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Management

A short while ago I had a call from Sarah Frankcom, a Biology student at Carleton University in Ottawa (my old Alma Mater). She had an assignment and wanted to talk about moose, mostly with respect to the area north of Kenora, in the vicinity of Grassy Narrows. Part of the assignment, or project, was to produce a Podcast.

So here it is.

Over the years, I’ve done a number of media interviews and given numerous presentation to various groups, so I was reasonably well-prepared for this. However, in listening to the tape, there’s a lot more that could be said.

But it is what it is.

I hope you find it at least somewhat informative

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Uv7NMwF97imtqGq_LgXP7W2KygbA_1tp/view

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The column I submitted, which was edited and published in the 2020 Ontario Out of Doors Hunting Annual. As usual, this is the unedited version – except I noticed in reading the mag column I had the directions of deer movement into northwestern Ontario opposite of what it should have been (east vs west) I fixed that here. The other difference is the editor added ‘Coues Deer’ to my mention of the Key Deer that Canadian snowbirds might be familiar with. I don’t know how many Arizona snowbirds are familiar with the Coues Deer, but maybe they are.

Anyway, the deer season here opens on Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, which is next weekend.

Deer numbers are WAY WAY down from a few years back, and there are not a lot of big bucks around, let alone deer period.

But, I’m optimistic I’ll see at least a few. Probably. Hopefully . . .

At any rate, here’s the column.

I have captions for these photos, but I have no idea how you can see them!!! Before WordPress changed their format, the caption was visible simply by moving your cursor on the photo. Now, that doesn’t work. The captions are ‘lost’ . . .

However, if you click on the photos, I’ve provided captions in the ‘comments’ section. That was the only way I could figure out how to do it.

In recent years, many of us have read and heard a lot about the ‘Algonquin Wolf’, ‘Non-migratory, Forest Dwelling Woodland Caribou’ and other animals that some think are unique species, sub-species or ecotypes. However, when it comes to the White-tailed Deer, most assume all whitetails are the same, except, perhaps, for the diminutive Key Deer of Florida, familiar to many Canadian snowbirds. But for most, a whitetail is a whitetail, no matter where it’s found.

And, maybe, that’s true. As I’ve written before, in the world of taxonomy, there are lumpers and there are splitters. Lumpers tend to view species with often quite different physiological, biochemical and behavioral differences – like the white-tailed deer – as ‘plastic’, characteristics which enable it to survive and thrive in a wide ranging set of environmental conditions. But wherever they are and whatever the differences, they’re first and foremost a White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

Splitters put greater emphasis on differences and identify groups with unique sets of characteristics as sub-species, ecotypes or simply populations. In general, many believe sub-species are new species ‘in the making’.

At any rate, most biologists agree with the concept of sub-species even if they argue amongst themselves what is and isn’t one. To that end, it’s generally acknowledged that “no less than 30 sub-species [of White-tailed Deer] are recognized in North and Central America”.

Ontario is home to two of these sub-species. In most of the province, the deer people are familiar with is the Northern Woodland Whitetail (O.v. borealis). However, along a thin strip of northwestern Ontario, adjacent to the Manitoba border – in the Kenora and Fort Frances areas – the sub-species is believed to be the Dakota Whitetail (O.v. dakotensis). This is also the sub-species of the Canadian prairies and the northern plains of the USA.

The Dakota deer was first observed and scientifically described in 1856 in – no surprise – North Dakota.  Dakota deer are renowned for their massive body size and huge antlers. The current Boone & Crockett world-record typical whitetail – taken by Milo Hansen in Saskatchewan – was a Dakota deer. Of particular interest to Ontarians are the top two B&C non-typical Ontario deer – both came from that strip of northwestern Ontario said to be the home of the Dakota whitetail.

When I first moved to Kenora as the District Wildlife Biologist for what was then the MNR, there was much talk in town as well as the office about ‘mule deer’. Mule deer were invariably monster bucks with racks so much bigger than ‘normal’ deer that they had to be mule deer, because, ‘as everyone knew’ mule deer were much bigger than whitetails.  Since then, over many years, I’ve examined untold dozens of deer from northwestern Ontario – bucks, big and small, young and old and none were mule deer. But some were definitely gigantic. And that goes for both antlers and body size.

Many of these brutes had racks of great mass that were often unusually craggy and adorned with multiple tines of all shapes and sizes.

It’s not unusual for bucks 4 ½ years old and older from the Kenora and Fort Frances areas to field dress out at 220 plus pounds. My biggest bodied buck – a 10 + year old Methuselah – weighed a hefty 260 pounds field dressed. To do a shoulder mount, the taxidermist had to use the form from an elk.

Behavioral differences in sub-species are often documented. As I wrote in a recent column, deer in the northwest gave wildlife officials headaches for years when it came to policies regarding deer yard management, because deer there don’t ‘yard’ like they do in the rest of the province. Of particular interest is that even in areas where they do congregate, they seldom hole up in cedar swamps.

Another characteristic of the Dakota whitetail is a coat that is lighter in colour than other sub-species.

While there is little doubt that there are subtle differences between deer in the extreme northwest as compared to the rest of the province – and elsewhere – do these differences warrant sub-species classification?

Some of the difficulties with answering this question lie with changes that have happened in the years since most of these deer sub-species were initially identified and described.

For one, deer, like many North American game species, were greatly reduced in numbers during the carnage that occurred after Europeans began to colonize the continent and up until modern game laws began to be implemented in the early 1900’s.

In many areas, deer were virtually wiped-out, so one solution was to trap, transport and translocate deer from areas of abundance to areas where they were scarce or gone. Not much attention was paid to which sub-species was being moved where, so there was a considerable mixing of gene pools.

In addition, habitat alterations have occurred on a massive scale and continue to this day. Deer often have been able to take advantage of those habitat changes and so the range and distribution of deer – everywhere – has been affected. Deer are thought to have been absent from all of northwestern Ontario prior to the very late 1800’s.

Did Dakota deer expand east into Ontario and the Northern Woodland deer expand west? There is no ‘gap’ in the range distribution between the two sub-species. 

Regardless of the sub-species, the White-tailed Deer is not only a challenge to hunt – they’re a challenge to study.

I haven’t blogged for many months. I’m sure most will understand when I say ‘there have been a myriad of reasons’ for my yap gap.

My last post was – posted – before the Covid madness had descended. The pandemic has changed every-bodies lives, everywhere in the world and continues to do so.

There’s a lot of talk about what the new normal is going to be, the one that emerges after all this period of change settles down, but who’s to know when that will be, or what it will look like. A phrase that I keep going back to is one about how the only constant in our lives is change. Every day is a new day, also comes to mind.

Except for a swath along the equator, most of the world sees constant, seasonal change. Even equatorial regions have alternating wet and dry seasons. No two seasons are ever exactly the same, although patterns and trends may be clearly evident.

Since my last posting, the ice and snow that covered our field, marsh and forest has melted away, replaced by many shades of mostly greens. A blue pond now compliments the summer skies. Goslings and ducklings have come to be and fawns now need be aware of bears as well as wolves. It’s summer!

Anyway, thoughts about the consistency of change that comes with the seasons is an underlying premise of this blog. Things are always different than they used to be, although trends are clearly evident..

The posting has been published. It’s my latest column in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. 

As per my practice, the posting is the unedited version of the column. I know the two are always a bit different, but I seldom compare the two and if I do, it’s only a very cursory look. Editors edit – that’s their job and most are good at it.

I’ll keep posting. There was a time when I posted about once a week – well, I can’t do that anymore.

Until next time, stay safe.

 

What Goes Up, Does Come Down

By: Bruce Ranta

I heard the hunter before I saw him. When we met on the trail, he looked at me, somewhat perplexed, then blurted out “They’re extinct!”

We were hunting moose – moose weren’t ‘extinct’, of course, but it did seem that way. Neither of us had seen a fresh track or any other sign of moose.

Unfortunately, the lack of moose didn’t surprise me. Moose on my stomping grounds close to my Kenora home had been on a steep decline for several years – and not just where I liked to hunt. Moose populations had been on a similar downhill slide in much of northwestern Ontario, neighboring Manitoba and Minnesota, as well as further afield, in places like Vermont and New Hampshire.

What was going on?

There were many theories. To sort it through, Dr. Murray Lankester, a parasitologist with Lakehead University and I analysed data pertaining to moose and deer in the Kenora area going back, in some cases, over 100 years. We concluded that several factors were driving forces behind moose (and deer) population fluctuations.[i]

For one, we found that both moose and deer populations surged in the aftermath of large, landscape scale disturbances, namely fires, large blowdowns, clear-cut logging and spruce budworm epidemics.  Deer abundance was also tied to winter severity – long, cold and snowy winters knocked deer down – short winters without much snow saw big upticks in deer numbers.

In the 1990s, deer and moose numbers swelled in tandem. Winters were mild and food was abundant. Even a bad winter in 1995 didn’t have much of an impact on deer – the woods were full of easy to reach and nutritious arboreal lichens growing on millions of balsam trees killed by a spruce budworm outbreak. The same thing had happened 40 years earlier.

When deer became super-abundant, moose numbers began to plummet. Brain worm appeared to be a factor. The parasite has no discernible impact on deer, but is deadly on moose. When deer densities get above 4-5 deer/km2, the disease becomes problematic to moose.

Deer densities rose to at least twice that level.

Exacerbating the problem was the weather – a series of wet summers made conditions ideal for terrestrial snails and slugs, the brainworm’s conduit for the disease.

High deer numbers also led to skyrocketing wolf numbers.

The quantity and quality of moose browse declined precipitously with a slowdown in logging and the maturing of burns and blowdowns.

In short order, the moose population crashed.

Deer eventually depleted the supply of arboreal lichens. Winters turned cold and snowy. Wolves were everywhere. Deer too, crashed.

Today, there aren’t a lot of moose or deer in much of the Kenora area (except in the city where deer are relatively safe from wolves and people feed them).

With deer numbers down, will the moose recover?

Maybe, although with only low levels of logging and no recent large forest fires or blowdowns, moose habitat is presently sub-optimal.

Deer have continued their downward spiral owing to a spate of snowy winters and continued predation by wolves. With few deer, wolves will eventually crash. Then, with at least a few mild winters – deer might stage a comeback. The next spruce budworm epidemic will help, but that’s still a few years off (budworm outbreaks occur about every 40 years).

The fact is, ups and downs are normal in many populations of wildlife.  Stable populations, especially in seasonal climates, are the rarity.

What happened in the Kenora area isn’t exactly why moose – or deer – numbers have gone up or down elsewhere. Still, there are parallels and commonalities.

Food availability is commonly linked to population changes, as is weather, the abundance of predators and human hunting pressure. Diseases are also problematic, especially during population peaks.

Across North America, some populations of barren ground caribou have recently shown dramatic declines. Although somewhat alarming, it’s not unprecedented. Northern herds have a history of spectacular ups and downs. In Alaska, the caribou population dropped by more than 50% in the late 1970’s. In Quebec/Labrador, the caribou population jumped from less than 200,000 in the late 70’s to around 1 million in just 20 years. They have recently plummeted to only a few thousand.

In winter, caribou eat lichens, a very slow-growing plant, almost exclusively. Although over-grazing lichens isn’t the only issue they face (wolves, hunting pressure, disease and parasites and the weather are also important), food does matter.

After being reduced to paltry numbers (and extirpated in eastern Canada), wild turkeys, aided by re-stocking and re-introductions, underwent a huge expansion in range occupancy and population. But in the USA, turkey numbers peaked about a decade ago, and have since declined – again, not unexpectedly – ‘new’ or reintroduced populations often flourish, subside, then have years of – you guessed it – ups and downs.

While wildlife population ups and downs can’t be curtailed, they can be managed.

As OFAH Wildlife Biologist Keith Munro says, “We really need to take a big picture approach to wildlife management. Rather than focusing on a single factor that may be affecting a wildlife population, we need to consider the whole system which includes, but is not limited to, harvest (both licenced and rights-based), predation, competition between species, diseases, parasites, and habitat”.

But no matter what we do, what goes up – does come down.

[i] To read the entire study, see Ranta, B., and M. W. Lankester. 2017. Moose and deer population trends in northwestern Ontario: a case history. Alces 53: 159–179. https://alcesjournal.org/index.php/alces/article/view/227)

 

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?

wtdeer-24

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.

Some of the Kenora area wolves I have seen.

Back in 2014 I wrote on my blog how the local wolves, particularly the big wolves that prey on deer and moose, were still doing well. Locally, meaning within about a 100 km radius from the city of Kenora, the moose population had collapsed and white-tailed deer numbers were plummeting – but there were still a lot of big wolves around. Smaller canids, namely coyotes, were present, but not numerous.

These days, I can report that moose populations have not recovered and deer populations really crashed; there are still some deer around, but very, very few moose.

Surprisingly, a sizable population of big wolves has endured here, but maybe not as many as back in 2014. Coyote and other smaller wolf numbers seem to be up.

With respect to wolves in general, there remains much controversy regarding wolf taxonomy and wolf management. Research on wolves continues to provide interesting information on wolf biology.

Big wolves are widely distributed – they are found across much of North America and Eurasia, as well as India, China and even parts of Africa. There’s general agreement that the majority of these wolves are all one and the same species, the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus). Some claim there are not one but three species of wolf in the world; the Grey Wolf, the Red Wolf (C. rufus) and the Ethiopian Wolf (C. simensis). A few – mostly some Ontario-based biologists and scientists – say the Algonquin Wolf is also a separate species of wolf ( C. lycaon).

In North America, there is also the other ‘wolf’, the Coyote (Canis latrans), which many suggest is not really a wolf.

 

Small Wolves . . . .

The trouble with taxonomy is that there are no clear rules as to what constitutes a species. It appears that all these wolf species can interbreed and produce viable offspring. So are they all one species with a lot of variety, or  . . . what?  For example, the Red Wolf is in danger of extinction in large part because of hybridization (interbreeding) with coyotes.

The Algonquin Wolf was, until recently, referred to as the Eastern Wolf, a sub-species of Grey Wolf or perhaps a distinct species. However, recognized hybridization with Coyotes and Grey Wolves messed thing up and somehow it became the Algonquin Wolf. Interestingly, on the official Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry website on the Algonquin Wolf (https://www.ontario.ca/page/algonquin-wolf), the scientific name provided is Canis sp. Which seems to me to say: ‘We don’t know exactly what it is, but we know one when we see one.’

Anyway, regardless of the taxonomy, the prevailing attitude almost everywhere is definitely pro-wolf protection (the exception may be coyotes). Often, the attitudes and management direction seems to me, to be totally bizarre.

For example, on the USA side of Lake Superior, Grey Wolves have been re-introduced to Isle Royale (at great expense), after apparent inbreeding brought the resident Grey Wolf population down to two. Two wolves couldn’t keep the moose population in check and moose were eating themselves out of house and home.

The resident wolves on Isle Royale came to be there by crossing the ice, like the moose (when early Europeans went to the Isle, they found Caribou; apparently, there were no moose, or wolves).

Natural re-population of wolves from the mainland was thought to be a non-starter because climate change was making the chances of an ice-bridge in the future unlikely. Same with Caribou.

Meanwhile, over on the Canadian side, wolves crossed Lake Superior’s frozen waters a few years ago and pretty much wiped-out the resident Caribou on the Slate Islands.  Then wolves proceeded to do the same on Michipicoten Island – to save the not so long ago introduced Caribou (a species officially classed as Threatened under the provincial and federal legislation), the Ontario government  . . . decided to catch the Caribou and move them to (again, at great expense). . . the Slate Islands.  In other words, save the Caribou (???), but only by doing no harm to the wolves.

The Grey Wolf, by the way, is a species that in Ontario is not at risk under the Endangered Species Act, (they are common and widespread in distribution); although the Algonquin Wolf is listed as ‘Threatened’. By consensus, the wolves around Lake Superior are thought to be Grey Wolves, not Algonquin Wolves.

Back on Isle Royale, ice has made a bridge from the mainland to the Isle a couple of times in the last few years. On at least one occasion, researchers documented wolves from the mainland did cross the ice over to the island, but they didn’t stick around.

It’s supposed to be another colder than average winter in the Great Lakes Region, so chances seem good that in 2020 there will once again be an ice bridge from the mainland to Isle Royale.

Back home in Kenora, I’ve been seeing coyotes (brush wolves?) on our property over the last few months. I have seen tracks of much larger wolves, but haven’t seen one lately. When I was out deer hunting about 50 km from the house the other day, my hunting partner and I came across tracks of a pack of at least three big wolves.

Off property, I have been deer hunting on 8 different days – neither I nor my hunting partners on those days have seen a deer (or a wolf).  But one day we did see a moose!

Recent studies in Minnesota are confirming Grey Wolves can move vast distances and set up a new home range. Hundreds of kilometers of movement does not seem all that unusual, as evidenced by northern Minnesotan wolves re-locating to the Red Lake, Ontario area (about 300 kms, as the crow flies). See https://www.facebook.com/VoyageursWolfProject/ for interesting updates on their findings.

From my perspective, wolf management, or a lack thereof, is symptomatic of the problems facing the wildlife management profession everywhere.

Too much emotion, too little use of scientific principles.

It’s a big problem.

This is another of my recent articles in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. As per my practice, this is an unedited version.

Owning land where one of the main objectives is to manage it for wildlife is widespread in some places around the world, but not so much in Canada. In parts of Texas and the American west, large tracts of private land are for wildlife – and hunting – often combined with ranching. In parts of Africa, particularly in the south, huge chunks of land  are managed for wildlife – and hunting – again, often combined with ranching. 

Looking after our 200+ acres is really nothing like being in charge of tens of thousands of acres, but it’s something. 

One more thing. The office locations, addresses and suggested links were at one time all valid, but things change quickly these days so some of the information in the article may no longer be correct or valid.

 

Growing up, I always thought it would be great to own a big chunk of undeveloped land. My grandfather lived on what was once farmland outside Sudbury near the hamlet of Wahnapitae, a haven with a beaver pond to hunt ducks on and a woodlot where I could chase snowshoe hares and ruffed grouse. From a very young age, acquiring land was high on my wish list.

Life may get in the way of dreams, but dreams never die. Finally, when I was about 40 years old, Lil and I bought a long abandoned homestead. A few years later, we built a house and started our country life.

One of the main reasons we wanted to live in the country, on our own land, was to manage it for wildlife. Lil also needed space to accommodate her needs associated with being a wildlife rehabilitator – it can be awkward looking after loud and squawking injured critters in the suburbs.

We knew what we wanted to do, but needed direction to be in compliance with pertinent laws and regulations. The Managed Forest Tax Incentive Program (MFTIP) provided that direction.

The MFTIP was a good fit because it could be used specifically to manage private lands for wildlife and also “offer a reduction in property taxes to landowners of forest land who prepare a plan and agree to be good stewards of their property”.

To qualify for enrollment in MFTIP, there must be > 4 ha (9.99 ac) of forest land owned by a Canadian citizen or resident who has a commitment to good land stewardship. Then a stewardship plan has to be prepared and subsequently approved by a Managed Forest Plan Approver.

I have to admit the preparation and writing of a stewardship plan for our property was a lot more difficult than we had surmised, despite the fact both Lil and I had degrees in Biology and had written numerous articles, papers and plans. My friend Brian Hutchinson – a Parks Canada biologist – expressed similar sentiments when he wrote a plan for his property near Ottawa.

A major tenet for the plan is a requirement to identify general property objectives – improving wildlife habitat was one of ours – and how to achieve those objectives.

The plan requires maps showing the location of the property and the surrounding area, the location of buildings, roads, trails, hydro lines, etc., and property ‘compartments’.

Compartments are areas with similar vegetation, topography and soils. For example, on 232 acres we have a bog, a marsh, mix-woods of deciduous and conifer trees, as well as rocky, thin soiled hills of mostly jack pine. With the help of aerial photography, we identified and mapped more than a dozen compartments.

For each compartment, forms have to be completed that identify general characteristics pertaining to soils and drainage and provide specific details on vegetation and forest cover (e.g., shrubs present, tree species and their abundance). There is also a section on history of the compartment, where things like past logging or grazing by cattle is included.

And that’s only a fraction of what the stewardship plan requires – one onerous requirement is a schedule of planned activities for each compartment for 10 years, as well as keeping a record of activities actually carried out.

Lists of animals, fish, insects, rare plants as well as habitat features (e.g., snags, dens, wildlife trails) also have to be prepared.

Writing a stewardship plan is a lot of hard work – but it certainly made us focus on how, specifically, we could achieve our goals and objectives.

Some of Our Stewardship Plan Activities

  • Annually mow, or burn, our old field and hay marsh compartments to arrest forest encroachment.
  • Harvest 80 acres to remove over-mature aspen.
  • Plant white and black spruce, white pine and red pine on appropriate sites.
  • Erect nesting boxes for wood ducks, bluebirds, tree swallows and owls.
  • Build and maintain walking/hiking trails.
  • Maintain brush piles as wildlife cover.

There’s a myriad of other things we’ve done and plan to do on the property, including – with the help of some of Lil’s rehabilitated and released beavers – build and maintain a pond in front of the house. It’s almost unbelievable the amount and diversity of wildlife associated with our pond. In the spring, the cacophony of singing frogs and toads is so loud we have to shut the door to talk on the phone or listen to the TV.

Oh, and yes, hunting activities, including planting food plots, are perfectly acceptable as goals and objectives in an MFTIP. We enjoy hunting ruffed grouse and deer on our property.

Despite what I believe is needless complexity, the MFTIP is a good way for property owners to enhance wildlife values, while simultaneously reducing the tax burden.

MFTIP Details

In brief, it’s a 10 yr program. Eligible land is taxed at 25% of the municipal tax rate set for residential properties. After the plan has ended, a new plan for a further 10 year period can be submitted.

For information contact:

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry

Managed Forest Tax Incentive Program

300 Water Street, Peterborough, ON K9J 8M5

The MFTIP website is ontario.ca/MFTIP; for info, call toll free 1-855-866-3847, or email MFTIP@ontario.ca .

You can also call, toll free 1-866-296-6722, the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, web is www.mpac.ca.

Other Programs for Rural Landowners

There are various stewardship councils in much of southern/central Ontario that can be consulted to help one manage wildlife and natural resource habitats. Visit www.ontariostewardship.org.

If you are interested in planting trees, visit www.treesontario.ca.

If MNRF has identified natural heritage features on your land, you may be eligible for property tax exemptions. Call 1-800-268-8959; your local MNRF office; visit the website Ontario.ca/CLTIP or email cltip@ontario.ca.

 

May 7 and the ice is gone – from most lakes. There’s still ice on the big, deep lake trout lakes and one can still see the odd patch of snow/ice in the bush. Last night it was -80 C, so it’s not as if the blossoms are in bloom. Fact is the pussy willows have only just begun to emerge. No green sheen in the forest yet.

At least the pond in front of the house has been ice-free for several days, albeit most mornings there is a bit of ice along the edges. But that quickly melts off and is long gone by the afternoon.

When there was a mix of open water and ice on the pond, the ducks were in active courtship. The hooded mergansers in particular were really going at it. Lots of fighting and displaying and ‘gronking’, which is the sound of their mating call.

There were also wood ducks, green-winged teal, ringnecks, common mergansers and of course mallards. Very early, a pair of Canada geese built their nest on the beaver house and we expect the goslings will be hatching any day now.

I put up a blind to photograph from and for a few days there was a lot of action for me to try and capture. However, things have slowed down considerably and lately it’s mostly just a group of three drake mallards that come by the blind. Maybe things will pick up once the nights get a bit warmer and things start to green up.

In addition to the waterfowl, there’s been a steady stream of other migrants. Of special note was a pair of willets (first I’ve ever seen) and several rusty blackbirds. And the tree swallows are back – all three nest boxes look to be claimed.

Some deer did make it through the winter. In addition to the three that were almost daily visitors for months, there have been of late a couple of others coming to nibble at greenery on the lawn. Yesterday we noticed a large paw print of a bear on the road only a couple of hundred meters from the house. Maybe it’s the big brown one I saw last spring.

spring-7

Also yesterday, in the morning, we saw from the house a very fluffy, orangy red fox catching some rays. A couple of weeks ago, just when the ice was starting to melt, a coyote – the first we’ve seen on our property –showed up one day, but we haven’t seen it since. Best of all, I haven’t seen a timber wolf for several weeks.

There seems to be good numbers of ruffed grouse as we hear many drumming, not just on our property but pretty much wherever we have been. Neva seems to find one or two to flush on her daily walk, which keeps her happy. I like grouse a lot, so seeing and hearing grouse every day is a good thing.

Lil and I haven’t seen a single moose track anywhere we’ve been. Granted, we’ve not been travelling far and wide, but in years gone by it was common to see moose tracks on our property and here and there on the roads near town. Those days are long gone.

The MNRF released its moose tag quota allocations for the 2019 hunt and, unbelievably, is planning on issuing more cow tags than bull tags across the province as a whole. This despite the fact moose numbers continue to decline and in most WMUs, moose populations are well below their targets. In the WMU Lil and I hunt (06), only 1 tag was issued – for a cow. It seems to me this is complete lunacy, but it’s also what I’ve come to expect from an outfit where I worked for more than 30 years. I’m just glad I don’t work there any more – it’s hard enough admitting it’s where I had a career. I just shake my head.

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.

 

 

Last fall, I went mule deer hunting in south-eastern Alberta, perhaps for the last time. As an explanation as to why this hunt might have been my last mule deer hunt there, I offer the following story:

I first applied for a mule deer tag in Alberta as a Canadian resident, which requires a resident guide (or as Alberta calls it, a hunter host), in 1998. I was finally drawn in 2002.

I was successful on that first hunt, as I have been each and every time I’ve been drawn. Generally, it takes three or four years of applying to get a tag. Although I apply in the same pool as resident Albertans, I have only been able to apply for an antlered mulie, which is A-okay by me. Over the years, I’ve taken some nice bucks.

The same year I was initially drawn for a tag, Alberta documented its first cast of chronic wasting disease (CWD), in a farmed elk.

From then, the infection rate grew quickly, and bad news it was, as one of the areas where the disease took hold was the area I was hunting (we stayed, and have continued to stay, at a ranch north of Medicine Hat. We’ve become good friends with the rancher family).

In an attempt to stop the disease, the Alberta Fish & Game did a cull in the area we hunt in 2006.

Since then, things have gotten much worse on the CWD front.

The first thing we noticed, after the cull, was that there were a lot fewer mule deer on the ranch.

A few years later, the deer numbers increased somewhat, but there was a new wrinkle – it became mandatory for hunters to drop off the heads of harvested deer to be tested for CWD. Then I couldn’t transport a deer back to Ontario unless it was de-boned and the skull cap and antlers cleaned.

Although CWD has not – yet – been known to infect humans, health agencies recommend animals known to be infected to not be consumed. So there was a waiting period after harvesting and butchering the deer before it was possible to enjoy eating it.

Still, our deer were, for a few years, always negative for CWD. That changed in, I think it was 2013, when Rob’s buck tested positive. Since then, Rob has had two more bucks test +ve and there have been others in our hunting party who have taken mulies that have come back as CWD +ve. Not good.

And it’s only getting worse. Check out this link for the history – and see the spread – of CWD in Alberta from the date of discovery to date https://www.alberta.ca/chronic-wasting-disease-history-in-alberta.aspx .

For a number of reasons, including the CWD issue, I hadn’t applied for a mule deer tag the last couple of years, even though I had enough priority points to draw one. But in 2018 Glenn and I decided I might as well apply and if drawn, do the hunt, as things were “unlikely to get better, and you never know – maybe the ‘hunter host’ system will change with a new government”. It’s possible that for a non-resident Canadian – like me – hunting mule deer with friends using the hunter host system might not be an option in the future.

Anyway, I applied, got drawn and did the hunt with Glenn. On the last day of the season, Dec. 1, I harvested a nice mature mulie buck.

A couple of days later, on the way home, we dropped off the head for CWD testing in Jenner. I took some of the choice cuts home to Ontario, put them in a freezer bag, labelled them, froze them and . . . waited for the results of the CWD tests.

As I already said, CWD is not known – as yet – to infect humans, but the World Health Organization and Fish & Game agencies caution against consuming an animal known to have CWD. CWD – so far specific to members of the Cervidae (deer) family, has been documented in the following species: white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, moose and reindeer. CWD is one of a group of fatal diseases referred to as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). The group includes bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE (“mad cow disease”), which can be passed on to humans. In humans, this BSE is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Basically, if you get variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob, your brain is eaten away and you eventually die.

While waiting for the results of the CWD test on my deer, an article appeared in Deer and Deer Hunting magazine (https://www.deeranddeerhunting.com/deer-scouting/deer-behavior/controversial-research-bacteria-not-prions-cause-cwd (a magazine I have written for) on CWD, reporting on a researcher (a Dr. Bastian) who thinks CWD may actually be the result of an infectious ‘super-bacteria’. It’s interesting – and offers new hope in terms of dealing with the disease in the future – but so far, no one has replicated Dr. Bastian’s research, so he’s out alone in the field with respect to his theory. I believe part of the ‘problem’ is that there are relatively few people doing basic research on CWD, so not many are even trying to replicate his results.

At any rate, I was still waiting when Rob forwarded me another article https://mountainjournal.org/story-482 that bluntly suggests CWD is bound to, at some point, infect humans. The paper also says that it’s really impossible to sterilize your hunting utensils if you’ve cleaned a CWD infected animal and that prions – the infective agent – are almost indestructible and could infect whatever your now contaminated utensils come in contact with. They (prions) have been found to be taken up by vegetation and can get picked up and spread around by vehicles. There’s a lot of very scary stuff in this article.

So here I am at home wondering if I’m going to have to throw out my hunting knife and meat saw. I have no idea what to do with the skull cap and antlers of my buck if it’s CWD+ve – seems to me it would be shedding prions wherever I put it –  and because I usually do the final cleaning by sanding off any remaining bits of dried flesh – all I can envisage is inhaling airborne CWD prions. All these thoughts tend to sicken me . . .

Then, On March 11, I get an email and a magic call from Alberta Environment and Parks . .  .my deer tested negative! I can eat the deer, keep my hunting knives and saws and clean and mount the antlers!

Great news indeed!

But I really don’t think I want to go through that kind of an ordeal again.

As CWD continues to spread, there’s a lot of thinking us big game hunters are going to have to do. Although a number of writers and others are working to try and minimize the dangers of CWD, I’m skeptical. This is a huge issue, possible a huge health issue, that could see lives lost.

Oh, and one more thing. If a deer gets CWD, that deer always dies, usually within 2-3 years. There are worries it will, eventually, decimate infected herds. Alarming population declines have already been documented in some CWD endemic areas in the USA.

CWD. It’s a bad thing.