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velvet-1

The antlers of all the Ontario cervids have, by now, been free of velvet for weeks. The crowns are now hardened bone, slowly shrinking as they dry.

Antler velvet is a hairy skin that is a component of growing antler bone. It’s very sensitive as it covers a mass of blood vessels and nerves that will quickly transform into a crown of antlers. Antlers are said to be one of the fastest growing tissues found in the animal world.

On whitetails, the velvet is shed quickly and, it seems, in private. I’ve never witnessed a buck shedding its velvet; only once I saw a buck that had obviously just shed its velvet (the buck in the photo). Fresh red blood still smeared the whitish bone. I once watched a bull moose losing its velvet; it used the dead, overhead branches of a large spruce to rake its antlers and as the velvet sloughed off, the bull would shake its head, grab velvet in its mouth, chew it off and eat it. Velvet is high in nutrients and minerals; it’s seldom allowed to go to waste.

Most hunters are fascinated by antlers and in many cultures antlers are considered to be a trophy and a memorable part of the hunt. There are a number of organizations that maintain records of large antlered specimens and there are also various standardized methodologies used to ‘score’ or rank antlers. One of the best known is the Boone and Crockett Club (B&C) that uses a scoring system with the same name. The club was founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt, who was president of the USA from 1901 to 1909.

In England and Europe, the antlers of stags, notably those of red deer, have adorned the walls of castles and homes of nobility for centuries.

Antlers – presence or absence, plus size – are often an integral part of how members of the deer family are managed by game agencies everywhere.

B&C categorizes antlers as being either ‘typical’, or non-typical. Typical antlers reward size and symmetry; in other words a great typical buck has ‘perfect’ antlers, the large antlers are a mirror of each other and have no unusual or abnormal growths of points other than what is considered to be normal for the species.  Non-typicals are just that. The biggest antlers are usually non-typicals.

For the antlers of a white-tailed buck to be listed (declared a bona-fide trophy) in the typical category by B&C, it must be measured by a certified B&C scorer and have a net score of at least 170. Most trophy typical whitetails have 5 points on each antler, although some have 4 and some more than 5. The present world record was shot by Milo Hansen in 1993 in Saskatchewan. It is basically a 6X6 with two small points on the right antler; it has a net score of 213 5/8ths.

Before a set of antlers can be officially measured and scored, there must be a ‘drying’ period of at least 60 days after the harvest of the animal. Particularly large antlers may shrink a few inches in that 60 day drying period; shrinkage could continue for a few years, but once the deer has been officially scored and measured, that’s the score, regardless if it continues to shrink (marginally) over time. Antlers are measured without velvet.

An elk antler from an animal that roamed Minnesota prior to their extirpation in the mid-19th century was recently found in the bottom of a lake in that state. A large antler, it was hollow; apparently it had developed full size but not yet full ossification. It probably wound up in the lake early in the fall. How that happened is by no means clear, but if it was deposited in early fall, it must have been associated with the death of the bull, as elk antlers aren’t shed until March or April. The inner, softer, developing portion deteriorated over time in the water, but the outer core was still intact. Maybe it was still in velvet.

Another interesting antler factoid.

moosehunt-7

I just returned from Brandon, where the 50th Annual North American Moose Conference and the 8th International Moose Symposium were combined and held. There were people from North America and Eurasia attending the meetings, but I only managed to intermingle for a short while; I was a one day attendant during a set of meetings, field trips and social events that lasted several days. I really enjoyed myself and it seemed to me that was the feeling that captured the general mood.

I heard several talks about moose and listening to those presentations was like music to my ears. I heard that as a species, moose seem to be faring well, although populations in some areas have declined precipitously. I live in one of those areas – northwestern Ontario – I was there to provide an overview of the factors driving moose and white-tailed deer populations in the Kenora District of Ontario.

I don’t think my presentation was quite as lucid as I had hoped and I know I made an error when I couldn’t see the labelling on one of the graphs I had inserted into the power point presentation. Unable to read the labels and the legend, I promptly got the deer and moose stats wrong. Oh well, that will be corrected during the final write-up and anyway,  I think the crowd got the gist of my presentation.

It’s still an emerging consensus, but it appears that in much of eastern North America’s moose range, moose populations are limited by the presence of a parasite called brain worm. In that eastern, wetter, more highly forested biome, the parasite is commonly found in populations of white-tailed deer, where it seems to affect deer minimally, if at all. However, when moose become infected with brain worm, the animal often dies.

In the western, drier and more open ranges of North America, there is little to no incidence of brain worm in deer or moose. The presence of brain worm seems to do a good job of helping to explain how moose populations are compromised by high populations of deer.

It seems that in the east, once deer densities exceed about 4 deer/km2, moose populations decline. When deer densities are low, rates of transmission of the parasite from deer to moose rarely occurs.

There’s a lot more to the stories on moose and deer dynamics, but one of the topics of interest is how moose recover from low densities. In western Manitoba, southern Saskatchewan and south-eastern Alberta – the Canadian prairies – the thinking is that moose populations have been on the rise coincident with a decline in the number of rural farmers and ranchers living on the landscape. There’s evidence that incidence of illegal, unregulated hunting wasn’t necessarily high, as moose populations were long-depressed in the prairies, but it didn’t take a lot of moose hunting to keep populations low. As people abandoned their homesteads, more and more moose managed to find refuge and survive. Today, moose populations in grain and cattle country are robust.

The eastern forest areas where moose have recently declined are the same areas where deer populations simultaneously surged. But recent winter of deep snow and cold have knocked deer populations back; if they stay low or decline further, moose populations may be poised to recover.

A growing concern is that where moose populations are lowest, recovery could be jeopardized by legal, but unregulated hunting (Aboriginals and Metis have the constitutional Right to hunt and fish; the present interpretation is this means the hunting of moose by some can be done at any time of the year and there are no seasons or bag limits on the harvest).

The moose harvest by such individuals may not have to be much to prevent severely depressed moose populations from recovery.

Unregulated hunting is certainly not the only issue regarding moose population (or other game species) recovery dynamics. But to help solve the puzzle as to how to effectively manage moose populations in particular, it’s a factor that needs a lot more attention than society at large has lately been willing to give it.

wolves-298

Not long ago, the Ontario government was proposing to loosen restrictions on wolf hunting, largely in response to some people in the hunting community who have some political clout and connections and who believe a higher harvest of wolves will help struggling moose populations recover. I didn’t think much of what was being proposed (the intent was OK, but I thought the proposed actions had been poorly thought through). I also thought that what was being suggested would result in a substantial backlash from anti-hunters and others, who might not be anti-hunting per se, but nevertheless wouldn’t like what they saw as a good way to manage either wolves or moose and would mount an effort to block the proposed changes. See my posts ‘A Stumble and a Fumble’ (Apr 5) and ‘Missing the Mark’ (Jan 1).

Needless to say, the initiative went down in flames. No easing up or relaxing of the regulatory framework on hunting wolves. For a while, it was status quo; but it didn’t take long before changes were again being brought forward by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), this time under a new Minister.

I suspect the MNRF Minister who was in charge when the relaxing of wolf hunting regulations was proposed was heavily chastised by his party peers for the initiative. I’m also quite certain the initiative drew the ire of a number of environmental organizations who have close ties to the Liberal party and they were ultimately the ones to tell the Premier that relaxing the rules on wolf hunting as proposed was simply ludicrous and unacceptable (to them).

Governments are never happy when they have to back down on something they have said they want to do.

Thus it didn’t surprise me that shortly after the initiative was shot down, there was a cabinet shuffle and the MNRF minister lost his job and was moved to another portfolio.

The new Minister has changed course and the MNRF is now proposing to give wolves and coyotes far more protection in Ontario, albeit not across the whole of the province, but over a substantial piece of geography in eastern Ontario. The purpose is to protect the so-called eastern wolf (and very recently renamed the Algonquin wolf), a new ‘species’ of wolf found mostly in and around Algonquin Park. The same groups who were successful in lobbying the government to not go ahead with its earlier proposals to ease up on wolf hunting and trapping regs are pushing the government to close wolf and coyote hunting in 34 Wildlife Management Units’s.

Interestingly, a recent article by Carl Zimmer of the New York Times (which was subsequently reported on by Kip Hansen in a post The Gray, Gray World of Wolves on the blog https://wattsupwiththat.com gives us this story:  DNA Study Reveals the One and Only Wolf Species in North America. (my underline)

The first large study of North American wolf genomes has found that there is only one species on the continent: the gray wolf. Two other purported species, the Eastern wolf and the red wolf, are mixes of gray wolf and coyote DNA, the scientists behind the study concluded.

The finding, announced Wednesday, highlights the shortcomings of laws intended to protect endangered species, as such laws lag far behind scientific research into the evolution of species.”

Ontario scientists, in fact, have known for a long time that the ‘eastern’ wolves and gray wolves, also commonly known as timber wolves, interbreed and produce viable offspring. Given they look similar, interbreed freely, produce viable offspring and do not owe their presence on the landscape to human meddling (i.e., none of these wolves are the result of humans transplanting wolves from one locale to another), Biology 101 would say they are not separate species.

But the use of endangered species legislation in much of North America (and who knows, likely elsewhere) is seldom about the protection of species. The legislation has been usurped by what many would call radical environmentalists to get as many not just species, but populations of animals protected, so as to stop things like hunting, trapping and infrastructure development, like roads, pipelines or whatever. In Ontario, there are thousands and thousands of gray wolves, and the species is in no danger of extinction; in fact, by any measure one wants to look at, wolves in Ontario are thriving.

So . . . . first it was going to be ‘open season’ on wolves. No need for a special wolf licence and much cheaper licensing requirements, especially for non-residents. Now the big switcheroo; let’s provide wolves with even more protection, in fact increase the area where there is an outright ban on wolf hunting and trapping. Much better!!

It’s not hard to imagine the next step is to get moose populations, at least in some parts of the province, listed as a species at risk and ban hunting of them as well.

It’s almost funny how ‘protection’, in the minds of many, automatically means ‘ban hunting’, because that’s the ‘best’ option in their minds. Surely to goodness we have the ability to manage wolves and moose (and other animals) in such a way as to continue to allow hunting (and trapping) in a manner that’s sustainable. Isn’t that what the wildlife management profession is all about?

Where’s the science that supports an outright ban on hunting and trapping of wolves? Answer; there isn’t any. It seems to me it’s mostly politicians and their environmental lackeys targeting hunters and trappers, because for many if not most of those folk, hunting and trapping, in their minds, is simply bad bad bad. By the way, it’s not an ‘outright ban’; hunting and trapping of wolves by Aboriginals and Metis will continue as usual (i.e., no changes to their rights to hunt and trap as they wish).

Regardless, the scientists who support this wolf hunting and trapping ban for licensed hunters and trappers should be ashamed of themselves. Reprehensible behaviour, in my opinion.

gbear-22

On February 19, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) announced a major expansion of the pilot spring bear hunt (SBH). In short, there’s going to be a SBH much like it was before the cancellation of it in 1999 (the hunt will go on for 5 years as proposed and then be ‘evaluated’).

There are some new restrictions, particularly with respect to bait, namely:

  • Bait must not be placed within 500 metres of a residence unless written permission is obtained from the residence’s owner
  • Bait must not be placed within 500 metres of a public building
  • Bait must not be placed within 200 metres of a right of way for public vehicle traffic or a marked public recreational trail.

The SBH was cancelled in 1999 for almost entirely political reasons. The government of the day, the Harris Progressive Conservatives, were being threatened by the owner of a business called, I believe, Husky Molding, to finance opposition members in swing ridings unless the spring bear hunt was cancelled. Polling at the time suggested the conservatives would lose those ridings; polls also said most residents of Ontario, including resident hunters, weren’t in support of the SBH, or were indifferent to cancellation. However, once it was cancelled, resident hunters had a case of ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone’. Over time, the calls for reinstatement of the SBH grew louder and louder. Resident hunters wanted it, loss of the hunt resulted in a significant loss of revenue for MNRF (formerly, just MNR) and it had a large and negative impact on the northern Ontario tourism industry, so they wanted it. For a while, none of that seemed to matter much, but in recent years several things happened that eventually made the politicians change their minds, and decide it was in their interest to bring back the SBH.

What changed the politicians’ minds were: 1) the continued deterioration of Ontario’s economic situation; 2) a nuisance bear problem in many northern Ontario communities that just won’t go away; 3) the decline of both moose and deer populations; and, 4) growing dissatisfaction with the party in power (in this case, the Liberals).

Let’s address these:

  1. Bringing back the SBH will pump, potentially, millions of dollars (and mostly US dollars) into MNRF, the tourism industry and the Ontario economy in general. That’s a good thing.
  2. I don’t think it will do much to address the nuisance bear problems, since there have always been nuisance bears (the nuisance bear problem might be reduced if bear populations get really whacked, but that might lead to an even bigger problem; see below). When there’s a food shortage (i.e., a failure of the blueberry crop), bears migrate to wherever the food is, like towns and cities, as lots of people have gardens and there’s almost always garbage somewhere. Removal of these bears by shooting and/or trapping/relocating bears in built-up areas will remain problematic. On the other hand, the government can claim they’re ‘doing the best/all we can’, positive from their perspective.
  3. Killing more bears (and wolves, which is also being ‘addressed’, see my Jan. 1 post ‘Missing the Mark’) might increase moose and deer calf and fawn survival to a small degree, but wildlife biologists believe the recent declines in moose and deer have lots of issues, including over-harvest, disease and parasites, weather (including climate change) and deteriorating habitat quality. Revenue to the MNRF from the sale of bear licenses, however, will help make up for at least some losses from the declining sale of moose and deer licenses (the MNRF budget is heavily dependent on license sales).
  4. How much bringing back the spring bear hunt helps the electoral prospects of the Liberals is debatable. It might make hunters happy, but may not translate into votes.

Personally, I think the return of the SBH is okay, maybe even a good thing, but I’m not entirely satisfied with the ‘new’ hunt for the following reasons:

  1. When the spring bear hunt was cancelled, the fall bear hunt was increased in length. It used to open (before the SBH was cancelled) September 10 over most of northern Ontario; after the SBH cancellation, the fall hunt opening was moved to August 15. With both a spring and fall hunt, the open season is now longer than it’s ever been in recent times. In addition to having to be concerned about camouflaged bear hunters in the blueberry patch in August (which many, including me, have never been too appreciative of), there’s the following point ‘2’;
  2. There’s still no quota on the bear harvest. Although the current harvest is well below what is believed to be sustainable, the number of bear hunters that could flood in, especially from the USA, is virtually unlimited. The result could be a significant over-harvest in some areas. Where I live, that was a big issue in the years immediately before the cancellation of the SBH;
  3. Although you can’t shoot a mother bear in the spring if it’s accompanied by cubs (or the cubs themselves), most places don’t have the same restriction in the fall. However, cubs often spend the 1st winter with their mother. I have serious doubts that small bear cubs orphaned in August have much chance of survival (the data that says it’s OK to orphan cubs in the fall is skimpy); and
  4. While mandatory reporting of black bear harvest is in effect, Ontario has never laid charges with failing to fill out a mandatory hunt report. In governmentspeak, it will be  “a challenge” to keep harvest levels to what’s sustainable, based on available data, especially at the Wildlife Management Unit level.

How this all plays out, who’s to know? My biggest concern is that if there is a large influx of non-resident hunters and the bear population over the next 5 years gets hammered, there’s a good chance of a huge hue and cry and the SBH gets cancelled once again. Given the lightening speed of communication via social media – coupled with the fabulous currency exchange rate that favours American hunters – I believe the potential for an onslaught of bear hunters is very real.

antelope-1

These days you hear and read a lot about how government departments, agencies and other businesses are making decisions that are based on science. They call it ‘science, or evidence-based’ decision making. Like most of what you see or hear, there’s a kernel of truth there, but often not much more than that.

Since this is a blog about wildlife, I’m going to limit my comments to that subject. But if you think about what’s going all around you with respect to social, economic and other matters, I’m sure you’ll come to the same conclusion. In other words, a lot of talk, but not much walk.

Back to wildlife. . . I’d like to see the science behind a ruffed grouse daily limit of 5, possession limit of 15 . . . because there is none. Studies done decades ago that concluded hunting has little impact on grouse numbers have long been debunked. Hunting does have an impact, especially where the landscape is highly fragmented, hunting pressure is on the high side, and predators abound – like much of southern Ontario. Ruffed grouse numbers across a large swath of the south of this province have been poor for years, but daily bag and possession limits are the same everywhere, and seasons are long (interestingly, they’re the longest in the south! I guess the philosophy is there are so few grouse and the birds are so wily, you need a lot of time to chase after them, especially to have the hope of bagging enough for a hearty meal).

If we go to the opposite end of the spectrum (biomass wise) you get a moose season (again, in Ontario) that has virtually unlimited calf hunting (everyone who buys a moose licence can hunt and kill a calf, although the magnitude of this problem was sort of recognized and the length of the wide open calf moose hunt changed last year. Now, the wide open moose calf season is only two weeks in duration across the core of the moose range, as opposed to the 11 weeks it used to be). But cow moose, even if they accompanied by a calf, can still be hunted during the ‘general’ moose season. Here’s an instance where the science has shown that orphaned calf moose have little chance of survival in areas where wolves are common (and wolves are common over almost the entire moose range in Ontario), yet the science is given short shrift. It’s no way to address declining moose populations.

So instead of really getting at the heart of the issue (i.e., reducing or eliminating the harvest of cows and calves where moose populations are severely depressed, and not letting bulls be killed prior to the rut – which is also going on), the management solution that’s set to be implemented is to ease up on wolf hunting restrictions, hoping a higher wolf harvest will lead to fewer wolves, less predation, and therefore more moose. That might work, but again, the scientific evidence that it will, is darn skimpy. Working against the plan is the fact that in the past, when wolves in Ontario could be hunted with no limit (under the new proposal, the season limit will be two wolves) and people were allowed to pursue them and shoot them from airplanes, wolf numbers in Ontario remained robust. And killing lots of wolves to provide more moose for hunters isn’t exactly something that a large portion of society views favourably.

There are lots of other examples of wildlife being managed despite what the scientific evidence suggests is the prudent course; enough, I’m certain, to fill a large book.

But instead, let’s just look at one more.

It’s as close to irrefutable as I can imagine that unregulated hunting – anywhere – can lead to serious declines in populations of wildlife. Occasionally, as in the case of the great auk and arguably the passenger pigeon, hunter harvest was the primary cause of their extinction. Other species in North America, including elk, antelope, bison and wild turkey, were almost hunted to extinction, but survived. Fortunately, herculean efforts by dedicated conservationists prevented these and other animals from going extinct and restoration efforts – including highly regulated hunting – have seen populations rebound dramatically.

But over large swaths of Canada, the magnitude of unregulated hunting is now rapidly expanding and wildlife is once again under the gun. It’s a huge threat to wildlife and it’s happening despite evidence provided by science; the issue is being ignored in favour of narrow, legalistic, guilt-ridden social concerns. What I’m talking about, of course, are rights-based hunting privileges.

In most of Canada, based on the Supreme Court of Canada’s interpretation of Treaty, Aboriginal and Métis Rights, as enshrined by Canada’s constitution (which came into effect in 1982), Aboriginal and Métis people can hunt (and do a bunch of other things ordinary Canadians can’t do) with little or no regard to provincial or federal regulations. Yes, there are some restrictions (for example, the geographic area where ‘impunity’ applies may be restricted to a Treaty area, where Treaties have been signed), but by and large there are: no requirements to have a hunting license, no bag limits; no specific hunting seasons for the species in question; and, no need to follow a number of other regulations that apply to the general hunting public (for example, in Ontario only licensed big game hunters need to wear specific types of clothing, i.e., hunter orange; and, only licensed hunters can’t night hunt).

In essence, these ‘rights-based’ individuals are outside the law and their activities (in this case, hunting), can’t be managed or regulated by the provincial and/or the federal authorities charged with managing wildlife on a sustainable basis. In theory, Aboriginal and Métis people can manage themselves, but there are, for the most part, no legal mechanisms in place to ensure that happens and also nothing to enforce compliance. Besides, many or even most people and communities with these rights don’t want or think there is any need for restraint. Given that all hunters, whether licensed or rights-based, have access to all the modern marvels of technology (e.g., 4X4s, ATVs, GPS, 10 million power candlelight spotlights, etc.), it’s easy to see there needs to be regulations that limit the hunter kill.

It’s a large and growing problem with no solution in sight. The likely outcome, I think, is that many populations of wildlife will be hunted down to low levels, like they were by European colonialists, before everyone ‘wakes up’ and realizes a regulatory framework for all people, regardless of their race, needs to be in place if wildlife is to survive and thrive.

It’s interesting how history repeats itself. It’s also interesting how people who profess to be committed to science/evidence based decision making can so easily turn a blind eye to reality when the fog of being politically correct consumes the soul.

M0017401

pic: a flying squirrel

One of the more popular and interesting (for a number of reasons) developments in wildlife world in recent years are trail cameras; cameras that can be left out in the woods and take pictures of whatever comes by. These cameras are not only really popular with hunters; wildlife managers and researchers like them too. They’re also used by those who are simply curious as to what lives in the fields and woods near them. Finally, trail cams are very useful for security purposes.

We (I and fellow volunteers) use them to aid in monitoring of an elk herd we introduced to the area in 2000 and 2001. The elk have had their share of problems – especially poaching and predation by wolves – but the animals have hung on and are holding their own. The really bad winter of 2013-14 set things back some, but last winter and this winter have been more moderate and should help the herd get back on track and resume growing.

During the summer, we usually change the cards once a month in each of the seven critter cams we have (we don’t put them out in fall or winter; again, for a variety of reasons). It’s astounding what gets recorded. Sometimes there are in excess of 10,000 images – from a single card – to sort through. Granted, there are lots and lots of images of nothing more than leaves waving in the wind, but we’ve recorded images of the majority of species one would expect to see. Photos of elk (including huge bulls engaged in great fights), deer, moose, bear, and wolves abound, but we’ve also got pics of grouse, flying squirrels, mice and voles, lynx, hares, foxes and a whole lot more. No cougars, though.

My spouse and I also use trail cams on our property (232 acres of mostly woods) to monitor the wildlife, particularly to spy on the deer. Every year the trail cam sees deer we never see with our eyeballs.

Still, I have to admit I have mixed feelings about trail cams, especially their widespread use by hunters. Trail cams let hunters know what’s out there as well as the habits of their quarry. Some trail cams even have Wi-Fi capability, so in some locales, hunters can live-stream what’s happening to the internet, or have it rigged so that when an image is taken, it pops up on one’s computer instantly. Hunters use that information to then set-up ambushes knowing they are in the right place, and also know the best times to watch.  Often bait is used to further the advantage in favour of the hunter (some jurisdictions have restrictions on baiting, but in Ontario, only waterfowl and turkeys presently have baiting restrictions).

In the past, it took a great deal of time and effort to hone the skills required if one wanted to be a good hunter and woodsman (which includes women!). Of course, it still takes skill to master the intricacies of technology, but being a good techie doesn’t equate in my mind with being what I think a hunter is or should be. I sometimes think using all this technology to aid in the hunt just isn’t ethical.

Maybe I’m just an old fart with old ideas the world no longer has much a use for. I’m OK with that – my main worry is the animals we share the planet with. There is no way they can evolve fast enough to keep up with the technological changes going on. It seems legislation is also having a hard time staying on top of constantly changing technologies.

I suppose given all the issues facing wildlife and wildlife management, trail cameras are probably only a minor worry. And I have to admit, using trail cams sure is a lot of fun.

elk-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s a good thing.