Last fall, I went mule deer hunting in south-eastern Alberta, perhaps for the last time. As an explanation as to why this hunt might have been my last mule deer hunt there, I offer the following story:

I first applied for a mule deer tag in Alberta as a Canadian resident, which requires a resident guide (or as Alberta calls it, a hunter host), in 1998. I was finally drawn in 2002.

I was successful on that first hunt, as I have been each and every time I’ve been drawn. Generally, it takes three or four years of applying to get a tag. Although I apply in the same pool as resident Albertans, I have only been able to apply for an antlered mulie, which is A-okay by me. Over the years, I’ve taken some nice bucks.

The same year I was initially drawn for a tag, Alberta documented its first cast of chronic wasting disease (CWD), in a farmed elk.

From then, the infection rate grew quickly, and bad news it was, as one of the areas where the disease took hold was the area I was hunting (we stayed, and have continued to stay, at a ranch north of Medicine Hat. We’ve become good friends with the rancher family).

In an attempt to stop the disease, the Alberta Fish & Game did a cull in the area we hunt in 2006.

Since then, things have gotten much worse on the CWD front.

The first thing we noticed, after the cull, was that there were a lot fewer mule deer on the ranch.

A few years later, the deer numbers increased somewhat, but there was a new wrinkle – it became mandatory for hunters to drop off the heads of harvested deer to be tested for CWD. Then I couldn’t transport a deer back to Ontario unless it was de-boned and the skull cap and antlers cleaned.

Although CWD has not – yet – been known to infect humans, health agencies recommend animals known to be infected to not be consumed. So there was a waiting period after harvesting and butchering the deer before it was possible to enjoy eating it.

Still, our deer were, for a few years, always negative for CWD. That changed in, I think it was 2013, when Rob’s buck tested positive. Since then, Rob has had two more bucks test +ve and there have been others in our hunting party who have taken mulies that have come back as CWD +ve. Not good.

And it’s only getting worse. Check out this link for the history – and see the spread – of CWD in Alberta from the date of discovery to date https://www.alberta.ca/chronic-wasting-disease-history-in-alberta.aspx .

For a number of reasons, including the CWD issue, I hadn’t applied for a mule deer tag the last couple of years, even though I had enough priority points to draw one. But in 2018 Glenn and I decided I might as well apply and if drawn, do the hunt, as things were “unlikely to get better, and you never know – maybe the ‘hunter host’ system will change with a new government”. It’s possible that for a non-resident Canadian – like me – hunting mule deer with friends using the hunter host system might not be an option in the future.

Anyway, I applied, got drawn and did the hunt with Glenn. On the last day of the season, Dec. 1, I harvested a nice mature mulie buck.

A couple of days later, on the way home, we dropped off the head for CWD testing in Jenner. I took some of the choice cuts home to Ontario, put them in a freezer bag, labelled them, froze them and . . . waited for the results of the CWD tests.

As I already said, CWD is not known – as yet – to infect humans, but the World Health Organization and Fish & Game agencies caution against consuming an animal known to have CWD. CWD – so far specific to members of the Cervidae (deer) family, has been documented in the following species: white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, moose and reindeer. CWD is one of a group of fatal diseases referred to as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). The group includes bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE (“mad cow disease”), which can be passed on to humans. In humans, this BSE is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Basically, if you get variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob, your brain is eaten away and you eventually die.

While waiting for the results of the CWD test on my deer, an article appeared in Deer and Deer Hunting magazine (https://www.deeranddeerhunting.com/deer-scouting/deer-behavior/controversial-research-bacteria-not-prions-cause-cwd (a magazine I have written for) on CWD, reporting on a researcher (a Dr. Bastian) who thinks CWD may actually be the result of an infectious ‘super-bacteria’. It’s interesting – and offers new hope in terms of dealing with the disease in the future – but so far, no one has replicated Dr. Bastian’s research, so he’s out alone in the field with respect to his theory. I believe part of the ‘problem’ is that there are relatively few people doing basic research on CWD, so not many are even trying to replicate his results.

At any rate, I was still waiting when Rob forwarded me another article https://mountainjournal.org/story-482 that bluntly suggests CWD is bound to, at some point, infect humans. The paper also says that it’s really impossible to sterilize your hunting utensils if you’ve cleaned a CWD infected animal and that prions – the infective agent – are almost indestructible and could infect whatever your now contaminated utensils come in contact with. They (prions) have been found to be taken up by vegetation and can get picked up and spread around by vehicles. There’s a lot of very scary stuff in this article.

So here I am at home wondering if I’m going to have to throw out my hunting knife and meat saw. I have no idea what to do with the skull cap and antlers of my buck if it’s CWD+ve – seems to me it would be shedding prions wherever I put it –  and because I usually do the final cleaning by sanding off any remaining bits of dried flesh – all I can envisage is inhaling airborne CWD prions. All these thoughts tend to sicken me . . .

Then, On March 11, I get an email and a magic call from Alberta Environment and Parks . .  .my deer tested negative! I can eat the deer, keep my hunting knives and saws and clean and mount the antlers!

Great news indeed!

But I really don’t think I want to go through that kind of an ordeal again.

As CWD continues to spread, there’s a lot of thinking us big game hunters are going to have to do. Although a number of writers and others are working to try and minimize the dangers of CWD, I’m skeptical. This is a huge issue, possible a huge health issue, that could see lives lost.

Oh, and one more thing. If a deer gets CWD, that deer always dies, usually within 2-3 years. There are worries it will, eventually, decimate infected herds. Alarming population declines have already been documented in some CWD endemic areas in the USA.

CWD. It’s a bad thing.

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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.

Left to Right, top: Black-faced Impala, Rocky Mtn Elk; White-tailed Deer; Dr. Vince Crichton and the Tom Degare Buck (#2 Ontario non-typical from NW Ontario, taken in 1945); Middle: Pronghorn Antelope with one sheath removed; elk antler, showing pedicle which protrudes somewhat like a flat horn; Kudu; Sable (top); White-tailed Deer in velvet; Moose, chewing on velvet

First, as an aside, I have noticed that some of the buck white-tailed deer in the City of Kenora still have their antlers. Normally, deer drop their antlers in December in this part of the world, but the good conditions in the city (snow-cleared roads and walkways and handouts from people) have delayed shedding. Also, since my last post, it has snowed quite a bit more here in northwestern Ontario. Looks like another hard winter as far as the deer are concerned. I will continue to post updates as the winter progresses.

The following is an article I recently had published in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. This is the unedited version, with bonus photos!

Antlers fascinate hunters and have since time immemorial.  Antlers of huge stags have adorned the walls of medieval castles and European hunting lodges for centuries.

Antlers are commonly called racks. They can also be called bones, crowns and some call them horns. But horns and antlers are not the same.

According to the late Dr. Tony Bubenik, the evolution of antlers can be traced back about 40 million years.  They’ve been different from horns for a long time.

Today, antlers are found only on deer. There are many kinds of deer all around the world; all are in the family Cervidae. There are fallow deer, axis deer, a group of deer called the muntjacs and others.

Here in Ontario, there are four species of deer; the white-tailed deer, moose, elk and caribou. All are native, although elk were extirpated in the 1800s, and have been re-introduced. Like deer everywhere, all Ontario deer species grow antlers.

Over the centuries, humans have done a lot of introductions of deer to areas where they never existed. People tend to like deer – it helps that they taste good and can be trophies to hunters – and so as people moved around the world, they brought with them their favourite deer.

Antlers are grown – and shed – on an annual basis.  Unlike antlers, horns are permanent structures that aren’t shed, ever.

Horns occur in a large group of animals. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and forms. Typically, horns don’t show any branching. Its common that both males and females grow horns.

Sheep, goats, antelope, bison and domestic cattle, collectively known as Bovoids, all have horns.

Other groups of animals, like rhinos and giraffes, also grow horns.

Antlers are most commonly found only on males; with some exceptions (caribou females sometimes grow antlers).

During the growth phase, antlers are one of the fastest growing cellular structures in the animal kingdom.  New growth can often be seen on a daily basis.

Antlers grow from knobby protuberances on the skull called pedicles. Normally, there are two pedicles, one on each side of the head.

Growing antlers are covered in a skin covering called velvet, which is extremely sensitive. On moose and caribou, there can be vivid stripes of colour in the velvet, called ‘marbling’. In velvet, antlers are warm to the touch, as they are highly vascularized (full of blood vessels) and, if damaged, can bleed profusely.

The end of the antler growing period is a time of mineralizing and hardening of the spongy antler. Once the velvet is gone, what’s left is hardened antler made of bone.

In Ontario, all deer species begin to grow their antlers in late spring. By late August and into September, the velvet is shed. It falls off quickly, usually aided by thrashing trees and shrubs. Velvet is nutritious; I once watched a moose swing its head to catch dangling strips of velvet to eat. Antlers are shed sometime during the winter or into spring.

In general, healthy, mature male deer have the largest antlers.

Antlers are often described as palmated – think moose – or cervicorn, as found on elk, whitetails and caribou. Cervicorn antlers have an obvious main beam with points.

One of the largest racks ever was found on the extinct Irish elk, an animal that ranged across Eurasia. It was about 2.1 metres (6.9 ft) tall at the shoulders, a little bit taller than a big bull moose.

It had a spectacular rack. Some Irish elk had crowns measuring over 3.6 m (12 ft) from tip to tip that weighed up to 40 kg (88 lb).  The species went extinct less than 8,000 years ago, coincident with a die-off of many deer species, including a number of moose ancestors, some of which had racks that were more than 8 feet across. No moose today have a rack like that.

Climate change is thought to have been a major factor in this multi deer species die-off.

The moose, elk and caribou that roam parts of Ontario today might not have the massive bones of bygone deer, but deer racks today can be pretty darn impressive.

An Ontario moose can grow wide, palmated racks with a spread of over 4’ and weighing more than 40 lbs. The main beam of home-grown elk and caribou antlers can exceed 4’ with many long, sprouting points. Big buck white-tails, with antlers that look like a tree, occur across much of the southern half of the province.

Hunters generally classify deer antlers as ‘Typical’ or ‘Non-Typical’, also called ‘Atypical’.

Each deer species have antler characteristics that are unique. One characteristic of all typical antlers, regardless of the species, is the similarity of the right and left antler – they are virtual mirror images of one another.

Non-typical antlers usually remain paired, and can appear to be mirror images, but they have points that differ substantially from those of a typical with respect to number and placement on the main beam.

Very large non-typicals can be quite bizarre, with lots of points, bumps, burrs and great mass.

Many antlers are ‘in-between’, in that they are mostly typical but have one or more non-typical points.

Older animals tend to have bigger antlers than younger ones and also are more likely to be a non-typical. Very old animals commonly sport antlers that are substantially smaller than the antlers it had during its prime. Genetics, habitat quality and other factors, including weather and injuries, can influence antler growth.

For deer, antlers have a number of uses, notably impressing females and intimidating males during the rut. They can be formidable weapons during fights with rivals or when confronted by predators.

Like most hunters, I like deer antlers; all species, all shapes and all sizes.

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Interestingly, pronghorn antelope, an animal restricted to the western plains of North America, have unique horns that, is some respects, are antler-like. It has permanent horns covered with a sheath that not only has a branch, but it’s shed on an annual basis. African antelope, animals like kudu, gemsbok and impala, don’t shed the sheath of their horns and their horns don’t have branches.

When a pronghorn sheds its sheath, very obvious, visible horns remain on the head.

giraffe-72

When antlers are shed, all that remains are short, flattened protuberances called pedicles.

Those flattened horns on these Giraffe look sort of like a pedicle to me.

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.

From the top, L to R: Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Crimson-breasted Shrike, African Palm Swift, Lappet-faced Vulture, Cape Turtle Doves, Red-billed Spurfowl, Swainson’s Spurfowl (with young), Secretarybird, Shaft-tailed Whydah, Monteiro’s Hornbill, Kori Bustard, Lilac-breasted Roller, Green-winged Pytilia, African Red-eyed Bulbul, Grey Go-Away-Bird

One of the many highlights of my trip to Africa was watching birds. We all like birds. Getting to see a whole bunch that I’d never seen before was great.

Our guides and other residents were able to identify many of them and give us their common English name. But I saw lots of birds that I didn’t know. It didn’t help that no one had a field guide to the birds of that region.

Finally, after months of dithering, I ordered a pictorial pocket guide: Birds of Namibia; Ian Sinclair & Joris Komen. It was a great help, as even though I didn’t know – in most cases – what it was I was aiming my camera at and shooting, I did amass a reasonable array of photos (the ones on this post are some of the better ones). Having cataloged those images, I was able to match most of my photos with those in the pocket guide and get the name of the bird to the species level, as well as to sex.

Most of the bird names the Namibians provided were spot-on, but sometimes there was more to the bird name than what they told me.

For example, one of the most magnificent song birds, with a black head, a bright chestnut coloured breast with yellow underparts and really long tail, was a Paradise Whydah bird, according to my guides. The pocket guide identifies the bird as the ‘Long-tailed Paradise Whydah’.  Only the male has the long-tail and bright colours.

Another example was to do with some gallinaceous birds, what here in North America us hunters call upland game birds. While we were driving around, we often flushed coveys of what we were told were sandgrouse and quail. Unfortunately, I was never able to get photos of these birds, but the pocket guide gives a good account that I referenced. There’s no doubt about the quail; there’s only one species in Namibia, the Common Quail. But there are four species of sandgrouse, three of which could easily have been the sandgrouse we encountered. Maybe we saw only one species, or two or all three, but that’s something I’ll probably never be able to figure out.

There were also other gallinaceous birds that our guides called francolins. The pocket guide shows six species of francolin, all of which resemble one-another somewhat, but looking at the photos and accompanying text suggests they aren’t that hard to distinguish one from another. Well, I got pictures of at least two species, the Red-billed Spurfowl and the Swainson’s Spurfowl.  There’s nothing in the guide as to how or why some of the francolins are grouped together as Spurfowl, but when I look at my photo of the Red-billed Spurfowl I’m drawn to the spurs on the bird. They’re huge!

Similar to some of our North American grouse, like the Ruffed Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse, the sexes of most francolins (4 of 6) are quite similar.

A bird I thought might be some kind of parrot turns out to be . . . some kind of a parrot, called the Grey Go-Away Bird. Cool. The name caught me by surprise. It seems it got its name, like a lot of birds, from the sound of its call, described as a nasal ‘waaaay’ or ‘kay-waaaay’.

A little bird that I caught a good picture of in full flight had a bright red-eye and eye ring. Turns out it’s the African Red-eye Bulbul. Bulbuls are a group of birds I’m not familiar with – they look like what many of us simply call ‘dickie birds’, little songbirds of some sort.

Anyway, the African Red-eye Bulbul reminded me of a day back in university when a geology prof, new to Canada from England, asked what this blackbird with the red wing was. Of course, we had a good laugh as it was the Red-winged Blackbird!

I’m glad I finally got the field guide to the birds of Namibia. Next time I travel to an exotic location, I’ll buy a bird guide before I get there.

 

In addition to wolves and coyotes, bears, deer, moose and turkeys have to be tagged in Ontario.

I recently purchased a wolf/coyote tag so I can hunt wolves. Actually, I just need/want the tag to be able to shoot a wolf if it happens to show itself on the frozen pond in front of the house. As I’ve said on a number of occasions on this blog and elsewhere, I don’t hate wolves and appreciate the important role they play in the overall scheme of things. However, there are, right now, lots of wolves around, a holdover from when deer were super-abundant. Deer populations have collapsed, but wolves have hung on.

But with few deer (and virtually zero moose), the local wolves are getting desperate. They broke into a neighbors kennel the other day and attacked a dog; the dog was saved only because the neighbor heard and then saw what was going on and managed to beat the wolf off. Hence the need/want for a wolf tag.

It’s not a wolf licence. Wolves in Ontario fall under the auspices of a small game licence, so to hunt wolves you need a small game licence and a wolf tag. There are some stupid regs associated with this scenario – one can’t hunt wolves with “a rifle with a muzzle energy greater than 400 ft-lbs . . . during the open [firearm] season for a big game species [without] a valid licence for a big game species that a season is open for.” Even if you have a small game licence and a wolf tag. That’s just ridiculous. But, since there is no moose or deer or elk rifle season open where I live right now, it’s not a pressing issue.

Anyway, I had to go down to a licence issuer to buy the tag. It cost me $11.36 and was printed out on a sheet of letter-size bond paper. The tag itself is only a portion of the sheet of paper (less than ¼) and there are instructions where to fold it and cut it out.

As I said, the tag was printed out on standard bond paper.

The Ontario Hunting Regulations Summary says “The term ‘game seals will be replaced by ‘tags’.”

I haven’t asked anyone why the change, but it seems to me it’s pretty hard to claim a piece of paper that can virtually disintegrate if it gets a soaker is a ‘seal’.

Which leads to the question: what is the purpose of a ‘seal/tag’?

Seals have been used by game agencies to ‘tag’ an animal a hunter has the authority to harvest. ‘Seal the deal’, so to speak. A seal was meant to ensure the harvest of a particular species, or type of animal (e.g., buck, doe) was tightly controlled. This is different from how fish are generally managed, where there are simple catch and possession limits (e.g., you can catch x number of walleye every day during the open season, and possess another number. But if you eat, or give to a friend your catch limit, you can go out the next day and do it all again). It’s all about abundance – generally there are lots more fish than there are animals.

Although there are caveats, the simple way to view seals and tags is to understand they are meant to ensure that once one has sealed/tagged an animal, you can’t kill another, unless one has another seal/tag.

In Ontario, and many other jurisdictions, seals have been made from a relatively indestructible material; like plastic, or nylon. Often, they had one side that was ‘sticky’; to seal an animal one had to remove the covering on the sticky side of the seal, attach the seal to the animal (at the kill site), and press the sticky side together. Usually, the time and date of the kill had to be notched into the seal. These two requirements (having a sticky seal that couldn’t be ‘unstuck’ and notching the seal, were designed to keep hunters honest and ensure the seal couldn’t be used again. In addition, seals are/were difficult to copy, so what you got was what you got.

The last few years Ontario has been getting out of having tags ‘stick’, but they were still made out of a mostly non-destructible material, had to be attached to the animal at the kill site, and had a requirement to be notched as to time and date of the kill, again, at the kill site. And they were difficult to copy.

But such seals, even without the sticky (or a wire which also used to be issued that was used to help attach the seal to the downed animal) aren’t cheap, or at least have some cost to them. As such, they’re one place where game agencies, being stretched ever thinner and under constant pressure to trim costs and find ‘efficiencies’, have been focusing their attention of late.

To achieve ‘efficiencies’ – and supposedly to make life more convenient for hunters – Ontario has done away with seals and replaced them with tags. There’s no requirement for tags to be printed on something that’s weather resistant and, except for wolf/coyote tags (I have no idea why there is an exception for these canids), a hunter who is eligible can print off both their licence and associated tags at home.

I’ve heard that there has been advice put out by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) to put tags in something like a zip-lock bag to keep it from being destroyed, but I don’t see such info on the tag I purchased nor do I see anything like that in the hunting summary.

There’s still the requirement to notch the tag at the kill site, but the tag doesn’t have to be attached to the animal if the hunter remains in possession of the animal until it’s brought “to the site of processing and is being processed for long-term storage”. If one isn’t in accompaniment of the animal, or “immediately available to produce the tag for inspection”, the tag has to be attached to the appropriate place on the animal as described by the tag.

Well, I can see problems here . . .

For one, requiring the tag to be notched at the kill site before the animal is moved, and not destroying the integrity of the tag, is going to be a challenge in any kind of inclement weather.

It is an offence to make a copy of any licence or tag, but given they can be printed out on paper and it doesn’t state, in either the current regulation summary or on the tag itself (at least it doesn’t on the wolf tag I have ), in plain language that making a copy is illegal, the tag is a weak replacement for a ‘seal’. And a paper tag is very easy to copy.

There is a code on the tag that can be scanned by a QR reader, and apparently it is encrypted for use by Conservation Officers. However, everything I have heard to date suggests the field CO’s don’t have, at least as yet, the ability to detect whether a tag is an original or a duplicate. Hopefully, that will be sorted out before too long . . .

Still, the tag is on paper, which means the QR code can be easily damaged and thus won’t, if damaged, be of much use with respect to enforcement.

Apparently, the switch from a ‘real seal’ to tags created a fair amount of acrimony within the MNRF owing mostly to problems around enforcement and security. I think I can see why.

To a large degree, MNRF and others in the hunting community are counting on hunters to be supportive of the new system and abide by the regulations.

However, as I pointed out in my last post, hunting culture in Ontario, in my opinion, has moved away from being supportive of what the MNRF is up to, and the incidence of blatant disregard for rules and regulation is high.

I hope I’m wrong and the things will go off this year with minimal problems.

I guess we will soon find out.

 

In Ontario, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), is undertaking a review of the present moose management program. It’s the latest in a long list of moose management reviews that have been done over the years.

The moose is the largest member of the deer family in the world. They are an important game animal in no small way because they are highly edible. They taste good. The harvest of a single moose can provide the meat needs for a few people for a year. And bulls grow large antlers, which provide hunters with a trophy and fond memories of past hunts.

Ontario has about 100,000 moose, give or take. Numbers go up and down; right now, they have been on a downward slide in most of the province for several years. People are worried about the moose population – hence the review. The MNRF review is scheduled to occur over the next couple of years.

I’ve written about the plight of moose on this blog, in magazine articles and recently published in the journal Alces a case study that was a review of deer and moose over the past many decades in Ontario’s Kenora District.

I don’t know what the terms are for the new moose review, but here’s what I think are the issues; it’s pretty much what the issues always are:

  • hunting
  • predation
  • disease and parasites
  • habitat

With respect to hunting, there’s much that could be done to help rebuild moose populations. Some of what’s recently (e.g., drastic reduction in adult tags, shortening of the calf season) been done might be helping to re-build herds in some Wildlife Management Units (WMUs), but problems remain.  For starters, I think that harvest strategies that are applied mostly across the province don’t work the same everywhere – for example, seasons and bag limits need to be more flexible and be tailored more closely to suit local conditions. I’m not the only one who believes we are still shooting too many cows and calves in some WMUs. Few, if any, other jurisdictions that manage moose allow the level of hunting for cows and calves that Ontario does.

The biggest hunting problem, though, is cultural. Few hunters believe the MNRF is doing, or has been doing, a good job of moose management. They lost faith in the system and many hunters are so frustrated they are openly flaunting the rules. More than 60 moose were seized by MNRF Conservation Officers during the first couple of weeks of the hunt. Typical offences were shooting a moose for which the hunter(s) had no valid tag, perhaps in a WMU where the tag did not apply, or shooting in an unlawful manner or place (e.g., shooting from a boat, on a road or at night).

People are doing unlawful things and have lost faith in the system for many reasons. One big one is how the draw or tag system works.

In Ontario, a hunter needs to buy a moose licence to be eligible to apply in a draw for a tag. A tag is usually valid for either a bull or a cow, in a specific WMU. In a few WMUs, a tag is also required to harvest a calf moose. In many WMUs with a moose hunting season, there is both an archery only season and a general gun season.

Everyone who buys a moose licence can hunt moose. Party hunting is allowed. There are some caveats, but basically, if a group of several hunters goes moose hunting, anyone in the party can shoot a moose as long as someone in the party has an adult validation tag.

If no one has an adult validation tag, then hunters can only hunt calf moose. The moose season in most of northern Ontario is 8 or 9 weeks in length, but the calf season is only open now during about two weeks of the moose season.

Rather than get into more details at this point, I think it’s worthwhile to look at a couple of what I and many others think are fundamental problems with the system as so far discussed.

First, everyone can buy a moose licence which allows everyone to hunt moose. But as described, to hunt an adult moose, a hunter must have an adult validation tag. A validation tag is available through a draw – some validation tags (typically about 12-14% of the total available in the province) are allocated to the tourist industry (outfitters) and can be purchased from the outfitter. Most resident hunters opt for the draw, as non-residents, for the most part, can hunt only through a tourist outfitter. As a result, a moose hunt through a tourist outfitter is pricey.

The basic problem with the draw system is that a hunter must purchase their licence before being eligible to enter the draw. The draw is random, with two pools – a preferred pool (Pool 1) and a non-preferred pool (Pool 2). To be in the preferred pool, one had to have applied previously and have been unsuccessful in drawing a tag.  First time moose hunters are in the non-preferred pool as are moose hunters who drew a tag through the draw in the previous year.

Some hunters are lucky and frequently draw an adult validation tag; others might go 10 or more years without drawing a tag. There are some wrinkles to the system, but that’s the essence of Ontario’s moose draw system.

The simple pool that can result in going years without a tag coupled with the need to buy a moose licence before knowing whether you actually will get a tag has resulted in a great deal of discontent among Ontario moose hunters and is one of the major factors why hunters have lost faith in the system.

Other jurisdictions with a draw for big game animals, including moose (such as Alberta and Wyoming, to name a couple), charge a modest fee to enter into the draw, but don’t require you to buy a licence unless you get drawn and are eligible for a validation tag. In Alberta, every time you apply for a tag, but don’t get one, you get a point. The way that system works is that hunters with the most points get a tag.

For example, if there are 10 tags in a WMU and 50 people apply and have been applying every year, one gets a tag every 5 years. If more tags become available (e.g., because the moose population increased) and the number of applicants remained the same, it might take only 4, or 3 years to draw a tag. If the population dropped or moose hunter applicants increased, it would take more years to get a tag.

But it allows the hunter with a relative amount of certainty to see where and when they are likely to get a tag. A hunter can apply to whichever WMU they wish; some will take longer to get a tag, some less – but the hunter has much better certainty about the chances of getting drawn. Plus, one doesn’t have to dish out the expense of a licence every year, which is a plus to hunters worrying about costs, which over time, can add up.

Ontario justifies its system partly on the basis that all hunters can still go hunting – party hunting is allowed and everyone can hunt calf moose.

Few jurisdictions provide these opportunities and for good reasons. Party hunting can be quite effective and killing calf moose has been shown to be an impediment to maintaining moose populations. Other jurisdictions tend to have much more restrictive party hunting regulations than what’s allowed in Ontario. It was also once thought that the hunter kill of calf moose would have little or no impact on moose population growth, because the hunter harvest of calf moose would be what biologists call ‘compensatory’. In other words, if hunters didn’t kill calf moose, wolves, or bears or other causes of mortality would, and at the end of a year the number of calf moose that survived to be one year of age (and require an adult validation tag to be harvested by hunters) would be the same.

However, that theory has been thoroughly debunked. Except where the hunter harvest is relatively low and moose productivity high (e.g., areas with excellent habitat conditions and relatively low numbers of wolves and bears), hunting calf moose is additive mortality. It makes sense – adult moose were once calves; kill too many calves and where do the adult moose come from? Not the cabbage patch.

There’s lots more that can and could and should be done to improve the management – and numbers – of Ontario’s moose herds.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be discussing many of them.

In the interim, I think we need to fundamentally change the way the draw system works. Sticking with the same system and expecting things to improve is insane. We need a system that hunters can support. Without the support of hunters, all is lost.