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Damara dik-dik

Years ago, I cut myself badly skinning a whitetail on a hunt near Moosomin, Saskatchewan and had to have stitches done after I severed an artery near my thumb (another skinning lesson learned . . . ). The doctor who did the surgery happened to be from South Africa (it turned out all the doctors in the hospital at that time were from South Africa!); he told me that as I was a hunter, I should plan on an African safari to go after ‘The Big Five’.

He didn’t say anything about ‘The Tiny Ten’.

The Big Five, as many hunters know, are the elephant, lion, leopard, cape buffalo and rhino. For big game hunters, taking all of the Big Five is considered to be one of highest achievements a hunter can accomplish. The reason for this is the inherent danger in trying to hunt any of these animals; the term ‘The Big Five’ was coined years ago to say here are the five most dangerous game species a hunter can pursue. There were bragging rights to any hunter who could say he (or she) had taken The Big Five. Even today, cape buffalo are believed to gore and kill about 200 people a year (mostly hunters).

While there’s still a mystique in today’s hunting world around The Big Five, it isn’t what it used to be.

There are a number of reasons for this attitudinal change. First, whether this assemblage of African big game animals is indeed a list of the 5 most dangerous animals a hunter can pursue has always been debatable, but never more than today. In addition, hunting ‘dangerous animals’ isn’t a top of the list want for many of the hunters of today.  Finally, there are a lot fewer opportunities to hunt these animals than there used to be.

At any rate, hunting The Big Five has never been something I aspired to do, although it was certainly of interest to me, even those many years ago in Moosomin.

Back to ‘The Tiny Ten’. . .

Around the campfire in Namibia on our first night, talk of The Big Five naturally came up.

And that’s when I first heard about The Tiny Ten.

The Tiny Ten is a list of the following species of small antelope found in southern Africa:

  • Damara Dik-Dik
  • Blue Duiker
  • Common Duiker (also called Gray Duiker or Bush Duiker)
  • Red Forest Duiker (also called Red Duiker, Natal Duiker or Natal Red Duiker)
  • Cape Grysbok (also called Southern Grysbok)
  • Sharp’s Grysbok (also called Northern Grysbok)
  • Klipspringer
  • Oribi
  • Steenbok (also known as Steinbuck or Steinbok)
  • Suni

These antelope are really small; often they are referred to as pygmy antelope. For example, a mature Damara dik-dik is only about 30–40 centimetres at the shoulder and weighs only 3–6 kilograms. Tiny.

Yet all these pygmy antelope have horns.

They are also said to be a challenge to hunt.

During my hunt in Namibia, I saw Damara dik-diks, steenboks and duiker (I don’t know which species I saw). A couple of my hunting partners saw a klipspringer one day. One dik-dik – the one in the photo – was supposedly a real trophy, as was one of the steenboks I saw and photographed.

They are certainly interesting and it was great to see them.

But like The Big Five, hunting The Tiny Ten isn’t a goal for me.

I am glad I saw a number of them, and would certainly like to see all of them. Maybe that’s my quest.

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A barn swallow, not near a barn.

I’m a hunter. I spend a lot of time thinking about hunting. I think I’m from the old school of wildlifers who went to the wildlife management profession because I was and still am a hunter. There are still some of us around.

I recall learning that managing wildlife and hunting was a close tie because in general, the people who were most passionate about wildlife were hunters. If you didn’t hunt, there were better things to do than spend a career trying to manage wildlife.

The reason the people who were managing wildlife in the early days – and for a long time afterwards – is rooted in history. Lots of people knew there was a wanton slaughter of wildlife going on, but it wasn’t going to stop until hunters themselves put a stop to it. And that’s what happened.

Hunters demanded new rules and regulations, because they knew hunting was a problem.

Over time, the management of wildlife became increasingly complex. But for a long time, the focus was the management of game animals and hunters. And most Provinces and States maintained Game Departments.

Some of the first changes began a few decades ago when Game Departments started to see themselves merged with other departments or agencies with environmental responsibilities.

Once that happened, the tide turned away from hunting, hunters and game.

Hunting, though, is still a problem.

And it’s not getting the attention it needs, in part because hunters don’t have near the clout they used to have in government wildlife management circles.

The focus today is on non-game species, often species identified as a ‘species at risk’ (which suggests that unless something is done, that species could become extinct . . . go the way of the Dodo).

These days, the majority of employees in wildlife management agencies are non-hunters and many studied non-game species during their formal studies in college and university.

A consequence of having a lot of people involved in non-game management – and a lot of interest to be involved in that field – is it creates pressure for non-game departments to grow and expand their budget. That’s just the way government works.

There can be consequences. One that many of my colleagues and I see is a growing trend to identify and categorize more and more species as being ‘at risk’, even if they really aren’t.

Let’s look at the barn swallow as an example as to the point I’m trying to make.

To start, guess where barn swallows nest?

Barns! However, the kind of barns barn swallows like – big and airy with haylofts – no longer dot the countryside. They’ve been falling down for years and aren’t being replaced. Fewer barns, fewer barn swallows.

But barn swallows don’t just nest in barns – before the days of barns, they had to have been nesting in other places.

The fact is, there still are a lot of barn swallows nesting and flying around the countryside. Just not as many as there were back when barns were common..

But because the decline – in some places – was large and is still on-going, the powers that be have decided there must be a problem. In Ontario, the barn swallow is listed as being threatened with extinction. COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, also lists it as Threatened.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, though, one of the most prestigious institutions in North America in bird studies, says this about the barn swallow:

“The Barn Swallow is the most abundant and widely distributed swallow species in the world. It breeds throughout the Northern Hemisphere and winters in much of the Southern Hemisphere.”

Here’s the link. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/barn_swallow/lifehistory

As a species, the barn swallow is in no danger of extinction. True, its numbers are down – maybe precipitously in some places – but is the species really in trouble? It’s the “most abundant and widely distributed swallow species in the world”.

Lots of money is being spent on barn swallows, wood turtles, whip-poor-wills and many, many more non-game species. A lot of that is a ‘good thing’. But it’s not all good.

These non-game species programs cost a lot of money. Managing game costs money too, but game management also generates a lot of money. Lots. There’s not much money to be made managing barn swallows.

If we did a better job of managing game animals, there’d be more money for all sorts of wildlife management. But managing wildlife, in large part for hunters, isn’t ‘cool’. It’s ‘icky’.

There’s no doubt in my mind game species and hunters are too often getting the short shrift.

Hunters and not a small number of non-hunters, know this isn’t right, but don’t know what to do.

Better game management makes economic, environmental and social sense.

In many areas it even has the potential to improve race relations.

It’s just the right thing to do.

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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.

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Moose season, when firearms can be used, opened on Saturday, October 10. Lil and I had set up camp the day before and proceeded to hunt daily from Saturday through to the following Friday. October 10 is on the late side of when the season opens (for years now the season has opened on the Saturday closest to October 8, meaning it can open as early as Oct. 5, or as late as Oct. 11. The earlier it opens, the better the chance of getting in on the tail end on the rut, which means it’s possible to call a bull in.

That is how moose managers planned it – let hunters occasionally have the opportunity to hunt moose during the tail-end of the rut, when they’re susceptible to being lured in by a call. Even so, most of the cows will have been bred, and the moose that do respond to the call near the end of the rut are young bulls, who often don’t get a chance to breed because they can’t compete against more mature bulls. To further help in the management of the moose herd, the number of adult validation tags for adult moose are limited.

Starting next year, the season opener is going to be delayed by a week, so for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be next to impossible for gun hunters to call in amorous bulls. Archers are still going to be able to hunt the rut. I don’t like the rule changes, but it is what it is (see my previous posts on changes to the way moose are going to be managed in Ontario).

So this was the last chance to get in on at least having a chance to call in a bull, and we gave it a good go.

Nothing.

A lot of sign from a week or two earlier , when the rut was on, but it was obvious the rut had ended at least a few days before the season opened. And as often happens immediately following the rut, the moose were laying low. It didn’t help that it was hot and humid with a big hatch of black-flies and mosquitoes. We hunted hard, but I didn’t see or hear a thing. Lil actually saw one late one evening; it ran across the road close to our RV but it was late and she didn’t get a good look at it. Seeing it go into heavy conifer cover, there was little we could do to roust it out.

Following the week of moose hunting, I went bird hunting in Alberta. Managed to bag a few pheasants and sharptails, and young Neva performed admirably. But on the last day of the hunt, she got tangled up with a porcupine. That wasn’t much fun for anyone. Luckily I was hunting with Michael, who was a great help in the field in the pulling out of a couple of hundred quills from Neva’s face, nose, lips, mouth, tongue and throat. Ten days later, quills are still poking out on various parts of her face.

Back in Ontario, Lil and I decided to give the moose another go (the season stays open until December 15, but deep snow and cold can make late season hunting totally miserable).

On Wednesday, Oct. 28, we hunted half the day in a light rain.

Nothing. Very little fresh sign.

Friday, Oct. 30, we tried again. Conditions were good; damp, but no rain, a light breeze, temperature just above freezing.

Almost immediately we came across fresh sign. Lil and I split up and the further from the road I went, the more moose sign there was. Mostly fresh browsing on willow and red-osier dogwood. The area was logged more than 10 years ago, and has regenerated into ideal moose pasture. That’s both good and ‘bad’. Good because there is lots for moose to feed on; bad because there is so much feed the moose can be anywhere, and it’s also so thick that one can only hunt by walking trails, or calling, when calls work . . . .

At one point I heard our dogs Neva and Dory (which we left in the truck) barking furiously, and I thought they must have seen a moose, or maybe the Canada lynx we had seen there on an earlier hunt. Turned out it was a moose they saw.

Seeing there was nothing I could do about the dogs – who eventually stopped their barking – I stayed on the hunt. About a mile in I heard a noise to my left and knew immediately it was a moose feeding. It was hard to see much, as the bush in this area is a thick, twiggy nightmare. But I spotted movement, and there it was, a young bull less than 40 m distant.

So I got a moose. Lil had also seen one, but it was further back in the thick slaplings and she couldn’t make it out well enough to ID if it was a bull (our tag was for a bull), although she did hear what sounded like twigs on antlers. Shortly after she lost sight of the moose, the dogs started to bark.

It was many days of hard hunting but in the end great success, with a young and hopefully very tasty moose to fill the freezer. We are especially grateful as the tag we had was one of only 6 bull tags issued this year for the management unit in which we were hunting.

Now all I have to do is find myself a deer.

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The morning after the lynx appeared on the rock across the beaver pond, I awoke to the sight of a white wolf on the rock. It wasn’t an albino, nor was it completely white, as a close examination shows some streaks of light brown on its back. Still, there’s little doubt it’s a white wolf of the species now called the gray wolf, which used to be called the timber wolf. Wolves are very variable in size, colour and other characteristics and as a result, up to 24 sub-species have been recognized in North America.

The species scientific name is Canis lupus, and they are very common where I live. Too common, in my opinion, as there’s little doubt they are a major factor (not the only factor, and perhaps not even the most important factor, but nonetheless, a big factor) in the decline of moose over much of a large swath of central Canada and states like Minnesota. They also are a leading cause of mortality for many herds of woodland caribou that are in danger of disappearing.

But after being wiped out over much of the lower 48 and parts of southern Canada, the once much reviled timber wolf is now epitomized as a symbol of the wilderness and its presence a signal of a healthier ecosystem. In other words, a majority of the human population these days views the wolf much more than just favourably. And there are a lot more of them to love than there were 50 years ago.

I like wolves too, although that doesn’t mean I’m against managing their populations, even if that means allowing hunting or, dependent upon the circumstances, engaging in culls.

The white wolf was lucky in that it appeared on the rock the day before the wolf hunting season opened, and I haven’t seen it since.

I think the local wolf population is poised to collapse. There are few moose left in the area and after peaking at unbelievably high numbers around 2007, the white-tailed deer population has also collapsed. There are still deer around, but nowhere near the numbers there used to be. A few years ago it was not uncommon to see more than 20 deer on the 20 minute drive to the edge of town from our house – these days it’s a rare day to see even one. The deer decline didn’t immediately result in a similar wolf decline, but over the past year wolf sightings by everyone I know has been down. That’s the typical predator-prey lag all wildlife biologists are taught.

I suspect this winter will knock the wolf population down even further, as a wolf has to catch and eat a deer about every 20 days during the snowy season in order to survive. In other words, a pack of 7 (a medium-sized pack around here) needs to catch and kill about 50 deer over the course of a normal winter for all to survive. That’s just not going to happen.

The photos I took of the wolf aren’t as sharp as the ones of the lynx, mostly due to poorer lighting on the morning the wolf showed up. Still, when I examine the photos carefully, it looks like there are a number of scars on the face of the wolf. Lillian believes they were likely the result of an encounter with a porcupine. When you’re hungry, any food is better than no food.

I suspect the wolf was on the rock looking wistfully at the beaver house that is mere meters away. But the two beavers in our pond aren’t dummies and have not been venturing into the adjoining forest to gather their winter food supply. There seems to be enough speckled alder and balsam poplar at the ponds’ edge to keep them happy – and safe from wolves. Beavers are the preferred summer food of wolves and while beavers are common in some areas, their numbers are down too.

It’s a tough world out there. Definitely not akin to ice cream and lollipops.

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Summer has seen lush growth in the Kenora area. Rain has been reasonably plentiful; the last few days have been particularly humid as well. There was quite an outbreak of forest tent caterpillars and as a result, huge swaths of trembling aspen dominated forests were denuded by the end of June. But now, by the middle of July, the leaves on the defoliated trees have almost fully recovered.

Caterpillar outbreaks actually result in a flush of nutrients to the forest floor, by way of caterpillar droppings, leaf fall and sunlight. Under a full canopy, most of the forest floor gets very little direct sunlight, but once the leaves are off, that isn’t the case. Given June is the month of the year with the longest days and hence, potentially, the most sunlight, all that extra photosynthetic energy reaching the forest floor really helps things grow. As a bonus, most of the rain came by way of thunderstorms, with brings more nitrogen than just normal rainfall. As I said, things are lush right now.

It’s also a good year for blueberries. Really good. Looks like the wild raspberries will also be good. Strawberries weren’t good, and it looks like this recent rain coupled with the high humidity has hit the serviceberry crop hard. Most of the still ripening berries have developed a fungus over the past few days, so what was looking good last week has taken a sudden turn to the bad. That seems to be typical, as a good service or Saskatoon berry crop (same thing, just a different name) only seems to come around every few years. Last year was actually pretty good for Saskatoons, as well as pin cherries and choke cherries. Some pin cherries this year, but not many choke cherries.

With respect to big game, the blueberries, raspberries, other berries I’m sure and the general lushness of the vegetation are good news for the bears. It will also result in healthy does, good milk production and big, fast-growing fawns. It should also mean better than average antler growth for bucks. It would probably have helped the moose herd too, if there were some moose around. We’ve seen a few individuals of our little elk herd (mostly caught on our critter cams, but we did see one big bull one morning on our way to change cards in the cameras) and they look good, too. Only one cow and calf so far – the rest of the animals were bulls, which isn’t good. We know there are more cows out there, but we also know there are more bulls than cows,  Our best guess is that the poor bull to cow ratio has to do with wolf predation – cows are smaller and easier for the wolves to take down.

So moose and elk are down, and even the deer are way less abundant than they were a few years ago. But I think that’s a good thing (deer down). There were way too many deer a few years back – the population wasn’t sustainable at those levels. Many places I could see a browse line, especially the edges of fields and forest, and along lake shores where wintering deer seem to concentrate. Lots of deer also means lots of wolves, and there were a lot of wolves around. Over the past few years, I’ve seen several looking out across the field from the living room of the house.

Fewer deer and moose (elk are mostly only in one small area, so their really an insignificant player in the wolf scheme of things) should also see a decline in the the number of wolves – good news I think. Wolves are good to have around, but there can be too many of them.

I’ll give an update on the small game and non-game situation on my next post, in a week or so.

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One of the main reasons I eventually became a hunting dog owner was to ensure I’d maximize my chances of finding downed and wounded game. Particularly, in my case, ducks. Not being able to retrieve ducks I’d knocked down just made me ill, and I vowed it was either stop duck hunting, or get a dog. I got a dog.

These days I don’t hunt ducks much; I spend more time in pursuit of upland game birds like grouse, pheasants and partridge, and of course I still hunt deer and other big game, with a passion.

My dogs are Wachtelhundes, a German breed that are, like many of the German hunting dogs, used for tracking, trailing, flushing and retrieving just about anything one wants to train them to do.

My friend Gary, who has run a hunting lodge not far from where I live, depends on his Wachtelhundes for ducks and upland birds, but also to find big game, including bears and wolves, his guests come to hunt. Gary instructs his guests not to try and chase down any game that runs-off’ after they shoot; rather, they are instructed to wait until Gary’s return and he’ll track down the animal with his dog. Almost all his hunters hunt from high stands, a practice they are very familiar with as most of his guests come from Europe, where this is the common hunting methodology used.

I haven’t used my dogs for tracking downed moose or deer I’ve shot at because, with one notable exception, every big game animal I’ve shot has pretty much dropped dead in its tracks. A few went a short distance, but were easily retrieved. The one exception was a large buck I shot and hit, but was unable to retrieve. I didn’t use my dog – Brill –  to help find it because I had never trained her to do blood tracking, and because there was not a lot of blood, I figured, in a distraught frame of mind, the dog would never find the deer. I still think about that deer, and know I made at least one big mistake by not letting the dog have a chance to track it. She had a much better nose than mine, and to think I could be a better tracker than her was plain stupidity on my part. I also believe it was a mistake not to have trained her to do blood trailing in the first place. It may not have been necessary for her, but it would have been good training for me, at the least. Even though this event occurred several years ago, it still bothers me.

And it should. Making every possible effort to retrieve wounded game should be a priority for all hunters. Striving to make as clean a kill as possible should be the top priority, but mistakes can and do happen. It’s hunting – conditions to dispatch quarry are usually something much less than perfect.

Not long ago I heard from a former colleague of mine about an organization that’s dedicated to using leashed dogs trained specifically to track down wounded big game. They call themselves the Big Game Blood Trackers [Ontario] (BGBTO) and they’re having an introductory seminar and field workshop in the Peterborough area of Ontario (a couple of hours east of Toronto) this July (Saturday July 18 & Sunday July 19),  at the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) Hunting & Fishing Heritage Centre. It’s a good place to hold this type of event.

They’ve lined up a number of knowledgeable speakers from the USA and Canada on topics such as the history of using leashed dogs in Europe and North America to track wounded game, how to select a good tracking dog (it doesn’t rely any any particular breed) and practical dog training, with a number of in-the-field examples of dogs at work.

If it was closer, I’d be attending. Too bad it’s a two day drive for me. But if you are interested, and within range, I’d strongly recommend one should at the least think about attending and registering for what promises to be an enlightening and entertaining weekend. A lunch and evening BBQ is part of the package, so it sounds like a good time. Hunters have had a long and successful relationship with dogs, and I’m thinking this is the kind of event that should help that tradition continue.

For more information or to register, check out their website at www.biggamesearchon.com, or contact Laurel at  705 277-9183;  manverspack@nexicom.net.