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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.

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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.

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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.