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Wildlife

turkey-121

Today I applied for a spring turkey hunting license in Michigan. Not sure how this will pan out, as there is still much to do before the hunt, if I do get to go.

Let’s look at the list: need to get drawn (apparently, the odds are good); need to renew my passport; need to fill out some forms to transport a firearm into the USA; and, I need to see if there are restrictions this year as to whether I can actually bring a turkey back into Canada from the states. Last year, a few friends hunted in the mid-west, were successful, but were not allowed to cross the border back into Canada with their birds. The problem was an outbreak of avian flu in the states – another wildlife health and disease issue. Anyway, it’s something I need to delve into and find out what the score is. No sense spending all that time and effort to travel and hunt and not be allowed to bring back a tasty bird (if I’m fortunate enough to harvest one!). On the other hand, I’ll have a chance to meet up with some old friends I haven’t seen in a while.

If I can’t harvest a bird that I can bring home from Michigan, I can still hunt in Ontario. Maybe I can do both, as the area I’m looking at going in Michigan isn’t far from Sault Ste. Marie, where there’s a healthy wild turkey population to the east, and a hunt on nearby St. Joseph’s Island. I’ll have to see how events unfold . . .

I really enjoy turkey hunting, but I find it somewhat distressing that a disease issue is once again a factor as to whether I can harvest, transport and consume my (potential) catch.

On my last post, I discussed chronic wasting disease and the fact there was a little bit of good news on that front. Not much, but a little. Despite the bad news about avian flu, most of the wild turkey story is good news. Growing up, there were no turkeys in Ontario; they were extirpated in the 1800’s. Today, turkey numbers in the province (progeny of wild birds captured from neighboring jurisdictions and then live released) are closing in on a 100,000.

There could be more. In northwestern Ontario, I think wild turkeys would do well in the agricultural areas around Fort Frances and Rainy River. After all, there are wild turkeys in parts of adjacent Manitoba, where the weather is similar, if not a bit more harsh. The problem is the government in Ontario, or at least some individuals, believe that because northwestern Ontario is outside the known, historical range of turkey, wild turkeys don’t belong. It’s a consideration which can make sense (one doesn’t want introductions of wildlife made willy nilly), but it’s not as if wild turkeys are exotic to North America.

What seems to have gotten the short shrift in this line of thinking is the fact that the agricultural lands of northwestern Ontario today bear little resemblance to what the landscape – and its associated faunal assemblage – looked like prior to European colonization. And outside of some sort of apocalyptic, catastrophic event(s), there’s no going back to the way it was. That’s nothing but a pipe dream, adhered to only by a small and radical fringe of extreme environmentalists.

However, it is what it is and with no close by Ontario turkeys, turkey hunting for me, at least for the foreseeable future, means going on a considerable hike.

All in all, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just could be better.

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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.

 

 

fox-1

On the way home from a fishing trip the other day (one splake), Lil and I spied a cross fox in a field beside the road. The fox was quite cooperative, and let me stop the truck, get my camera out of the bag and take several shots. It looked like it was intent on a mouse, or more likely, a vole, but no luck (although good luck for the vole). Eventually, the fox wandered off.

A cross fox is simply a colour phase of the red fox. Across the range of the red fox different colour phases are often seen, but in this area, the common and classic bright orange red fox is actually quite rare. Most of the foxes here are crosses. They are called cross foxes because they have a blackish cross on their back, across their shoulders.

We also have a fair number of black foxes around. They aren’t completely black, as they still have the white tip on the tail, and much of the fur is silver-tipped, similar to the black fur on this cross fox.

There were a number of fox farms in this region in the middle of the last century, which I’ve been told accounts for the colour phases that continue to be prominent if not dominant in the local population. Ranch furs were selectively bred to provide colour variety, but there were escapes and I suspect that when the fur farms started to go out of business, many foxes were simply released and their genes continue to persist.

Today, wild fox are trapped across much of their range, but their fur value in this area is rather low (particularly the cross-foxes, as colours are hard to match as they vary quite a bit in the amounts of red and black fur they sport). In addition, fox are much harder to trap then more valuable furs like marten, mink and fisher, are not the easiest animal to skin and often have mange, which further reduces the value of their pelt.

Fox can also be hunted on a small game license, but hunting effort here is minimal.

Fox are great mousers (which includes voles) but will also take grouse and hare and other small birds and animals. They also do a fair amount of scavenging on wolf kill, whom they sometimes follow; at a safe distance, of course.

Bottom line – foxes are common in this area, as they are in most places. Even though, sightings are usually fleeting, and so I’m pleased this one decided to buck the trend and let me capture his image.

 

Silver-1

First: Happy New Year!  Now, back to business . . .

Ontario is proposing changes to how wolves are to be hunted, beginning in 2017. In my opinion, they’ve missed the mark.

The changes being proposed can be found on the Environmental Board Registry (EBR) – here’s the link:

http://www.ebr.gov.on.ca/ERS-WEB-External/displaynoticecontent.do?noticeId=MTI2OTQz&statusId=MTkxNjc2&language=en

The purpose of the posting is to inform the public of the proposed changes (a requirement) and provide the public with the opportunity to comment on the proposed changes. Comments can be received up to and including January 18, 2016.

Feel free to comment. However, I should tell you that based on my experience working for this Ministry (actually, when I worked there it was called the Ministry of Natural Resources; now it’s the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry), changes suggested and posted to the EBR by the public very, very seldom result in any alterations to MNRF’s original proposals. Bureaucrats and the government itself think it’s a sign of weakness and/or incompetence if changes are made once they have been vetted to the point where they appear on the EBR.

I don’t think much of the changes being proposed.

Briefly, here’s a summary of the prosed changes:

  • the present requirement to purchase a wolf seal to hunt wolves under the authority of a small game license will be repealed, and all that will be required to hunt wolves will be the small game license itself; and
  • the yearly limit will remain at two wolves, but wolves and coyotes will be separated (that’s a good thing) and there will be no limit on the number of coyotes a hunter can harvest.

It will still be mandatory to report your wolf harvest, but seeing as mandatory reporting is not enforced (I’ve been told there has never been a charge laid in Ontario wrt failing to provide a mandatory hunt report, which are required for bear, turkey, wolf and in some instances, moose and deer), that requirement remains toothless.

It’s not clear to me whether the changes apply to non-residents of Ontario as well as residents. It’s a big deal if it applies to non-residents, since in 2015 a non-resident wolf tag cost $272.41 (similar to residents, two tags can be purchased), in addition to the $120.93 non-resident small game licence also required. By comparison, a resident wolf tag costs $11.14; the small game licence $25.15, so savings to residents are quite small. I’ll confirm whether or not non-residents are included in the change as soon as I find out myself. If it does apply to non-residents, it certainly makes wolf hunting much cheaper, potentially much more attractive, but may also reduce revenue by a substantial amount (a concern as MNRF’s budget plows all the $$ from the sale of fish and wildlife licences back into the MNRF).

According to Yolanta Kowalski, MNRF media spokesperson, the change will apply to both residents and non-residents (i.e., no one will have to buy a wolf tag, just the small game license). According to one line of thinking, this might actually increase revenue for the MNRF; apparently, lots of non-residents would like to hunt wolves, but were taken aback at the cost of the wolf tag on top of the small game license, so elected to purchase neither. Time will tell which way this goes . . . 

The changes proposed are mostly to try and increase the wolf harvest in response to declining moose populations. That will certainly raise the ire for those who like wolves, and aren’t strongly pro-hunting.

Rather than the changes proposed, I’d like to see wolves managed under the auspices of a stand-alone wolf licence and for tags to be continued to issued, rather than having wolves lumped in with ‘small game’ and a simple season limit. Managing wolves using the proposed system will make it much more difficult to estimate hunting effort and wolf harvest, since everyone who buys a small game license will be allowed to shoot wolves (the mandatory reporting requirement means that if you shoot a wolf, you have to report it; MNRF is counting on hunter cooperation, but that’s a stretch). In addition, there has been no sampling or reporting of small game hunting for years in Ontario, so how many of those small game hunters actually put some effort into wolf hunting will be a mystery.

The other stupidity of not having a stand-alone wolf license is that one can’t hunt wolves with a small game license with a high-powered rifle, muzzleloader or shotgun loaded with slugs or large numbered shot when there is an open season for deer, moose, elk or black bear (all classed as ‘big game’ and managed by species specific hunting licences), unless one possess a valid hunting licence for one of those big game species.

So if you are moose hunting and successfully fill your tag(s), (say on day 1 of a week-long hunt), you can’t shoot any wolves (because your licence(s) is/are no longer valid), even though the stated purpose of the regulatory change is to have more wolves shot to help out the declining moose population! At least not unless you have another valid big game license, or wait for all the big game seasons to close.

Given that wolves are an apex predator (meaning they are on the top of the food chain, killing and eating big game for survival ), it makes no sense to manage them as ‘small game’.

Poor policies result in poor management. It’s that simple.

BTW, I took the wolf photo just the other day when I was trying to photograph some otters. The wolf walked by within a 100 meters of me, and I was only about 30 m from Lil’s mom’s front doorstep.

pondwolf-1

Seeing as the wolves were continuing to visit our house almost daily, making it impossible to let the dogs out for even a minute without close supervision, we decided it was time to do something to ease the tension.

It was time to do a wolf hunt.

So we went out on the pond in front of the house and froze some bait into the ice, including a moose foot, a deer hide and some marten carcasses.

The next morning, the moose foot was gone as were several of the marten carcasses. The night had been mild, and the moose foot and a few of the marten didn’t have a chance to freeze solidly into the ice before the wolves scarfed them up. But the deer hide was still there, as were some of the marten.

I decided to keep a close eye out and by late afternoon that same day I had made sure not to venture outside for a couple of hours, had kept the noise level in the house low and hadn’t turned on any lights. Around 4:30 pm, I got up off the couch, and looked out on the pond.

Two wolves, tugging at the deer hide.

It took a couple of minutes to get everything organized and to sneak out on the deck. I took aim at the largest wolf and shot. I could tell I hit it, but didn’t wait around to see if it would fall over. Instead I quickly racked in another round and shot again. With the second shot, the wolf went down instantly, for good. The other one ran off to the right – it was safe, as I had only one wolf tag.

The one I shot was a big male timber wolf, over 7 feet long from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail, and my brother-in-law, to whom I gave it (he’s a trapper), estimated it to be over 100 pounds. It had a bit of mange under the armpits and some wear between it’s shoulders, but  otherwise the fur was reasonably good. We didn’t see any ticks, or any evidence of injuries. The colour was typical gray.

There were wolf tracks on the pond and in the field in the days that followed, but nothing now for a couple of days. Perhaps the other was trying to figure out what happened to it’s mate, or partner. I’m hoping this event has made it and the other wolves in the neighborhood more wary of our house, as in it’s not a safe place to hang out.

Eight deer did show up the other morning, more than I’d seen all year. I’m sure it was my imagination, but they seemed relaxed and happy.

As I have said before, I  like wolves, but I don’t like it when they start to be too brazen. And I love my dogs. A few people I know have been out walking their dogs and had a wolf attack their pet. Several more simply ‘lost’ their dog during the night. I do not want to have that happen to us.

I will buy another wolf tag for 2016. For the rest of 2015, the wolves are safe – at least from me.

otter-1

This time of year, there isn’t a lot of wildlife to see and photograph. So when Lil said there were several eagles and otters showing up every day in the open channel in front of her mum’s place, it didn’t take me long to decide to make the drive, have a visit, and tote along my camera gear. I’m glad I did.

When I arrived, there was nothing to be seen, but when Lil started to think about preparing lunch, eagles started to fly in, followed shortly by a pod of otters. A number of eagles showed up, mostly adults but one juvenile as well , and five otters.

I first tried shooting from the house, but the floor was constantly shaking (people moving and the fridge running) and even with a tripod and a lens with vibration reduction, I had a hard time getting tack sharp photos.

So I went down into the basement and out the door, and had much better luck, although some of the eagles took off and that was a bit of a bummer.

But the otters, especially two of them, were very cooperative.

I didn’t get any photos of them eating. Lil said that on a couple of occasions on previous days, they had been chowing down on clams, and once or twice I did see one of the otters chewing on something. They might also have been after fish, which could be what attracts the eagles, although this time they didn’t do any fishing as far as I could tell.

The eagles and otters for the most part stayed out of each others ways, although one day Lil said they had been chasing one another. I would have loved to have seen that!

I have been seeing a lot of otter sign while out hunting,  so I would have to say the otter population is doing well here. They are usually associated with water, but especially in winter, they often travel long distances over land.

Otters are trapped for their fur, but Ontario’s registered trapline system, whereby trappers are restricted to a specified geography (so it’s not a free-for-all), encourages trappers to manage their trapping area on a sustainable basis. There are also seasons, and limits can be imposed by the government. For a variety of reasons, trappers here don’t pursue otters with the effort they put out for other species, particularly marten.

While otters have from 1-4 pups a year, these weren’t necessarily a family group, as otters like each others company.

I hope the otters stick around. They’re nice to see and fun to watch.

note: I saw later I forgot to turn on the main switch for vibration reduction (VR). The lens has two VR switches, whereas the lens I had been using all fall ( a smaller, lighter, but less powerful telephoto) has only one switch. Oh well, I still got some great photos.

tinybuck-1

The deer season (and moose, for that matter) locally closes here on Dec. 15th. As I’ve been saying, I’m not likely going to shoot a deer, but I have been hunting with friends, who would very much like to fill a tag, as they don’t have any moose or venison in the freezer. For them, time is running out.

We haven’t been seeing much, and most of the deer we have seen have been what we first assumed to be does and fawns. But are they?

This year, I’ve seen some of the smallest antlered yearling bucks I’ve ever come across in my life. I had heard and read of very small antlered deer, but usually ‘button bucks’ are fawns with nubs that have not broken through skin. These deer, though, have tiny, polished, hard antlers. And I do mean tiny. The photo says it all (taken in our yard). At a distance, one would never guess such deer were bucks.

I’m almost positive this is a yearling buck because in August, I saw a yearling buck (it wasn’t a fawn – it had no spots) with what I believed to be its sibling sister in our front yard. It had tiny antlers; they were still in velvet and I recall thinking that they would have to do a lot of late season growing to be even on the small side of what most yearling bucks in this area sport. Seems they didn’t grow.

This isn’t the only deer I’ve seen or heard of with tiny little antlers this year, although the others are not quite as minuscule as the one in the photo. I saw and photographed one in town the other day that might have had an inch of antler on each side, and a good friend told me today he has one hanging around his house that also has antlers that likely measure around one inch. All tiny buttons for sure.

Antler growth on yearling bucks is often used as a measure of the health of the deer herd and the quality of the range.  While the range quality at the landscape scale is in decline mainly owing to the decline in logging activity, all the deer I’ve seen or heard of with the little antlers are from areas where the habitat is still good or, as in the case of the ‘town buck’, where there is ample access to supplemental food. So I think the tiny buttons are mostly a reflection of the severity of the previous two winters.

I suspect the does were in very poor shape when these bucks were born, as the winter of 2013-14 was one of the most severe in terms of snow depth (and cold) since winter severity records started to be kept in this region, which was 1955. To tell the truth, I’m amazed that any fawns were successfully raised following that brutal winter. Last year wasn’t as harsh, but it was still brutally cold and there was enough snow accumulation to spell trouble for the deer, especially fawns.

So even though these deer have tiny antlers now, I think they could still have quite the crown in a couple of years. The fact these deer are even alive (and they do look healthy) tells me they have good genes.

In some circles, the thinking might be that yearling deer with such tiny buttons should be culled, especially if the management goal was to produce large antlered bucks. Given the circumstances, I’d say that in this situation, such a strategy would be a mistake. However, that’s all simply speculation, as there is no management plan for trophy bucks in this area.

But it would sure be interesting to be able to track antler growth of these tiny buttoned bucks in the years to come. Definitely a research need.