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When I began to write this, on April 8, 2019, the temperature outside was hovering just above the freezing mark and it had just begun a rain/snow mix. Snow still carpeted the ground, although there were bare patches under some of the conifers and on some south facing slopes. The ponds and lakes were still ice-locked, except where there’s current.

Now, three days later, not much has changed, except it’s clear and cold (-60 C this morning), rather than overcast with snow and rain.

Two geese showed up on the pond on April 5th and hung out most of the day, before leaving, but they have since returned, at least once. Last year, geese arrived on the pond the same date. I suspect these early arrivals are to do with claiming the pond as their own in an effort to build a nest and raise some young, something that has been a failure on this pond two years running. Maybe this year will be different and both geese and ducks can successfully hatch and rear some progeny.

The wolves whittled the deer down again this winter, but there are still a few around. The deer population, overall, is a shadow of what it was about 10 years ago and seems to still be on a downward trajectory. As I’ve said before, I don’t think deer herds here will recover until the next spruce budworm epidemic is well underway, something that as far as I know, hasn’t even started yet. Interestingly, I did see a deer chewing on some lichens the other day, but like deer, lichen abundance is minimal.

A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation to the Canadian Institute of Forestry, Lake of the Woods Chapter, on Moose Emphasis Areas, or MEAs. Basically, MEAs are large patches of forest – e.g., 5-10 thousand hectares – where the forest managers try to coordinate the creation and maintenance of good to excellent moose habitat when carrying out forest operations, namely harvesting, renewal and maintenance of wood fibre. Dr. Vince Crichton – Doc Moose – gave a presentation on moose and moose management in general, and there were two other presentations by District Biologists as to how MEAs were actually being implemented in approved forest management plans.

I think there was a general consensus that good moose habitat is a key component of managing moose, but other factors, including predation, disease and human harvest, are also important. Unfortunately, all factors, not just moose habitat, are difficult to control.

For example, starting with moose habitat, successful planning and implementing MEAs require a skillful planning team. But that alone is not enough, as public input needs to be accommodated. In many areas, the benefits of MEAs might not be realized without restrictions on road access (you need roads to practice forestry, but roads also provide access to human hunters and other predators).Meaningful restrictions on road access can be difficult if not impossible, because the public simply won’t accept them.

And good habitat, even with road restrictions, might not be enough. Sometimes, predators can suppress prey (e.g., moose) populations – which in some circumstances might warrant predator control. But these days, any talk of predator control seems to be met with a great deal of derision. Governments everywhere – certainly here in Ontario – have pretty much tossed the option of predator control aside.

There’s not much that can be done about disease, but at least there have been, in this part of the country, harsher, more snowy winters of late, which has reduced (a) deer populations, which in turn has reduced the incidence of brain worm, a major moose killer, and (b) moose tick abundance. Moose ticks thrive when winters are short, but take a hit from early and late snow cover (moose die-offs from severe moose tick infestations are fairly common in some areas). Fewer deer also mean fewer wolves, so again, that’s a good thing. Bears are another story.

Human harvest can be controlled to some degree, but again, there are issues that probably should be addressed, but can’t, or aren’t. These include:

(a) there is little control over harvest by Aboriginals and Métis, who do not require licences to hunt and are generally not subject to road use restrictions. Some Aboriginal and Métis groups and communities have voluntarily agreed to moose harvest limits, but there are no enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance.

(b) despite reductions in the number of adult tags available to licenced hunters in many Wildlife Management Units (e.g., in WMU 6 there was a single bull tag issued last year – to me – and I didn’t fill it), there is still an unrestricted, two week hunt for calf moose. That means anyone with a moose licence can hunt and harvest (one) calf moose in any WMU during the ‘open’ calf season.

(c) there seems to be a mis-guided desire to have a bull:cow ratio close to 50:50. Doc Moose presented evidence that bulls can be substantially fewer in number than cows and still ‘get the job done’. It seems patently ridiculous to lower the number of bull tags and increase the number of cow tags, especially in WMUs where moose are declining and below population targets.

(d) there is also evidence that shows younger bulls are less effective breeders than older bulls, yet in Ontario, there are no restrictions on what kind of bull a hunter can harvest with a bull tag. Cows are less responsive to the clumsier wooing of young bulls as compared to mature bulls and young bulls have both lower sperm counts and lower sperm quality, making conception less likely. In addition, in many WMUs, there has been a tendency to have an early bow season, to allow hunters to call in a bull to the close range a bow hunter requires. As such, bulls are harvested before or during the peak of the rut. Fewer old bulls and harvesting bulls immediately before or during the rut might still let all the cows be bred – at least in those WMUs with a reasonable moose population –  but breeding might not be concentrated during the prime estrus, around the end of September. As a result, calving can be spread out over a longer period the following spring, making it easier for predators that specialize in taking young calves (i.e., wolves and large bears), thus reducing recruitment.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to moose management is cultural. In Ontario, moose management is not the pressing issue it used to be for the government, replaced with concerns such as the plight of species at risk and a desire to deal with climate change hysteria. The perceived indifference to moose by the government is exacerbated by the fact that many hunters have little faith in government actions or policies, resulting in a ‘I don’t give a damn’ attitude. So poaching and a general disregard for rules have, in my opinion, increased (and I’m far from alone in believing that).

While I’m not completely convinced things can’t be turned around, I’m not in the habit of looking at things through rose-coloured glasses, either. The problems are huge and not easily addressed.

MAFA2

Still, outside of moose (and deer) world, life is not all bad.  Spring is in the air, or at least it should be over the coming weeks. I do look forward to the return of the migratory birds and seeing the return of the colour green.

Plus many a BBQ, with a cold beverage in hand, are looming in my future. And that’s a very good thing.

 

A couple of postings back (https://wildlifeperspectives.wordpress.com/2019/01/28/its-piling-up/), I wrote that the snow was beginning to pile up. After that post, it really piled up!

In Kenora, February has so far been the snowiest month of the 2018-19 winter, with a whopping 70.8 cm of the white stuff hitting the ground. Kenora’s normal snowfall for February is 18.6 cm, which means the snowfall for the month was 381% higher than normal.

Obviously, that’s unusual. Up until the end of January, it looked like it was going to be a relatively good winter for the local deer herd, with only about a 30% chance the winter would wind-up being classified as ‘severe’ (based on winter severity indices predictions used by provincial deer managers).

Of course, the only way it could become ‘severe’, was if it snowed a lot and the snow stayed on the ground. Well it did, and so far it has. If you had bet on the odds, you’d have lost.

The last day Kenora had that was above the freezing mark was January 4, when the temperature climbed to a miserly high of 10 C. No melting at all after that and none predicted until March 11, when the temperature is predicted to hit a high of zero.

Right now, the snow depth around my house in poplar stands (which is the kind of forest where snow stations are located to assess winter severity) is 60 cm or more; 50 cm is the threshold that most agree puts deer are in trouble. Fifty cm is about the height of a deer leg, which means more than 50 cm and deer are plowing snow with their chest, which is what I’ve been seeing.

There’s also a rule of thumb that says if you have 50 cm on the ground for 50 days, a lot of deer will perish and does that do survive, will have many stillborn fawns.

How long snow cover lingers will be critical for the deer. The weather forecasters are predicting a big change in weather patterns sometime after the middle of March – much milder temperatures – but if it keeps snowing, and it doesn’t have to snow a lot, there could easily still be snow on the ground into late April.

The deer I see around our house are staying under conifer cover when they can because the snow is not near as deep there. But, there’s not much food under the conifers, either.

In the City of Kenora, the deer are running around on the railway, cleared streets and sidewalks, looking for food, especially handouts. They’ve pretty much eaten all the available browse and what’s left is mostly inaccessible because of the deep snow. It’s illegal to feed deer within city limits – according to the bylaws – but lots of people are ignoring those laws and there is next to nothing being done by way of enforcement. I guess that’s good for the deer; if it weren’t for handouts, the city deer would more than likely be starving.

Deer are adaptable animals. Interestingly, I think these urban deer – a relatively new phenomenon in northwestern Ontario (although Sioux Narrows, about 100 km south of Kenora, has had an ‘urban’ deer population for many decades), will probably be what lets the deer herd recover in future years – at a much faster rate than otherwise would be expected. That’s if the near future sees a series of low-snow winters.

History would suggest there will be those less severe, low snow winters and that deer herds will recover.

On the other hand, deer were mostly absent from northwestern Ontario in the 1800’s. Since there’s no predicting the future – although everyone likes to do that – all we can really do is wait and see how the future actually unfolds.

One thing I can predict with near certainty is that the 2019 deer hunting season in the Kenora area will be rather unspectacular, at best.

I remain hopeful it won’t be a complete washout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sidebar

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

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

giraffe-72

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

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

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.