil and I split up and the further from the road I went, the more moose sign there was. Mostly fresh browsing on willow and red-osier dogwood. The area was logged more than 10 years ago, and has regenerated into ideal moose pasture. That’s both good and ‘bad’. Good because there is lots for moose to feed on; bad because there is so much feed the moose can be anywhere, and it’s also so thick that one can only hunt by walking trails, or calling, when calls work . . . .

At one point I heard our dogs Neva and Dory (which we left in the truck) barking furiously, and I thought they must have seen a moose, or maybe the Canada lynx we had seen there on an earlier hunt. Turned out it was a moose they saw.

Seeing there was nothing I could do about the dogs – who eventually stopped their barking – I stayed on the hunt. About a mile in I heard a noise to my left and knew immediately it was a moose feeding. It was hard to see much, as the bush in this area is a thick, twiggy nightmare. But I spotted movement, and there it was, a young bull less than 40 m distant.

So I got a moose. Lil had also seen one, but it was further back in the thick slaplings and she couldn’t make it out well enough to ID if it was a bull (our tag was for a bull), although she did hear what sounded like twigs on antlers. Shortly after she lost sight of the moose, the dogs started to bark.

It was many days of hard hunting but in the end great success, with a young and hopefully very tasty moose to fill the freezer. We are especially grateful as the tag we had was one of only 6 bull tags issued this year for the management unit in which we were hunting.

Now all I have to do is find myself a deer.

 

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It was another hot and humid day yesterday, and raining again today. Lots of rain this year, although no huge deluge, like in some years. But a lot of rain. Lake levels are up, ponds and marshes are brimming. The forest is lush.

Sometimes early summer rains wreak havoc with small game like ruffed grouse and snowshoe hare. The prevailing thoughts are that the rains result in hypothermia, and too much moisture can mean a lot of biting insects and other factors which result in poor offspring survival. This is especially true if the timing of the rains coincide with birthing dates and especially if the rains are coincident with cold.

Fortunately, the heaviest rains seemed to have been late enough to get many of the wee creatures into their second or so week of life, and weren’t associated with undue cold. Plus, after several years when the mosquitoes in particular seemed to be worse with each year passing, this year saw a dramatic fall in mosquito abundance. Oh, there were still mosquitoes, but this year I didn’t need to wear a bug net when I went outside at dawn or dusk, like I had to last year. And the numerous dragonflies seem to be keeping the lid on the deer and horse flies, which I really appreciate.

It is always difficult to foretell what’s happened with respect to reproductive success of all the creatures out in the forest, but based on a number of observations, many species appear to have had good reproductive success. I’ve seen several broods of ruffed grouse and numerous small snowshoe hares. Lots of young Canada geese, who seem to have bred early as the young are already starting to fly, which is about two weeks earlier than in some past years. I’ve also seem broods of wood ducks, ring-necks and of course, mallards.

Other species – the non-game variety – also seem to have had a good year of reproduction. Tree swallows, barn swallows and cliff swallows all seemed to bring off young. In the recent past, some years have been complete failures for the local swallows. In general, the passerines (or dickie birds) seem to have had a good year. Around the house and flitting over the pond, there are numerous eastern kingbirds, cedar waxwings and American goldfinches. I’ve also seen some young of the year ruby-throated hummingbirds over the last couple of days.

And it’s been a good year for some frogs and garter snakes. Leopard frogs seem to be everywhere, which is great, as for many years they were scarce and seemed to be headed towards oblivion. Lots of tiny spring peepers too. But I haven’t seen any small toads – last year and the year before they were numerous – and we haven’t even heard many adults trilling. Same goes for the tree frogs, although there were some adults singing earlier in the year.

Friends of mine – biologists who had a special interest in herptiles (reptiles and amphibians) – say we actually don’t know much about herptile population dynamics and what the main drivers are. It seems populations go through inexplicable ups and downs, and not in a cyclical fashion like many other species.

That’s my quick mid-summer update on the status of the local small fauna. I’ll try to get back to some more controversial topics in the weeks ahead, but summer is a time to relax, and enjoy the heat. It won’t last long.

 

 

 

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Summer has seen lush growth in the Kenora area. Rain has been reasonably plentiful; the last few days have been particularly humid as well. There was quite an outbreak of forest tent caterpillars and as a result, huge swaths of trembling aspen dominated forests were denuded by the end of June. But now, by the middle of July, the leaves on the defoliated trees have almost fully recovered.

Caterpillar outbreaks actually result in a flush of nutrients to the forest floor, by way of caterpillar droppings, leaf fall and sunlight. Under a full canopy, most of the forest floor gets very little direct sunlight, but once the leaves are off, that isn’t the case. Given June is the month of the year with the longest days and hence, potentially, the most sunlight, all that extra photosynthetic energy reaching the forest floor really helps things grow. As a bonus, most of the rain came by way of thunderstorms, with brings more nitrogen than just normal rainfall. As I said, things are lush right now.

It’s also a good year for blueberries. Really good. Looks like the wild raspberries will also be good. Strawberries weren’t good, and it looks like this recent rain coupled with the high humidity has hit the serviceberry crop hard. Most of the still ripening berries have developed a fungus over the past few days, so what was looking good last week has taken a sudden turn to the bad. That seems to be typical, as a good service or Saskatoon berry crop (same thing, just a different name) only seems to come around every few years. Last year was actually pretty good for Saskatoons, as well as pin cherries and choke cherries. Some pin cherries this year, but not many choke cherries.

With respect to big game, the blueberries, raspberries, other berries I’m sure and the general lushness of the vegetation are good news for the bears. It will also result in healthy does, good milk production and big, fast-growing fawns. It should also mean better than average antler growth for bucks. It would probably have helped the moose herd too, if there were some moose around. We’ve seen a few individuals of our little elk herd (mostly caught on our critter cams, but we did see one big bull one morning on our way to change cards in the cameras) and they look good, too. Only one cow and calf so far – the rest of the animals were bulls, which isn’t good. We know there are more cows out there, but we also know there are more bulls than cows,  Our best guess is that the poor bull to cow ratio has to do with wolf predation – cows are smaller and easier for the wolves to take down.

So moose and elk are down, and even the deer are way less abundant than they were a few years ago. But I think that’s a good thing (deer down). There were way too many deer a few years back – the population wasn’t sustainable at those levels. Many places I could see a browse line, especially the edges of fields and forest, and along lake shores where wintering deer seem to concentrate. Lots of deer also means lots of wolves, and there were a lot of wolves around. Over the past few years, I’ve seen several looking out across the field from the living room of the house.

Fewer deer and moose (elk are mostly only in one small area, so their really an insignificant player in the wolf scheme of things) should also see a decline in the the number of wolves – good news I think. Wolves are good to have around, but there can be too many of them.

I’ll give an update on the small game and non-game situation on my next post, in a week or so.

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This spring has had some rain, but not a lot. But enough to keep the woods from being tinder dry. There have been a couple of forest fires, but because it’s really only semi-dry, the fire suppression folks have had an easy time of stomping out wildfires. While wildfires are scary (I live in the woods), they are actually a good thing in the boreal forest – fire are in fact necessary to renew these northern forests and without fire, the boreal turns into a mess.

One other good things about having enough moisture, is that it allows mushrooms to sprout. Mushrooms are a delicacy for many – I love them – and spring is the only time in the boreal forest one can find the true morels, which are said to be “probably the best known and most sought after of all the edible fungi”. Morels are actually widespread in their distribution and are found far south of here, and can be far more abundant in those much richer forest ecozones. Still, they do occur here, and for that I’m grateful.

On the weekend, I checked one of my favourite shroom spots and was rewarded with a bountiful harvest of more than 40 black morels, Morchella angusticeps. That might not sound like a lot for areas where morels are common, but that’s a good haul in this neck of the woods. It’s partly because where I live, the forests have a lot of conifer trees, and morels seem to prefer almost pure stands of poplar or ash and occasionally oak (oaks stands are anything but common here). In addition, those stands need to have very little in the way of grasses or shrubbery on the forest floor – plus – the best poplar stands seem to be between 10 and 20 years old. All in all, it’s not only a chore to find those forest types, the morel picking season is limited to a couple of weeks. All the more reason to cherish almost every mushroom.

True morels are rather easy to identify as there are only a few varieties and they all look similar. People with poor taxonomic skills, or who can’t seem to grasp detail, should avoid mushrooms, as many can make you ill, some can cause hallucinations and others can actually kill you. Some species, like the false morels, which as you might have guessed look somewhat similar to true morels, can be eaten by some individuals, but others not at all. Even the toxins that can dwell in the false morels and other mushrooms aren’t completely understood. Worst of all, some people have mushroom allergies, and can’t really eat any mushroom without experiencing at least some discomfort. That’s the case with my spouse Lil, and some of her siblings.

When I was in university, a good friend – ‘Wild Bill’ – didn’t show up for three days. He’d spent time in a ditch watching cars go by after nibbling on some amanitas, a very dangerous and hallucinogenic shroom.

Another time, I was hunting turkeys in Wisconsin in May and the morels were out in force. The only place they seemed to be was wherever an American elm had died due to Dutch elm disease and the tree had fallen to the ground. Those morels, growing amongst the downed and decaying branches of the elms, were gigantic! A single morel was all I could hold in my hand. We sliced them up and fried them in a pancake mix. Delicious!

This was a good spring for me, known in early university days as the ‘fungi hunting Finn.’ I hope the rest of the year brings more shroom bounty.

 

 

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It’s May 18 and it’s been snowing outside, with the temperature hovering a few degrees below the freezing mark. Not at all pleasant.

But, it’s northern Ontario, so not totally unexpected. As we are fond of saying up here – at least it keeps the bugs down!

One worry about these late spring frosts, especially when they occur after an extended period of nice, warm weather (although it hasn’t been all that nice, or warm . . . . ) is the potential to hurt the berry crop, especially blueberries. Not only are blueberries yummy human food (and blueberries produced by the agribusiness industry do not hold a candle to their wild cousins with respect to the taste department), they are by far the most important food there is for a myriad of  species of wildlife. Birds, bears, white-tailed deer, groundhogs, foxes, and even timber wolves are just a sampling of wildlife that eat blueberries with gusto. So when the blueberry crop fails in the north woods, life can be hard, as there just isn’t the diversity of foodstuffs that exist in more southern climes.

And blueberries were definitely in bloom when the cold and snow hit.

Fortunately, blueberries are hardy, and can often survive a late winters blast. And not all the berry bushes will have been at the same stage of development. And not all blueberries are the same, as there are at least three species common in our area (the highbush, lowbush and velvetleaf). Still, I’m sure there will be an impact. Time will tell how bad it was.

Taxonomically, blueberries are a member of Heath Family of plants that are found mostly in temperate and cold regions around the world, as well as up in the mountains in the tropics. On a finer scale, they are in the Huckleberry Subfamily, which contains about 330 species word wide.

Blueberries thrive in acidic soils with good exposure to sunlight, although a bit of shade can actually help produce more succulent berries. After wildfire, or following a timber harvest, blueberries can be unbelievably abundant. In a good year, it’s not hard to pick a five-gallon pail in a couple of hours, or less.

Blueberries are without a doubt a health food. They contain a variety of natural phytochemicals such as anthocyanin and wild blueberries have twice the antioxidant capacity per serving of domesticated varieties. They can be eaten ‘as is’, sprinkled on cereal, put into pancakes and make an excellent pie as well as great tasting jam and jellies. Aboriginal people often used blueberries to make a vegetal pemmican, which could be kept for up to two years. Blueberries also make a nice, sweet wine, which can be drunk, but is better, in my opinion, when used as a marinate to reduce the strong, gamey taste of birds such as sharp-tailed grouse. Indeed, marinating the breasts of sharpies for as little as a half-hour before putting them on a BBQ is all it takes to make a great tasting dish. There are many, many ways to dish up blueberries.

Interestingly, not all blueberries are blue in colour. Some are black, and I have occasionally found ripe blueberries that were white as snow. Maybe that’s what happens when they get a late spring surprise like we got today.

When there’s a good crop of blueberries, the number of nuisance bears is low. When the crop fails, their numbers surge. In Kenora, there can be dozens of bears in urban areas by late summer, raiding gardens and rooting for garbage. Many get destroyed because a hungry, nuisance bear is a real pest – and are almost impossible to dissuade – as well as a threat to human safety.

Here’s to hoping the berry crop wasn’t done in by the cold and snow.