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Habitat

Our house is oriented to face due south. The deck is open, but covered, so it’s more like an open porch.  Built into an old sandpit on a hillside the deck is about 3m from the ground, which slopes down to the pond, which the house overlooks. The best view the house offers is from the deck. From the deck, you get to see a lot that goes on in and around the pond.

But if you are inside the house, you still get to see stuff when you are looking out a window.

This year, one thing we have watched happen from the deck and through the windows of the house is game bird production. Mostly high numbers of chicks hatched, but also mostly poor success in keeping a brood together and alive.

There were many different species of waterfowl that hatched out a clutch of chicks that we saw on the pond, from the house, during their first days of life. We’ve seen a brood of grebes, wood ducks, hooded mergansers, mallards and Canada geese. There was a single brood from each of those species; the young mallard ducklings showed up most recently, so maybe the hatching season isn’t over yet, but I think it’s getting late in the breeding season. There was a pair of green-winged teal on the pond for weeks early in the season, but we never saw them with chicks and the adults are now elsewhere. Ring-necks hung around for a while, but although they, like the teal, have nested here in the past, we don’t think they tried nesting here this year.

We’ve also seen a little flock of ruffed grouse scurry by the front of the deck a couple of times.

We have counted close to 40 young, all broods and species (ducks and grouse) combined. Quite a few, I think.

But from there, it seems to have been a downhill slide for chick survival. All the Canada geese goslings are dead. One of the young grebes appears to have disappeared.  Lately, we have seen only two of the hooded merganser ducklings with their mom – the brood started out with 11. We haven’t seen the wood ducks for many days now; there were a couple of orphans on the pond for a couple of days, but those too have now disappeared.  We think the mallards are still more or less intact. The grouse brood was small the both times we saw them.

It made me think about how what happens at the micro level, may or may not reflect what goes on at the macro level. Or vice versa. What we’ve observed is moderate to good hatching success for some, but apparently not too stellar when it comes to survival.

What we saw in and around our pond – the outlook from the house – was a good lesson in how dramatic the result at the macro level could be. If survival on ponds like ours is similar over a wide area, then the fall outlook for game birds might be grim. On the other hand, if hatching success was similar, but survival was better than on our pond, then the game bird outlook for this fall could be quite rosy.  Or, results could be .  . . mixed.

Of note is that during some forest travelling, I have been seeing quite a few ruffed grouse broods. But the number of chicks in all the flocks I’ve seen is on the small side. But a lot of small flocks could still mean a good fall hunt for ruffies. That’s where I’m leaning, as there did seem to be good numbers of adult grouse this spring, and I did hear a lot of drumming.

In the meantime, it’s time to do a bit of fishing and concentrate on berry picking. Around the house, the Saskatoons, blueberries and raspberries are quite good, right now. It is also looking good for choke cherries, which have just started to ripen. It doesn’t look like there’s going to be a bumper crop of pin cherries or Canada plums, which, like the choke cherries, are only beginning to ripen.

Further afield, the wild berry crop looks to be . .  . mixed.

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Ontario is days away from the date when voters get to mark their ballots and vote for a candidate they hope will become a member of the next parliament.  It’s been an interesting campaign, but I’ve heard next to nothing as to what the parties think about with respect to fishing and hunting or, other than carbon – principally CO2 – any thoughts they have about the environment.

It seems weird to me that these days caring for the environment, being ‘green’, or simply having an environmental conscience, is striving to reduce emissions from the use of fossil fuels. No talk about wildlife habitat management, fish and game harvest strategies or how wildlife concerns might be accommodated during mega projects like twinning the TransCanada highway. There was a bit of discussion on future development in the ‘Green Belt’, a swath of land with around the major metropolis of Toronto where development is tightly controlled, but other than that, nary a peep.

It’s as if all ecological issues will be magically resolved by focusing all of our attention on the use of fossil fuels. It’s the magic bullet that’s going to solve everything. And if we don’t do it, we’re doomed. All would be lost.

I think that’s a foolish attitude, but in much of Canada, at least, it seems to be a dominant meme. It is for sure here in Ontario.

In Ontario, there are three main political parties vying for power.

The Liberals have ruled for the past 15 years and have already conceded defeat, although the premier is now voicing contrition and tearfully requesting the populace keep her party in power in a minority government by voting in at least a small bunch of Liberals. Fish and wildlife management (except for carbon – we are in a cap-and-trade system with Quebec and California) was, during their time in office, never of much interest to the Liberals.

The Progressive Conservatives (a name that signals a political oxymoron if ever there was one) haven’t said much lately and didn’t say much about F &W during the long period of Liberal reign. However, the last time they were in power, they actually accomplished a lot for anglers and hunters; for one, they vastly increased the number and extent of Parks and Protected Areas, with most of these areas continuing to allow for hunting, fishing and trapping. During this campaign, they have proposed to do away with the ‘carbon tax’.

The New Democrats have been, like the conservatives, rather silent on matters that pertain to fishing and hunting, with the exception of being ardent supporters of the hunting and fishing rights of Aboriginals and Métis; like the Liberals, they are also big on focusing on reducing our use of fossil fuels and thus addressing climate change. They are also anti-nuclear. Last time they were in power was a political fiasco; ineptitude and bungling typified their time in office and extended to the fish & wildlife management file.

There are other parties running as well, including the Greens and the Libertarians, both of whom are fielding dozens of candidates, but according to all the pollsters they have little likelihood of actually electing anybody (apparently the Greens have a realistic chance of having a single member elected).

All I can hope for is that whoever wins, the next few years will be better for us anglers and hunters and the fish and wildlife we care about than the last decade has been.

But, since no one has been talking, who’s to know? Pretty sad, really.

If you’re not from Ontario, I hope that the situation is more upbeat in your jurisdiction. I know some places are worse, but I also know some places are better. Let’s all hope that the future will bring more of ‘better’.

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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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The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) recently announced some changes to small game hunting regulations. I’m not sure what to think about them – mostly I see that the changes aren’t based on scientific evidence, as there is little to no research being done in Ontario on management of small game species. And given how quickly the MNRF backed down on one of the significant changes they made – within days! – it suggests to me the MNRF is flying by the seat of their pants.

One of the changes made was to ban completely the harvest of snapping turtles (This one is particularly weird. Snapping turtle harvests were shown in the Hunting summary, but you needed a Fishing licence to harvest them). Prior to the complete close, residents and non-residents could harvest 2 snappers a day and have 5 in their possession. In most of northern Ontario, the season was the entire year (despite the fact the north is generally frozen solid from sometime in November through into April). In much of the south, the season ran from July 14 to Sept. 15. I don’t harvest turtles personally, so this doesn’t impact me, but I have to wonder what the evidence is to ban their harvest completely, everywhere. When I was a District Biologist I recall southern based managers telling me there were few records of snapper in the north, so their belief was they must be uncommon. People didn’t believe me when I told them that, in fact, snappers were very common, and that was the reason sightings weren’t being documented. Just like no one documents sightings of field mice . . .  .

Now, snappers live for many decades, so killing a big old snapper (might be 80 or 100 years old) for a bowl of soup or some delicate tid-bits of meat from the back could certainly be questioned, but it seems to me a complete ban is over the top. Apparently, when changes were proposed by the MNRF, the option of a complete ban was never presented.

Another change? It’s to ruffed grouse daily bag and possession limits in Wildlife Management Units 68, 73 to 76, 82 to 84. They will be 5 and 15 respectively for both residents and non-residents – however, when I look at the 2016-17 Hunting Regulations Summary, I don’t see any change . .  .I’m missing something . . .

Regardless, it’s 5 and 15 everywhere there’s an open season for ruffed grouse in Ontario (actually, it’s ruffed grouse and spruce grouse combined). Interestingly, a few years ago, for a few years, I wrote the game hunting forecast in Ontario for Ontario Out of Doors magazine. My contacts in southern Ontario always told me that ruffed grouse were just not doing all that well there. It’s the same in many parts of the USA. Indeed, friends of mine, avid grouse hunters – some hunt with dogs – seldom IF EVER get a limit of ruffed grouse in the woods near Ottawa, which for those who don’t know, is in south-eastern Ontario. I think the only reasoning behind ‘5 and 15’ is “that’s the way it’s always been”. There’s certainly evidence (research done in the states) that hunting can have an impact on ruffed grouse populations. But rather than at least see if reduced limits, and maybe shorter seasons, tried over a ruffed grouse cycle of say 10 years, in a few, chosen WMUs might improve grouse numbers, the decision was to opt for same everywhere. It’s easier, less confusing and maximizes ‘hunting opportunities’. Again, I don’t see any evidence of use of science behind this decision, except for the buzz that it’s a management scenario that meets the criteria of ensuring ‘sustainability’. These days, that’s all that counts.

Meanwhile, no changes yet to sharp-tailed grouse seasons or bag limits. Many parts of Ontario let you take 5 a day of these birds and possess 15 – (5 and 15 is a meme, or at least a mantra in Ontario) even in WMUs where few or even none have been seen for decades (and there are a number of WMUs that fall into that category). Many jurisdictions in Canada and the USA where sharp-tails are common have a relatively short season (about a month, as opposed to Ontario’s 3 or 4 month season) and have a daily bag limit of 3, possession limit of 6. That’s what it is in eastern Alberta – and I’ve shot lots of sharpies out there – it’s great hunting. Back here in Ontario, I’ve only shot a handful of sharpies – and many years I see none – but the season is 3 months long and the daily bag limit is 5 and I can put 15 of them into the freezer. It makes no sense to me.

Another change was the change that didn’t happen. At first, snowshoe hare and cottontail rabbit seasons were going to be reduced – instead of the season ending on June 15, like it has for decades, the season was to end on March 31.  Almost immediately there was a hue and a cry from a number of quarters and then quick as a bunny the MNRF backed down on this proposal and said the old season would remain – at least for this year. Obviously another management option that wasn’t well thought out . . . . the consensus was this change was responding to emotive pleas from some people and organizations that the government lends an ear to .. . .  .

There were some other changes, but for me, these where the highlights.

More changes are forecast for the future. I’ll be watching.

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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.

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A barn swallow, not near a barn.

I’m a hunter. I spend a lot of time thinking about hunting. I think I’m from the old school of wildlifers who went to the wildlife management profession because I was and still am a hunter. There are still some of us around.

I recall learning that managing wildlife and hunting was a close tie because in general, the people who were most passionate about wildlife were hunters. If you didn’t hunt, there were better things to do than spend a career trying to manage wildlife.

The reason the people who were managing wildlife in the early days – and for a long time afterwards – is rooted in history. Lots of people knew there was a wanton slaughter of wildlife going on, but it wasn’t going to stop until hunters themselves put a stop to it. And that’s what happened.

Hunters demanded new rules and regulations, because they knew hunting was a problem.

Over time, the management of wildlife became increasingly complex. But for a long time, the focus was the management of game animals and hunters. And most Provinces and States maintained Game Departments.

Some of the first changes began a few decades ago when Game Departments started to see themselves merged with other departments or agencies with environmental responsibilities.

Once that happened, the tide turned away from hunting, hunters and game.

Hunting, though, is still a problem.

And it’s not getting the attention it needs, in part because hunters don’t have near the clout they used to have in government wildlife management circles.

The focus today is on non-game species, often species identified as a ‘species at risk’ (which suggests that unless something is done, that species could become extinct . . . go the way of the Dodo).

These days, the majority of employees in wildlife management agencies are non-hunters and many studied non-game species during their formal studies in college and university.

A consequence of having a lot of people involved in non-game management – and a lot of interest to be involved in that field – is it creates pressure for non-game departments to grow and expand their budget. That’s just the way government works.

There can be consequences. One that many of my colleagues and I see is a growing trend to identify and categorize more and more species as being ‘at risk’, even if they really aren’t.

Let’s look at the barn swallow as an example as to the point I’m trying to make.

To start, guess where barn swallows nest?

Barns! However, the kind of barns barn swallows like – big and airy with haylofts – no longer dot the countryside. They’ve been falling down for years and aren’t being replaced. Fewer barns, fewer barn swallows.

But barn swallows don’t just nest in barns – before the days of barns, they had to have been nesting in other places.

The fact is, there still are a lot of barn swallows nesting and flying around the countryside. Just not as many as there were back when barns were common..

But because the decline – in some places – was large and is still on-going, the powers that be have decided there must be a problem. In Ontario, the barn swallow is listed as being threatened with extinction. COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, also lists it as Threatened.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, though, one of the most prestigious institutions in North America in bird studies, says this about the barn swallow:

“The Barn Swallow is the most abundant and widely distributed swallow species in the world. It breeds throughout the Northern Hemisphere and winters in much of the Southern Hemisphere.”

Here’s the link. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/barn_swallow/lifehistory

As a species, the barn swallow is in no danger of extinction. True, its numbers are down – maybe precipitously in some places – but is the species really in trouble? It’s the “most abundant and widely distributed swallow species in the world”.

Lots of money is being spent on barn swallows, wood turtles, whip-poor-wills and many, many more non-game species. A lot of that is a ‘good thing’. But it’s not all good.

These non-game species programs cost a lot of money. Managing game costs money too, but game management also generates a lot of money. Lots. There’s not much money to be made managing barn swallows.

If we did a better job of managing game animals, there’d be more money for all sorts of wildlife management. But managing wildlife, in large part for hunters, isn’t ‘cool’. It’s ‘icky’.

There’s no doubt in my mind game species and hunters are too often getting the short shrift.

Hunters and not a small number of non-hunters, know this isn’t right, but don’t know what to do.

Better game management makes economic, environmental and social sense.

In many areas it even has the potential to improve race relations.

It’s just the right thing to do.

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A New Year is upon us and my best to all.

Here in Northwestern Ontario, we had a very mild fall, up to December, when winter finally came. We now have close to 50 cm of snow on the ground and the temperature has been in the – 20 0C range for much of the past month, including today. No – 400 s, though, which can occur, and is something I really don’t like. Things just start not working and worse, start breaking, at that temperature.

The whitetail deer does around the house are still able to walk around in the snow without too much difficulty. The snow is not quite to their bellies, is light and there is no crust. The deer went into winter in good condition – courtesy of that mild autumn – and barring another big dump of snow soon – as well as a normal ‘end’ to winter around the first of April, should get through OK. A rule of thumb is 50 days of 50 cm of snow and there will be significant deer mortality. Not quite there yet and what is there can be expected to settle several centimeters over the next few days. No major snowfalls forecast for the immediate future.

The wolves have not been around for several days. However, where we went ice fishing for lake trout on New Year’s Day, we saw that there had been 4 or 5 of them out on the ice the previous night.  Given where we were fishing isn’t all that far from home as the crow flies, that’s where the missing wolves might be. With deer numbers way down from previous years, this could be the winter that finally brings wolf numbers down, too.

It’s interesting that once the snow comes, the ruffed grouse seem to almost disappear. I suspect they feed voraciously on buds in tree tops (such as white birch) at dawn or dusk, fill up their crops and then spend days roosting in either the snow or thick conifers, until their food source is exhausted. Then the cycle is repeated. I recall one winter seeing where a grouse had plunged into the snow and stayed there for several days (I saw the plunge hole and recognized it for what it was). By week’s end, I thought maybe it had perished, but when I went to check, the bird burst out of the snow at my feet, startling me, of course, as they are wont to do.

It looks right now that most of Canada is experiencing cold and snow. Even Lala land in Vancouver, British Columbia, has snow and ice on the ground. Many Vancouverites are ill prepared for snow and cold and many don’t even own a snow shovel. I’m sure the carbon tax will help people cope.

There is no getting around the fact that winter is hard on wildlife. Of course, some species are adapted to it, but in areas with regular, harsh winters, the abundance and diversity of species is a pale shadow of what thrives in warmer climes. The winter of 2013-14 in much of the country, including where I live, was horrendously long, cold and snowy, and wreaked havoc on the local deer population. It didn’t do our struggling, reintroduced elk population any favours either. Pat Karns, a former and now departed wildlife biologist in Minnesota, once wrote a paper ‘Winter: the Grim Reaper’, outlining how winter, more than any other factor, was responsible for deer dynamics on northern ranges.

It’s a classic and a ‘must read’ for wildlife biologists and nature enthusiasts alike.