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.