Archive

weather/climate

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.

Advertisements

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.

 

A couple of postings back (https://wildlifeperspectives.wordpress.com/2019/01/28/its-piling-up/), I wrote that the snow was beginning to pile up. After that post, it really piled up!

In Kenora, February has so far been the snowiest month of the 2018-19 winter, with a whopping 70.8 cm of the white stuff hitting the ground. Kenora’s normal snowfall for February is 18.6 cm, which means the snowfall for the month was 381% higher than normal.

Obviously, that’s unusual. Up until the end of January, it looked like it was going to be a relatively good winter for the local deer herd, with only about a 30% chance the winter would wind-up being classified as ‘severe’ (based on winter severity indices predictions used by provincial deer managers).

Of course, the only way it could become ‘severe’, was if it snowed a lot and the snow stayed on the ground. Well it did, and so far it has. If you had bet on the odds, you’d have lost.

The last day Kenora had that was above the freezing mark was January 4, when the temperature climbed to a miserly high of 10 C. No melting at all after that and none predicted until March 11, when the temperature is predicted to hit a high of zero.

Right now, the snow depth around my house in poplar stands (which is the kind of forest where snow stations are located to assess winter severity) is 60 cm or more; 50 cm is the threshold that most agree puts deer are in trouble. Fifty cm is about the height of a deer leg, which means more than 50 cm and deer are plowing snow with their chest, which is what I’ve been seeing.

There’s also a rule of thumb that says if you have 50 cm on the ground for 50 days, a lot of deer will perish and does that do survive, will have many stillborn fawns.

How long snow cover lingers will be critical for the deer. The weather forecasters are predicting a big change in weather patterns sometime after the middle of March – much milder temperatures – but if it keeps snowing, and it doesn’t have to snow a lot, there could easily still be snow on the ground into late April.

The deer I see around our house are staying under conifer cover when they can because the snow is not near as deep there. But, there’s not much food under the conifers, either.

In the City of Kenora, the deer are running around on the railway, cleared streets and sidewalks, looking for food, especially handouts. They’ve pretty much eaten all the available browse and what’s left is mostly inaccessible because of the deep snow. It’s illegal to feed deer within city limits – according to the bylaws – but lots of people are ignoring those laws and there is next to nothing being done by way of enforcement. I guess that’s good for the deer; if it weren’t for handouts, the city deer would more than likely be starving.

Deer are adaptable animals. Interestingly, I think these urban deer – a relatively new phenomenon in northwestern Ontario (although Sioux Narrows, about 100 km south of Kenora, has had an ‘urban’ deer population for many decades), will probably be what lets the deer herd recover in future years – at a much faster rate than otherwise would be expected. That’s if the near future sees a series of low-snow winters.

History would suggest there will be those less severe, low snow winters and that deer herds will recover.

On the other hand, deer were mostly absent from northwestern Ontario in the 1800’s. Since there’s no predicting the future – although everyone likes to do that – all we can really do is wait and see how the future actually unfolds.

One thing I can predict with near certainty is that the 2019 deer hunting season in the Kenora area will be rather unspectacular, at best.

I remain hopeful it won’t be a complete washout.

My brother sent me a photo of his woodpile – Jan. 26, 2019 – see his photo in the bottom line of photos. He lives on the French River, south of Sudbury. Lots of snow there, more on the way. The other photos are some I’ve taken over the years; bottom right shows a very poor condition deer after a long, cold snowy winter, same as the large photo in the top left.

With the recent spate of snow and cold, I looked at an article I wrote for Ontario Out of Doors magazine in late 2017 and decided to post it on my blog. So although it’s a year old, the information remains relevant. Given that snow this winter has come late, deer might still have a good go of getting through the winter, but, maybe not. Rule of thumb says 50 cm of snow on the ground for over 50 consecutive days, deer mortality from the rigors of winter spikes. Which means it all depends on how long winter lingers. Last winter, it lingered, and deer numbers in much of northern Ontario, especially in the north-west, where I live, took a hit. Again. Over the past 6 or 7 years, there have been several hits.

I don’t think this year in the north-west will be particularly hard on deer, but weather is only one factor, as wolves are licking up the remaining pockets of deer. Outside of Thunder Bay and the smaller cities – all of which now have urban deer herds – deer are not doing well. I don’t think deer will do well until we get another spruce budworm outbreak, which is still a few years off (see my posts on lichens for an explanation and the relationship between deer numbers and arboreal lichens in northern forests).

BTW, I grew up in Sudbury and there were very few deer there in my childhood. There still is not a lot. Most years, the Sudbury area gets a lot of snow. Lots of snow during most years does not make for a healthy herd of deer.

Hope you like the article.

Snow, the Silent Killer

Pat Karns, a respected and well-liked biologist stationed in Minnesota, years ago called winter ‘the Grim Reaper’. He made the case that cold, snowy winters are a primary driver behind deer population fluctuations in the northern forested areas of the USA and Canada. When it was cold and snowy and the winter long, deer might die in droves. Karns made those observations decades ago, but it’s still true today. Deer – and other birds and animals – have evolved to cope with cold and snow, but a severe winter will have consequences. While there are management options available to help wildlife populations get through winter, there’s only so much that can be done. Snow can be a deadly killer, and Ontario gets snow. Some years, Ontario gets a lot of snow.

Wildlife managers in provinces and states where snow and cold are prominent aspects of the weather calculate estimates of winter severity, including input to models used to manage the deer harvest. For example, winter severity is included in the annual calculation of the number of antlerless deer tags and additional seals issued.

Scientists, biologists and other researchers have a long history of looking at the effects of winter on wildlife. Americans like Louis Verm and John Ozoga were winter and snow severity pioneers, but Ontarians like Robin Hepburn and Dennis Voight were also instrumental in devising methods that gave us winter severity indices that agencies like the MNRF use to assess winters impact. Dependent upon the system used, deer managers generally categorize winters as mild, moderate or severe. Sometimes very bad winters are called ‘extreme’.

Whatever system is used, the value generated to categorize winter severity is typically a combination of snow, temperature and time. In Ontario, the system commonly used is called the Snow Depth Index (SDI). To calculate SDI, a snow course – a forested site where snow depth is measured in cm at 10 stations over the duration of the winter – must be maintained. An SDI is obtained from each snow course from the weekly, average, snow depth measurement; the over-winter SDI is the cumulative total of the weekly average snow depth readings.

Ontario has maintained snow courses since 1952. In most years, dozens of snow courses are run, mostly across the deer range of northern and southern Ontario.

To assess winter severity, MNRF usually looks at a number of snow courses in a particular area. When averaged together, a value of <590 is indicative of a mild winter; 591-760 is moderate and >760 is severe. Severity can vary across the province.

Once a winter has been categorized, values pertaining to recruitment and mortality can be estimated. In Ontario, SDI suggests >40% of the fawns would be lost at birth following a severe winter.

During a severe winter, deer can also die of starvation, exhaustion or succumb to high levels of predation and might result in a loss of ½ the herd. A series of severe winters can reduce deer numbers by as much as 80%.

Mark Ryckman, Senior Wildlife Biologist with OFAH, said “Parts of Ontario experienced back-to-back severe winters beginning in December 2013. We’re just now starting to see deer populations bounce back.”

Other winter severity indices that have been used in Ontario include the Passmore Snow Severity Index and the Ontario Winter Severity Index. In the Great Lake States region, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota each use unique, but similar winter severity indices; all indices are based on field measurements of snow and temperature over time.

SDI is a simple yet effective way to measure winter severity despite the fact it doesn’t measure snow crusting (and whether deer can walk on or break through it) or use any measures of temperature or wind. These factors can be of note – it’s obvious deer will benefit by  walking on snow rather than breaking through or wading through it to get to food – and a pleasant winter day of mild temperatures, sun and no wind is no doubt preferable to overcast, cold and windy weather; all factors some other indices incorporate.

The reason SDi is so effective is that while it focuses on snow, it indirectly is incorporates other factors. For one, if there’s not much snow on the ground, cold isn’t a big factor, as deer can easily access food. If there is a lot of snow, but it doesn’t cover the ground for months on end, most deer – and their unborn fawns – can survive. But for lots of snow to stick around, there needs to be extended periods of cold (that keeps snow from melting) and extended snow cover keeps deer off their best foods (generally small plants in fields and on the forest floor), with or without a crust. So the bottom line is that a long period of more or less continuous snow cover is indicative the winter was long, cold and snowy.

SDI provides information that’s invaluable to Ontario’s deer managers, but it can also be used to assess the impacts of winter on other species, including moose and turkeys.  Although moose are huge, they do run into trouble when snow depths of around 100 cm exist for several weeks, which isn’t that unusual in the vicinity of the Clay Belt and other areas north of Lake Superior. In the south, turkeys kept from foraging in open fields or the forest floor for long periods because of continuous snow cover can experience high levels of mortality.

Snow. It really is the silent killer.

Most fires burn the forest in a patchy manner. New growth sprouts quickly after a fire; species like moose fare well in the aftermath of fire. Kenora District is in Northwestern Ontario, a place where fires are omnipresent.

It’s September and nearing the end of what’s been a hot summer in much of the northern hemisphere. A hot summer, with lots of fires, almost everywhere. Because of climate change, the prediction is that the future will bring more of the same. Talking about climate change, at least here in Canada, seems to always be top of mind.

Most of the mainstream reporting on how to prevent a future of more fires appears to be concentrating on fighting climate change. I have seen a few reports suggesting we need to do a better job of planning and prevention, but such reporting is the exception, not the norm.

However, the way I see it, addressing fire management by trying to change the climate is largely a waste of effort, time and money.

We know there’s always been fire and there always will be fire. And everyone agrees that fire is a major force that needs to be reckoned with. But figuratively and literally, we can’t put out every fire.

With respect to wildfires, what I think we need to do is a much better job of integrating fire into land management actions; not an easy task, as everyone is afraid of fire, for very good reasons. I live in the woods so I’m well aware of the fire danger.

Regardless, it’s too bad in all the attention the fires have been getting there’s been very little information on how the fires will change the landscape in their aftermath, or on trying to explain the role of fire in ecosystems. Some of the recent wildfires that I’ve cursorily examined here in Ontario will very likely quickly improve habitat conditions for big game like moose and elk; the impacts on caribou, a species at risk, are more difficult to assess. But in the long run, fire is also good for caribou.

In British Columbia, I suspect some of the fires are burning through beetle infested forests – which could also be forests with tremendous potential to grow big game – but those are items I’m not hearing much about. The reporting is all about the extent of the fires, how much they are costing and the dangers to humans and our structures. And, how it’s all related to climate change.

One message that gets the short-shrift is that most of the areas where these fires are burning – again, almost everywhere in the world – are fire-dominated ecosystems. For example, boreal forests across much of Canada are typified by trees like jack pine, black spruce and aspen. These tree species dominate the boreal forest landscape because their rejuvenation depends on fires. The boreal forest is always burning up. If it ever stopped burning, it would soon begin to look very, very different.

Regardless of what we do we are going to continue to see wildfires; some years will be more an inferno than others.  Despite the fear and real dangers fires present, fire is actually a good thing; if fires were eliminated from the landscape, the environmental impacts could be great.

Fires renew the forest (many trees and shrubs regenerate best in the aftermath of fire) and many species of wildlife depend on young forests for their survival. Eliminating fire would risk putting many species in danger of extinction. Fires also help cleanse the landscape of disease and pestilence (ticks and pine beetle come to mind, but there’s a lot more).

Anyway, it’s impossible to eliminate all fires. And to repeat, it’s not even desirable.

What we can, and should do, is do a better job of managing for fires – growing fire-resistant forests adjacent to towns and cities would be a good start.

Just blaming climate change is…stupid.

The fawn flees for its life; days later, re-united.

The wolf situation continues to vex me.

Looking back, the general consensus is that white-tailed deer populations peaked in this area in or about 2007. They didn’t crash that year – the crash came a few years later, about 2014.

Regardless, since 2007, the numbers of deer have come down a lot.

There are still deer around. Some pockets with reasonably robust numbers can still be found. But there are large acreages where deer are gone where they were once abundant. Whether you’re out on the land, out on a ride, or hunting, you don’t see deer like you used to.

The numbers on our property are not particularly robust. Part of the issue is the fact that there seems to be as many wolves hunting our land as there were in 2007, when deer seemed to be as abundant as a plague of mice.

To wit; the other morning, Lil came into the house saying something big was splashing about in the waters of the beaver pond to the left of the house.

Looking out from off the deck to look for the sounds of the splashings, a fawn soon appeared, swimming frantically.

We suspected it was fleeing for its life, being chased by wolves. We’d seen that scene before.

We watched the small spotted deer swim the length of the pond, then scramble out the far end and race into the cover on the edge of a field. We didn’t see any wolves.

We had a small task to do outside, which took only a couple of minutes. On a hunch, I walked down our laneway to the field, to see if the deer, or the wolves, or whatever, might be there.

Still in the laneway, I stopped near a small building and looked over the field. Nothing. I scanned the length and breadth of the small field again (it’s only about 3 acres) when suddenly, right there in front of me, right in the open, were two timber wolves. It was if they had materialized out of thin air; regardless, there they were. They were big and they were thirty yards in front of me.

I raised both my hands, which caught their attention and then yelled at them to “Go on, get out of here!” Which, quite promptly, they did. In an instant, they were gone.

There was no sign of the fawn.

Over the next couple of days, from the house, I watched a doe, a couple of times, move slowly along an edge of the pond, feeding, standing, looking around, all alone. I also saw, briefly, a pair of young does, but no evidence of a fawn. We feared the worst.

Then on the 4th morning after the fawn swimming, wolf encounter drama, a doe and fawn showed up on the far side of the pond, on a smooth rock opening across from where we watched the fawn during her escape run. We’re pretty sure it was the same fawn, as all spring and summer we had seen only a single fawn anywhere near the house. The fawn had always been near the pond, on the west half of the pond, which is where the doe and fawn were. The pair stayed close together for well over an hour; perhaps they were re-bonding after the recent close encounter of the worst kind – the doe spent a lot of time licking and grooming the fawn.

The literature is quite clear that on northern ranges, where the main deer predator is the timber wolf, high deer numbers only occur when good habitat and mild winters occur simultaneously over a period of several years (e.g 10+). However, high deer abundance cannot be sustained over the long-term; eventually the population crashes, usually in the aftermath of the return of a series of severe winters and deteriorating habitat quality. The rapid decline, or crash, is abetted by heavy levels of wolf predation.

Wolf predation continues to depress the deer population and can be quite effective at preventing its recovery. The deer herd can dwindle to become next to nothing; if there is nothing else to eat (i.e., no moose or elk or caribou) wolf numbers too, will inevitably crash.

How long that scenario plays out can vary, but may take several years. For deer to make a meaningful recovery wolf numbers need to go down and environmental conditions need to improve. Where I live, neither of these have to date occurred (the winters since 2014 have mostly been categorized as moderate to severe by natural resource officials). In addition, there are few moose, deer or caribou in the area, so the wolves are definitely running out of things to eat.

Perhaps they are eating bears, which is a distinct possibility.

Until the last 15 years or so, I’d go years between wolf sightings. Now, I seldom go a month without seeing a wolf, or wolves.

I don’t hate wolves and as a retired wildlife biologist I understand wolves are important in the maintenance of healthy ecosystems.

But in some areas, at times, there can be too many wolves.

I think we need more honest discussion on how to do a better job of managing wolves. For one, I think many of the present policies and legislation that pertain to how wolves are to be managed need improvements.

At this point in time, fewer wolves in the region where I live and play would, I believe, be a good thing. But any suggestion that perhaps we should be actively managing for fewer wolves (or bears) is met by an attitude by many that borders on derision.

Fewer wolves (and bears) now would lead to more deer and moose and would also benefit the wolves themselves. Right now, there seems to me to be a serious imbalance between predator and prey, a situation that simply can’t last. But who knows?

Like Yogi Berra might have said, ‘it’s hard to predict the future, because it hasn’t happened yet’.

Different species avoid bad weather – winter – in different ways.

It’s easy to see why the global warming issue is so big. It’s all about the weather, and every last one of us is affected by the weather.  Despite hopes, beliefs and hard effort to control the weather, the best way to minimize harm that might come to you because of bad weather is to use protection: a rain coat as opposed to a rain dance.

Our obsession with the weather goes back a long way; for example, there is a lot of talk of weather – and controlling it – in the Bible. While I haven’t done an extensive check, I’m sure weather plays a big part in all religions and cultures. Simply put, we are weather dependents and, using again a quote from a country song, “It’s always been that way.”

In Canada, winter weather is usually the worst.  The majority of birds in this country migrate south, en-masse, to avoid winter weather. Some animals also move to areas with better winter conditions, but many others have evolved to find a good spot to lie down and go to sleep for the winter. They only wake up when the weather improves. The rest have to face winter weather head-on and find a way to cope with the cold and snow and the storms.  It’s a tough go to try and survive a winter when, for months on end, the food supply never increases, only dwindles; temperatures are constantly below freezing and everything is covered with snow.

Because of the significant impacts winter weather has on wildlife, wildlifers use a variety of techniques, including indices, to assess the impact of winter on particular types of wildlife. In states and provinces where winters regularly decimate white-tailed deer populations, winter severity indexes were developed that generate numbers that are used to categorize the severity of a winter and provide estimates as to the number of deer that likely perished over-winter. The categories are generally “Mild, Moderate and Severe”; the higher the number, the more severe the winter.

The winter that just passed in the area where I live, was long, windy, cold and snowy.  The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, which has as one of its responsibilities the management of deer, categorized the winter as “Severe” in the district where I live. There’s no doubt it was a hard winter on the local herds of white-tailed deer.

Still, some deer survived. I’ve seen a few around.

A few years ago, deer were common, sometimes abundant, hundreds of kilometers north of where they’re common today. But a series of hard winters, and some other factors, pretty much rubbed them out. I recently authored a paper with a colleague that showed how deer (and moose) populations have fluctuated in this area over the past many decades; we concluded that landscape level perturbations (e.g., fire) are the main reasons these populations fluctuate wildly over time; and of course, much of these perturbations and related events are weather related. You can read the paper here: http://alcesjournal.org/index.php/alces/article/view/227

Animals cope with the elements by living in habitats that provide them with the essentials of life, namely food and cover. If you are in the business of wildlife management in North America, part of the job is likely addressing habitat management issues. There’s still a strong belief by biologists that habitat is often, if not usually, the key factor affecting the survival of a species. If habitat is suitable, and there’s enough of it, most animal populations should do okay. Habitat isn’t easy to describe, and it’s used differently by different animals.

A feature of good habitat is the ability to provide relief from the weather. Deer often congregate in specific areas, usually called a ‘yard’, where both food and cover are available.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, effort and money that could be spent on trying to do a good job of wildlife habitat management is, I think, being spent on trying to manage the weather. It’s a real flip-flop, and not without consequences. Spending billions on trying to manage the weather (e.g., climate change) is increasingly being viewed with much scepticism. Some say it’s environmentalism. I think it’s mostly virtue signaling – spending lots of money being ‘green’, without much in the way of actual, tangible results.

Personally, I can think better ways to spend money on conservation of wildlife than squandering millions (billions?) on windmills that are notorious bird and bat killers and don’t really make a dent in reducing CO2 emissions.

However, priorities do differ amongst jurisdictions and on-the-ground habitat management programs do exist in some places. In some – the state of Michigan comes to mind – they can be surprisingly robust. Elsewhere they may be close to non-existent. If sound habitat management programs aren’t in place and funded in the area where you live, there’s a good chance many species of wildlife near you are floundering.

Habitat management is not the be-all and end all when it comes to looking after wildlife, but there’s little doubt good habitat, and habitat management policies, is a whole lot better than poor habitat and a focus on reducing our ‘carbon footprint ’.

I’ll be addressing habitat issues a bit more thoroughly in future postings.