I haven’t posted in a while . . . been busy doing renovations to the house, among other things.
It’s been a relatively nice winter. The snow hasn’t piled up too deep, not overly cold and today it’s sunny! But hey, it’s a northern Ontario winter, which means that although there’s been snow on the ground since the end of October, there will still be snow on the ground a month from now. It gets to be a drag.
There are not many deer left in this part of the world. A few hang around the house, which is nice. And while there are still timber wolves lurking about, their numbers are down. How could they not be? Few deer and even fewer moose. Maybe they are Farley Mowat wolves, surviving on mice.
Anyway, here’s my most recent column published in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. It’s the unedited version, as per usual.
What’s a Deer Yard?
Year round,we have deer in our yard, but our yard is not a deer yard. A deer yard is an area where deer concentrate during the winter months.
In Ontario, deer yards can be as small as a few hectares or cover tens of square kilometers – they have been talked about, described, managed and mismanaged for at least 100 years. Today, deer yards are more properly referred to as ‘deer winter concentration areas’.
White-tailed deer have been described as ‘yarding up’ for the winter ever since the days of early settlement, when knowing where deer were was critical information – especially during winter, when food and money were often scarce.
Deer biologists have long believed deer living in the forest, on northern ranges where winters can be long, cold and snowy, yard up for two main reasons: ‘energy conservation and as a defense against predators’.
Deer have relatively long legs, but by the time snow depths hit 50 cm, movement is severely restricted. Conifer cover intercepts snow and deer can move around under conifers with relative ease.
But, when deer from any given area are concentrated under conifer cover, food availability becomes an issue. Problems are exacerbated because browse is not that abundant under heavy cover and deer yards that are used year after year – a common behavior – tend to become over-browsed. Eastern white cedar, a tree that provides both food and cover, often has a distinct browse line, where there is no greenery below the reach of the deer.
To cope with deep snow, food shortages and potential predators, deer in forested areas make trails, use windswept ridges, frozen lakes and rivers, snowmobile trails and even plowed roads.
In the forest, conifer cover is a critical component of a deer yard – it’s usually where deer spend most of their time – but other, adjacent habitats are also important.
Deer don’t exist only in the forest. They also thrive in mountains, prairies, agricultural lands and, increasingly, in urban areas. Wherever they are, especially if winters are snowy, deer generally use habitats differently in the winter than during other times of the year.
For example, in southern Ontario, where forest cover can be limiting but snow cover often is not, deer still tend to concentrate in certain areas during the winter months. A winter concentration area might be a park, ravines, a string of woodlots or something else – anyplace where there’s resting, hiding and escape cover, abundant food and a dearth of predators.
In northwestern Ontario, deer yards used to be a problem with the old Land and Forests and later, the MNR. Managing a deer yards was problematic because the consensus was that deer in northwestern Ontario ‘didn’t yard up’. Since they didn’t ‘yard-up’, forestry and wildlife habitat management prescriptions weren’t applicable. Deer did – and still do – concentrate their winter activities in certain areas, just not in what could be described as a ‘yard’.
Management issues around identification of deer yards were largely resolved with the adoption of deer winter concentration area concepts.
In Ontario, a mapped winter deer concentration area is information useful in land use and resource management planning on both private and Crown lands. All levels of governments, and agencies like the OFAH, have policies and directives that recognize deer winter concentration areas as a value.
Deer winter concentration areas are constantly changing. With time, forest fires, insect infestations, severe winds, floods, logging, and infrastructure development of all kinds change the landscape. Predation levels rise and fall.
Concepts and definitions of deer winter concentration areas are important, but it’s still okay to talk about ‘deer yards’. Just be sure to make it clear what you’re talking about . . .
The Loring Deer Yard
Situated in the wilds somewhat below the French River on the Pickerel River system, east of Hwy. 69 and west of Hwy.11, The Loring Deer Yards has been one of the largest and longest lasting deer yards in Ontario.
It was first identified as a deer yarding area soon after deer in central Ontario became common, around the turn of the 20th century.
Severe winters, especially in 1961, wiped out tens of thousands of deer in the province, alarming many who loved deer and deer hunting.
Logging, which had seemed to coincide with surging deer herds in forested areas, was on the wane. The Dept. of Land & Forests was led to believe that by replicating logging efforts, the deer population south of North Bay could be rejuvenated.
By the late 1970’s, the Loring Deer Yard was an official MNR program. Bulldozers and snowmobiles were used to build and maintain trails to help deer move through deep snow; browse and later, other deer foods like pellets were provided; and, wolves were trapped to reduce predation.
Studies were done and results published. Policies, directives and reports were written.
There wasn’t a deer manager or biologist who didn’t know about the Loring Deer Yard and who hadn’t heard about Ernie Bain and Paddy Stillar.
By 1988, management efforts had doubled the size of the Loring Deer Yard. In some winters, it held as many as 20,000 deer.
But, time brings change. MNR(F) adopted new policies and directives. Active deer yard management efforts declined. Eventually, trail-making and feeding was a role for volunteers. Predator (wolf) control was discontinued.
In recent years, deer numbers in what was once the best known deer winter concentration area in Ontario, if not Canada, have plummeted.
Is the Loring Deer Yard history? Only time will tell.