Tag Archives: caribou

I haven’t blogged for many months. I’m sure most will understand when I say ‘there have been a myriad of reasons’ for my yap gap.

My last post was – posted – before the Covid madness had descended. The pandemic has changed every-bodies lives, everywhere in the world and continues to do so.

There’s a lot of talk about what the new normal is going to be, the one that emerges after all this period of change settles down, but who’s to know when that will be, or what it will look like. A phrase that I keep going back to is one about how the only constant in our lives is change. Every day is a new day, also comes to mind.

Except for a swath along the equator, most of the world sees constant, seasonal change. Even equatorial regions have alternating wet and dry seasons. No two seasons are ever exactly the same, although patterns and trends may be clearly evident.

Since my last posting, the ice and snow that covered our field, marsh and forest has melted away, replaced by many shades of mostly greens. A blue pond now compliments the summer skies. Goslings and ducklings have come to be and fawns now need be aware of bears as well as wolves. It’s summer!

Anyway, thoughts about the consistency of change that comes with the seasons is an underlying premise of this blog. Things are always different than they used to be, although trends are clearly evident..

The posting has been published. It’s my latest column in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. 

As per my practice, the posting is the unedited version of the column. I know the two are always a bit different, but I seldom compare the two and if I do, it’s only a very cursory look. Editors edit – that’s their job and most are good at it.

I’ll keep posting. There was a time when I posted about once a week – well, I can’t do that anymore.

Until next time, stay safe.


What Goes Up, Does Come Down

By: Bruce Ranta

I heard the hunter before I saw him. When we met on the trail, he looked at me, somewhat perplexed, then blurted out “They’re extinct!”

We were hunting moose – moose weren’t ‘extinct’, of course, but it did seem that way. Neither of us had seen a fresh track or any other sign of moose.

Unfortunately, the lack of moose didn’t surprise me. Moose on my stomping grounds close to my Kenora home had been on a steep decline for several years – and not just where I liked to hunt. Moose populations had been on a similar downhill slide in much of northwestern Ontario, neighboring Manitoba and Minnesota, as well as further afield, in places like Vermont and New Hampshire.

What was going on?

There were many theories. To sort it through, Dr. Murray Lankester, a parasitologist with Lakehead University and I analysed data pertaining to moose and deer in the Kenora area going back, in some cases, over 100 years. We concluded that several factors were driving forces behind moose (and deer) population fluctuations.[i]

For one, we found that both moose and deer populations surged in the aftermath of large, landscape scale disturbances, namely fires, large blowdowns, clear-cut logging and spruce budworm epidemics.  Deer abundance was also tied to winter severity – long, cold and snowy winters knocked deer down – short winters without much snow saw big upticks in deer numbers.

In the 1990s, deer and moose numbers swelled in tandem. Winters were mild and food was abundant. Even a bad winter in 1995 didn’t have much of an impact on deer – the woods were full of easy to reach and nutritious arboreal lichens growing on millions of balsam trees killed by a spruce budworm outbreak. The same thing had happened 40 years earlier.

When deer became super-abundant, moose numbers began to plummet. Brain worm appeared to be a factor. The parasite has no discernible impact on deer, but is deadly on moose. When deer densities get above 4-5 deer/km2, the disease becomes problematic to moose.

Deer densities rose to at least twice that level.

Exacerbating the problem was the weather – a series of wet summers made conditions ideal for terrestrial snails and slugs, the brainworm’s conduit for the disease.

High deer numbers also led to skyrocketing wolf numbers.

The quantity and quality of moose browse declined precipitously with a slowdown in logging and the maturing of burns and blowdowns.

In short order, the moose population crashed.

Deer eventually depleted the supply of arboreal lichens. Winters turned cold and snowy. Wolves were everywhere. Deer too, crashed.

Today, there aren’t a lot of moose or deer in much of the Kenora area (except in the city where deer are relatively safe from wolves and people feed them).

With deer numbers down, will the moose recover?

Maybe, although with only low levels of logging and no recent large forest fires or blowdowns, moose habitat is presently sub-optimal.

Deer have continued their downward spiral owing to a spate of snowy winters and continued predation by wolves. With few deer, wolves will eventually crash. Then, with at least a few mild winters – deer might stage a comeback. The next spruce budworm epidemic will help, but that’s still a few years off (budworm outbreaks occur about every 40 years).

The fact is, ups and downs are normal in many populations of wildlife.  Stable populations, especially in seasonal climates, are the rarity.

What happened in the Kenora area isn’t exactly why moose – or deer – numbers have gone up or down elsewhere. Still, there are parallels and commonalities.

Food availability is commonly linked to population changes, as is weather, the abundance of predators and human hunting pressure. Diseases are also problematic, especially during population peaks.

Across North America, some populations of barren ground caribou have recently shown dramatic declines. Although somewhat alarming, it’s not unprecedented. Northern herds have a history of spectacular ups and downs. In Alaska, the caribou population dropped by more than 50% in the late 1970’s. In Quebec/Labrador, the caribou population jumped from less than 200,000 in the late 70’s to around 1 million in just 20 years. They have recently plummeted to only a few thousand.

In winter, caribou eat lichens, a very slow-growing plant, almost exclusively. Although over-grazing lichens isn’t the only issue they face (wolves, hunting pressure, disease and parasites and the weather are also important), food does matter.

After being reduced to paltry numbers (and extirpated in eastern Canada), wild turkeys, aided by re-stocking and re-introductions, underwent a huge expansion in range occupancy and population. But in the USA, turkey numbers peaked about a decade ago, and have since declined – again, not unexpectedly – ‘new’ or reintroduced populations often flourish, subside, then have years of – you guessed it – ups and downs.

While wildlife population ups and downs can’t be curtailed, they can be managed.

As OFAH Wildlife Biologist Keith Munro says, “We really need to take a big picture approach to wildlife management. Rather than focusing on a single factor that may be affecting a wildlife population, we need to consider the whole system which includes, but is not limited to, harvest (both licenced and rights-based), predation, competition between species, diseases, parasites, and habitat”.

But no matter what we do, what goes up – does come down.

[i] To read the entire study, see Ranta, B., and M. W. Lankester. 2017. Moose and deer population trends in northwestern Ontario: a case history. Alces 53: 159–179.


Some of the Kenora area wolves I have seen.

Back in 2014 I wrote on my blog how the local wolves, particularly the big wolves that prey on deer and moose, were still doing well. Locally, meaning within about a 100 km radius from the city of Kenora, the moose population had collapsed and white-tailed deer numbers were plummeting – but there were still a lot of big wolves around. Smaller canids, namely coyotes, were present, but not numerous.

These days, I can report that moose populations have not recovered and deer populations really crashed; there are still some deer around, but very, very few moose.

Surprisingly, a sizable population of big wolves has endured here, but maybe not as many as back in 2014. Coyote and other smaller wolf numbers seem to be up.

With respect to wolves in general, there remains much controversy regarding wolf taxonomy and wolf management. Research on wolves continues to provide interesting information on wolf biology.

Big wolves are widely distributed – they are found across much of North America and Eurasia, as well as India, China and even parts of Africa. There’s general agreement that the majority of these wolves are all one and the same species, the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus). Some claim there are not one but three species of wolf in the world; the Grey Wolf, the Red Wolf (C. rufus) and the Ethiopian Wolf (C. simensis). A few – mostly some Ontario-based biologists and scientists – say the Algonquin Wolf is also a separate species of wolf ( C. lycaon).

In North America, there is also the other ‘wolf’, the Coyote (Canis latrans), which many suggest is not really a wolf.


Small Wolves . . . .

The trouble with taxonomy is that there are no clear rules as to what constitutes a species. It appears that all these wolf species can interbreed and produce viable offspring. So are they all one species with a lot of variety, or  . . . what?  For example, the Red Wolf is in danger of extinction in large part because of hybridization (interbreeding) with coyotes.

The Algonquin Wolf was, until recently, referred to as the Eastern Wolf, a sub-species of Grey Wolf or perhaps a distinct species. However, recognized hybridization with Coyotes and Grey Wolves messed thing up and somehow it became the Algonquin Wolf. Interestingly, on the official Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry website on the Algonquin Wolf (, the scientific name provided is Canis sp. Which seems to me to say: ‘We don’t know exactly what it is, but we know one when we see one.’

Anyway, regardless of the taxonomy, the prevailing attitude almost everywhere is definitely pro-wolf protection (the exception may be coyotes). Often, the attitudes and management direction seems to me, to be totally bizarre.

For example, on the USA side of Lake Superior, Grey Wolves have been re-introduced to Isle Royale (at great expense), after apparent inbreeding brought the resident Grey Wolf population down to two. Two wolves couldn’t keep the moose population in check and moose were eating themselves out of house and home.

The resident wolves on Isle Royale came to be there by crossing the ice, like the moose (when early Europeans went to the Isle, they found Caribou; apparently, there were no moose, or wolves).

Natural re-population of wolves from the mainland was thought to be a non-starter because climate change was making the chances of an ice-bridge in the future unlikely. Same with Caribou.

Meanwhile, over on the Canadian side, wolves crossed Lake Superior’s frozen waters a few years ago and pretty much wiped-out the resident Caribou on the Slate Islands.  Then wolves proceeded to do the same on Michipicoten Island – to save the not so long ago introduced Caribou (a species officially classed as Threatened under the provincial and federal legislation), the Ontario government  . . . decided to catch the Caribou and move them to (again, at great expense). . . the Slate Islands.  In other words, save the Caribou (???), but only by doing no harm to the wolves.

The Grey Wolf, by the way, is a species that in Ontario is not at risk under the Endangered Species Act, (they are common and widespread in distribution); although the Algonquin Wolf is listed as ‘Threatened’. By consensus, the wolves around Lake Superior are thought to be Grey Wolves, not Algonquin Wolves.

Back on Isle Royale, ice has made a bridge from the mainland to the Isle a couple of times in the last few years. On at least one occasion, researchers documented wolves from the mainland did cross the ice over to the island, but they didn’t stick around.

It’s supposed to be another colder than average winter in the Great Lakes Region, so chances seem good that in 2020 there will once again be an ice bridge from the mainland to Isle Royale.

Back home in Kenora, I’ve been seeing coyotes (brush wolves?) on our property over the last few months. I have seen tracks of much larger wolves, but haven’t seen one lately. When I was out deer hunting about 50 km from the house the other day, my hunting partner and I came across tracks of a pack of at least three big wolves.

Off property, I have been deer hunting on 8 different days – neither I nor my hunting partners on those days have seen a deer (or a wolf).  But one day we did see a moose!

Recent studies in Minnesota are confirming Grey Wolves can move vast distances and set up a new home range. Hundreds of kilometers of movement does not seem all that unusual, as evidenced by northern Minnesotan wolves re-locating to the Red Lake, Ontario area (about 300 kms, as the crow flies). See for interesting updates on their findings.

From my perspective, wolf management, or a lack thereof, is symptomatic of the problems facing the wildlife management profession everywhere.

Too much emotion, too little use of scientific principles.

It’s a big problem.


I recently returned from a mule deer hunt in Alberta. On the last day of the season, I was able to fill my tag with a nice buck, with help from my good friend and hunter host Glenn.

Unfortunately, I don’t know whether the deer will be edible.

In this part of Alberta, north of Medicine Hat and close to the Saskatchewan border, mule deer have a high incidence of chronic wasting disease, or CWD. Our friend Rob, who often hunts with us, has had his last two harvested mule deer from the same area (2017 and 2018) test +ve for CWD; he’s had a total of 3 +ve CWD mulie bucks over the past 5 years.

CWD is a prion disease thought to have originated from scrapie in sheep, but no one knows for sure. Prions are very weird, in that they are a ‘bent’ protein, not a virus or bacteria; so they are not a living entity in the classic sense. My friend Brian thinks they fall into the realm of ‘magic’, as they defy reason. There is no cure and once an animal is infected, the disease is always fatal. Apparently, the incubation period is a minimum of about a year, sometimes more than two years in mule deer, before clinical signs begin to develop (drooling, body tremors, loss of weight).

Worst of all, it seems you can’t get rid of CWD from the environment. It survives in soil and vegetation for upwards of a decade and even autoclaving won’t destroy it. Magic.

There is fear that as it becomes prevalent in a deer population, extinction of infected herds is a possibility. Game departments in a number of states and provinces are limiting movement of hunter harvested deer by enacting legislation that makes it unlawful to move around or import unprocessed carcasses. That means the animal must be de-boned and antlers on the skull plate cleaned. It’s hoped this reduces the rate of spread of the disease as these parts harbor most of the prions.

Where CWD is prevalent, or where there are worries it might show up, it’s either mandatory or recommended that the head of a harvested deer is submitted for testing, dependent on the jurisdiction and specific area the deer was harvested from.

It’s often said CWD is unlikely to jump the species barrier, but if it came from sheep, and is known to now occur in mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, moose and caribou/reindeer, that claim doesn’t seem to hold a lot of water.

As of yet, it has not been diagnosed in humans, but the World Health Organization recommends against consumption of a CWD infected animal.

Trying to stop the spread and rate of infection of this disease is more than a challenge. There’s just not enough known about the disease.

For one, it seems old, mature mule deer bucks are much more likely to get infected than younger bucks or does of any age. In Alberta, whitetails on the same range as mulies have a very low rate of infection as well, although in other jurisdiction, for example in Wisconsin, whitetails in ‘hotspots’ do have high rates of infection. Free-ranging elk don’t seem to be particularly vulnerable to infection. Moose can become infected, but it’s rare. Reindeer in Norway were recently found with CWD (how did it get there? Previously, it had only been documented in the USA and Canada, at least as far as I can tell. CWD is not as yet a problem in Canadian or Alaskan caribou.

In elk, some specific genotypes don’t get the disease, but these animals, apparently, are rare in the population and exhibit other traits that make them undesirable. One such elk in a US compound has survived for years in a pen where all other elk that have been placed there over the years became infected and died. Her name is ‘Lucky’.

Other than trying to restrict movement of hunter harvested carcasses, the other method game agencies have used to try and stop the spread of the disease has been to de-populate deer in the area deer were been found to be infected (the Norwegians killed 2500 reindeer when they detected the disease in a couple of animals). This action seems to work in early stages, when only one or two animals have been found with CWD; but once it’s established, de-population is probably a lost cause. Killing all the deer to try and stop the disease from killing all the deer seems  . . . pointless, comes to mind.

In Alberta, the rumour is that mule deer management practices are going to change, perhaps as early as 2019, to try and contain the disease. Presently, mule deer are managed mostly through a draw, which directly limits harvest levels. This management practice has been in place for many years and resulted in Alberta substantially improving the overall quality of the buck harvest – a lot of bucks were able to live long enough to grow a big set of antlers.

But if it’s old bucks that are most likely to get and spread the disease, the thinking is that maybe it’s time to reduce the average age of mulie bucks. The easiest way to do that would seem to be to relax harvest restrictions by managing mule deer with a ‘General’ license; e.g., getting rid of the quota system and simply requiring hunters to buy a mule deer license/tag that’s valid during the open hunting season. More hunters, a higher harvest, fewer mule deer overall and far fewer old bucks.

That might work, except maybe not. In south-east Alberta, where CWD is most prevalent, there are large acreages that are more or less mule deer sanctuaries, and wouldn’t be affected by an easing of hunting restrictions. First off, there’s CFB Suffield; it’s 45,836 ha in size and right now, only open to limited elk hunting. There are also numerous large ranches (often these ranches are 10’s of thousands of acres in size) that either prohibit or severely restrict hunting, so any liberalization of hunting of mule deer would have little or no impact on those areas.

On the other hand, what are the options?

One thing for sure, more research effort is required. Unfortunately, because CWD impacts mostly on game animals and the hunting community – and hasn’t caused human illness or death (yet!!!) it’s a low priority for governments everywhere.

Still, there’s hope. Very recently, a bulletin from the Wildlife Society said “researchers found that high levels of major compounds in soil organic matter — humic acids — degrade CWD prions. When prions in soil were exposed to high concentrations of humic acids, researchers found lower levels of them. They also noted lower levels of infectivity in mice that were exposed to soil with higher levels of humic acids.” That’s good, and welcome news.

But more work is needed. Now.

In the meantime, I’ll be waiting for the results of testing on the mule deer I tagged.

Fingers crossed.

Wolves come in a wide variety of sizes and colours.

I’m back to posting on my blog . . . .I hope to post regularly, but also likely infrequently.

Blogging is, or can be, hard work. Still, I’m doing it because it can provide a forum for ideas that hopefully helps more than just me in understanding events that are of concern to a lot of us. Certainly, I am a follower of several blogs and I get some very interesting and useful information from them.

At any rate, the reason(s) I’m going to try this (blogging) again is that I can’t help but be astounded at some of the going-ons in wildlife world. Wolf management, for example.

Let’s look at that one. It’s appropriate, I think, especially given that I’ve always had a photo of a wolf as the ‘signature’ of my blog.

I have used a wolf photo, in part, because wolves evoke a wide range of thoughts and ideas amongst anyone with an interest in wild things. It’s been that way for a long time – as the song says, “it’s been that way since the get-go.”

Historically, wolves were believed to be ‘bad’ by the majority of people, at least in Europe (those North American ‘colonizers’) and getting rid of wolves was ‘good’. It’s not hard to see how those ideas came to be, considering rural folk in Europe, for hundreds and even thousands of years, were mostly poor, didn’t have guns and were often reliant on a farming existence that was quite fragile. Wolves killed and ate livestock and back in those days, probably killed and ate more than a few people. So it made a lot of sense to try and get rid of wolves; which they did, eventually.

While this was going-on, Europeans began colonizing North America, bringing along with them their ideas about what to do about wolves (get rid of them).

Which, again, they did; much of what became the lower 48 along with large swaths of southern Canada became wolf-free zones.

But there were still a lot of wolves in the world and the wolf did not go extinct.

In Eurasia, large numbers of wolves continued to persist, particularly in Russia; in Canada and Alaska, wolves have always ranged far and wide.

With wolves gone across large landscapes, but still abundant elsewhere, the ‘let’s get rid of all the wolves’ meme lost pre-eminence.

It was replaced by the ‘we like wolves a lot!’ meme.

One outcome was a re-classification of the wolf. In the minds of both the public and government, the wolf changed from being a lowly varmint to the more lofty status of a noble game animal. To provide them with love and protection, wolves, in places, were put on endangered species lists, which brought with it money and the implementation of many a wolf recovery program.

Largely a result of the new meme, wolves today are more widespread and abundant than they have been in over a hundred years.

They’re back with a vengeance in the western mountains of the US, much of the mid-western forests and are occasionally reported in New England.  Of course, there still abundant over much of Canada and Alaska.

And coyotes are almost everywhere outside the tundra. Then there are wolves that people don’t really know how to classify except to say they’re some sort of wolf . . . Newfoundland, once free of all wild canids, now has coyotes and . . .some other canids.

Over in Europe, wolves have also been on the path to recovery. Hiking their way across and out of Poland, wolves have successfully recolonized Germany, to the point where there is now a growing rumbling that wolf numbers are getting out of control. In late 2017, there were estimated to be 60 packs of wolves in Germany, 13 more than the year before. The total number of wolves is officially estimated to be 150-160, although unofficial estimates say there is more than twice that number. Wolves are also showing up in other European countries, including France and Spain.

With many landscapes now occupied (infested?) with wolves, I think it’s time to move away from ‘we like wolves a lot!’

Unfortunately, that meme is not yet dead, although it has been wounded.

For example, the old mantra that wolves only kill the very old, the very young, the sick and the injured has been thoroughly de-bunked.

Wolves will try and catch and kill and eat whatever they can.

In the mountains of northern Idaho and southern British Columbia, the South Selkirk herd of caribou is down to three animals. What’s the main culprit behind their disappearance, despite decades of effort at maintaining and increasing their numbers?  Wolf predation. Even though it is astounding that wolf culls were actually attempted, they weren’t successful in getting rid of the wolves there (maybe it’s a lost art) and so the wolves have been catching, killing and eating all the caribou.

In Canada’s Pukaskwa National Park on the northern shore of Lake Superior, the wolves finally caught and killed and ate every last caribou a few years ago.

This past winter, Ontario did an emergency capture and transfer of caribou off Michipicoten Island. This was done because it was feared wolves there were going to catch and kill and eat all the caribou on the island.

So it’s clear that wolves can drive herds of ungulates, at least locally, to extinction.

It’s also become clear that in addition to killing them all, wolves are capable of killing enough to reduce populations to low levels and then keep them there. It’s called a predator pit – after falling in, there’s no way out. It’s been observed with respect to white-tailed deer in the northern forests of Minnesota and a number of small, scattered herds of woodland caribou wherever they occur.

That’s proof of the pudding that there is no ‘balance’ of nature. Nature is never ‘in balance’. There is a constant struggle for survival that goes on and in the end, most species actually lose out. There are vastly more species that have gone extinct than survive today. And the vast majority of extinctions have had nothing to do with, to use a phrase, humankind.

So knowing what we now know, I think it’s time to get rid of and replace ‘we like wolves a lot!’ with something a bit more reasonable. A lot of people are thinking along those lines.

Something is needed that will result in changes to the present, often absurd, over-protection of wolves way of doing things.

Like here in Ontario, where moose populations have been in decline for years despite severe and increasing restrictions on hunting. The answer seems to be to give wolves even more protection.

Now there’s a proposal in the works to ban wolf harvest completely from a huge swath in the south-central part of the province to protect the ‘eastern’ wolf, something that, with some half-hearted scrutiny, can be shown to be completely bogus, as there is no such animal. The ‘eastern’ wolf, described in part as a rather smallish wolf, occurs sympatrically with gray (timber) wolves. The wolves breed indiscriminately with one another and produce viable offspring of various size and colour. Biology 101 says that makes them the same species. But when you’re hitched to the ‘we like wolves a lot!’ bandwagon, you don’t let sound science get in your way.

It’s worth noting that scientists in the USA, who have analyzed the data, don’t recognize the eastern wolf as a separate species of wolf. They are more along the lines of wolves being Canis soup.

Over in Germany, wolves are still provided with complete protection. With numbers rapidly expanding, there are dire consequences to wild herds of deer and livestock being predicted.

Fighting over how to manage wolves in the US continue to escalate; in some areas,elk herds are taking a pounding from high wolf predation.

With all these conflicts, one would think that reasonable compromises regarding wolf management could be found, but none appear to be anywhere, at least not on the immediate horizon.

So despite all the evidence that shows there is absolutely no doubt that there can be too many wolves and that managing wolves using sound wildlife management  should be a no-brainer, the ‘we like wolves a lot!’ continues to rule the day. It can’t last . . .

Meanwhile, over on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, the wolf population – which arrived naturally – is down to a single animal. The Isle, which got rid of all the wolves naturally, pushed the US Parks Service to produce plans to re-introduce 20-30 wolves to the island over the next three years at a cost of about 2 million dollars.

I really think it’s time to change that meme.

Well, that’s my back to blogging post. Hope you enjoyed it.


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.


I was watching the news on TV the other day, and there was a story about the high cost of food in the north, and whether more couldn’t be done to help lower costs so that people could get good, nutritious food at a reasonable price. There was a boycott going on with the main grocery chain, which claimed it was doing what it could, and would try to do even more. The government, of course, also received poor marks for their part in food delivery.

What piqued my interest was when one of the people being interviewed said something like ‘We used to eat a lot of country food, but not any more. Now, most of the food we get is from the store’.

What’s going on here? Is no one hunting or fishing anymore? Because that’s what ‘country food’ is – ptarmigan, goose, caribou, fish – all the things hunters and fishermen pursue. I find it hard to believe no one is hunting and fishing anymore, especially in such remote areas where there’s not a lot of regular employment and where hunting and fishing is and always has been a way of life.

If there isn’t much hunting and fishing going on, I suspect it’s largely because of a lack of fish and game.

For example, with respect to game (animals), on Baffin Island in the arctic, CBC recently reported that ‘an aerial survey in 2012 — the first ever of its scale — found only about 5,000 caribou , a decrease of up to 95 per cent of population estimates in the 1990s’.

Other, similar declines of caribou have recently occurred elsewhere, although caribou populations in many areas of the north remain robust. Caribou are a traditional, staple part of the diet in many northern communities that are populated mostly by Aboriginal people.

Why have a number of caribou populations collapsed? The reasons are many, but I believe a contributing factor is that modern principles of wildlife management are not being implemented in many areas. Instead of monitoring and managing wildlife, the focus almost everywhere in the north is on ‘rights’. Namely Aboriginal and Treaty Rights. In modern society, it takes more than the implementation of rights to manage wildlife sustainably.  Certainly, there is a need to use the knowledge of local peoples, also referred to as ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’, or TEK when managing wildlife, but modern science-based biological principles can’t be ignored.  Too often it is, though, and the end result is not pretty.

Better wildlife management – including use and distribution of wildlife – needs much more attention than it’s been getting. Like, what happens to the meat of a caribou or moose that’s been taken by a southern, licensed/tourist hunter? I know when I went caribou hunting in Alaska, we could only take home 60 lbs of meat. What happened to the rest? I know a lot was simply left behind for the wolves, grizzly bears and other scavengers. Surely there could be a better system to get more of this valuable protein to northern inhabitants.

Another example that comes to mind is, why aren’t  snow geese, that nest in the north, being harvested and distributed to folk in the north, who could make good use of them (or are they, but it’s something not being talked about?) It’s been documented that there are so many snow geese, they are eating themselves out of house and home. In many states and provinces, there’s now a spring and fall hunt, and in some areas the daily bag limit is 20, with no possession limit! One would think that a northern harvest of several thousand geese could be done on a sustainable basis so as to help fill the annual food needs for a lot of northern families.

In the remote north, there’s no doubt it’s expensive to fly or truck in food. But it’s always been assumed that a staple part of the northern diet is country food. If the supply of country food is drying up, that’s a serious problem that requires fixing.



Seeing as it’s almost Christmas, it seems timely to say something about Santa’s reindeer. It’s a story about caribou in Ontario, something published a couple of months back in Ontario Out of Doors. This is the unedited version. It’s likely different than what you read about caribou elsewhere.

Caribou occur across northern portions of Eurasia and North America and all caribou (and their domestic counterpart, reindeer) are the same species (Rangifer tarandus). In North America, there were originally 6 sub-species, but one is now extinct. From Manitoba east, all caribou are the woodland caribou sub-species (R. t. caribou).

Early in 2005, the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre compiled information on cervid (deer) populations from wildlife agencies and estimated there were 3.9 million caribou in the country, compared to about 3.2 million white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose combined.  Since then, populations have fluctuated somewhat, but it’s likely caribou numbers are still roughly equal or greater than the total of all other cervids. Back in 2005, it was thought there were about 21,000 caribou in Ontario – recent surveys suggest there are close to 30,000 in the province.

But in Ontario, there is no licensed caribou hunt. The last year licensed hunters could take a caribou here was in 1928. Why is this?

I believe the present policy of no licenced hunting of caribou in Ontario is a reflection of historical management actions coupled with a more recent trend favouring protectionism.

In her book ‘Canadian Wildlife and Man’, Dr. Anne Innis Dagg chronicled that in Ontario until 1946, big game management consisted mainly of setting open and closed seasons and bag limits, enforcing those regulations and paying bounties on timber wolves, coyotes and bears. In her opinion, that strategy wasn’t very effective, in large part because the government had few biologists on staff and little attention was paid to the biological basis of management.

With respect to caribou, the Ontario government of more than 100 years ago did know that caribou had ranged across the province as far south as Lake Nipissing, but range occupancy steadily receded after European settlement in the 1800’s.  By the early 1900’s caribou had had largely disappeared from the southern half of the province and concern over this led to the closure of the hunt for non-natives. However, no one really knows how many caribou there used to be on southern ranges. Brian Hutchinson, a former biologist with Parks Canada who had caribou conservation as one of his files, said “Many of the assumptions of caribou range in the early 1900’s are just that – assumptions.”

Once licensed hunting ceased, not much was done for years with respect to caribou management, despite the more modern, post ’46 approach to management.

What did occur? A provincial population estimate of 13,000 was made in 1965 from aerial surveys conducted between 1959 and 1964, and between 1951 and 1986 there were five reviews written on the status of caribou. In 1967 a report was published suggesting caribou numbers in the province were well below carrying capacity (based largely on lichen abundance, the staple winter food). In 1975 some habitat management initiatives began.

Hutchinson notes that aerial surveys of caribou are notoriously poor with respect to estimating numbers, which is why biologists mostly use ‘range occupancy’ as a surrogate for population.

In 1989 the MNR wrote a ‘background to a policy’ paper on woodland caribou which recommended the re-evaluation of the sport hunting closure and suggested that native peoples could derive economic benefits from marketing such a hunt. MNR’s Wildlife Branch spent considerable effort to produce a caribou policy which included the possibility of a licenced hunt, but the policy was never approved.

In recent years, MNR has focused on trying to manage caribou habitat to retain and restore populations on southern ranges. There has been emphasis on monitoring and research and two huge provincial parks, Woodland Caribou and Wabakimi, were created largely to protect caribou and caribou habitat.

Although all caribou in Ontario are the same sub-species, some biologists believe a finer level of classification is required for management. As such, woodland caribou that live in forested habitats have been labelled the forest-dwelling ecotype.  Woodland caribou that live on the open tundra, but migrate into the forest – usually to over-winter – are said to be the forest-tundra ecotype. Aboriginals in northern Manitoba also refer to the northern herds as migratory.

However, there’s no clear distinction between the two, as some caribou are known to hang out with the tundra-forest animals, sometimes for years, and then become forest dwellers at a later stage, or vice-versa. And genetic analysis has been arguably non-conclusive in terms of providing a clear distinction between herds and ecotypes.

Despite these issues, the forest dwelling ecotype has been identified as a Species at Risk (SAR) in Ontario, with a status of Endangered. This is consistent with the status of forest dwelling woodland caribou nationally – COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, declared the forest-dwelling ecotype as a nationally threatened species in 2000, based primarily on their perceived vulnerability and changes in range occupancy.

Regardless of what one thinks of management by ecotype, there are about 20,000 caribou in Ontario that live mostly on far northern ranges and are not managed as a SAR. This means licenced hunting is possible and does, in fact, occur – in Manitoba – where they regularly migrate.

Dr. James Duncan, Wildlife Branch Director of Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, believes the Manitoba licensed hunt, which is restricted to northern herds, is sustainable and would be willing to share their knowledge and experience with Ontario.

Mark Ryckman, Senior Wildlife Biologist with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, says the OFAH supports protection of caribou on southern ranges, but would be open to seeing a hunt in the far north.

It seems to me there is no valid reason why Ontario couldn’t have a licensed caribou hunt. There doesn’t appear to be a sustainability issue, and even if the number of tags available were small, important economic and social benefits would still be accrued.


Some people refer to white-tailed deer as ‘woodland rats’. And there are good reasons for the analogy; whitetails, like Norway rats, can be numerous, they scurry about and they harbor a plethora of diseases and parasites. Still, I like them.

But the disease part is very worrisome. There are two diseases in particular that I have to deal with that can only be described as ‘bad’.

In eastern portions of their range, many deer herds have infection rates of a parasite called the menigeal or brain worm as high as 80%. The worm lives happily in the brain of a deer, but if worms find their way into caribou, moose or elk, it results in sickness and often death. The worm survives by shedding eggs out the deer via feces, which are fed upon by snails and slugs. When these invertebrates crawl up on vegetation, some are inadvertently eaten by deer, returning a new generation of brain worms to the host. When there are lots of deer and snails, it’s highly likely almost every individual cervid will eventually eat an infected snail. It doesn’t do the whitetail deer any harm, but the other species aren’t so lucky.

I’ve never heard of a human with brain worm, and I don’t know if it’s even possible to get infected.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is another disease that’s worrisome. This one, though, is somewhat less discriminatory as to who survives: no one, at least as far as is known to date. Any whitetail or mule deer, moose or elk that gets infected, dies. Caribou with the disease have yet to be found, but likely only because they have not as yet come into contact with it. Humans don’t get CWD, at least not so far as is known.

The problem with whitetails and this disease is mainly the fact whitetails are so numerous and widespread. They’re everywhere, mixing with mulies, moose and elk (actually, they aren’t everywhere. But they do have a large range of distribution, much greater than mule deer, moose or elk). Only caribou in the far north have greater range occupancy than whitetails. There is little to no range overlap with deer and caribou – when this has occurred, caribou lost out quickly and completely.

This winter will reduce whitetail populations considerably across a huge swath of North America. For moose, elk and maybe even mule deer and caribou, that’s probably a good thing.

But like rats, many whitetails will survive. They survive severe winters by finding people willing to feed them, or finding some hidey-hole safe from predators where they’ll just sit tight and try to wait it out. Or something.

The white-tailed deer is a survivor. Just like the Norway rat.


Critter cams, or whatever it is you want to call the cameras available for monitoring or ‘watching’ wildlife, are all the rage with hunters. But they are also a great tool for biologists and anyone else who is engaged or interested in wildlife management.

After retirement, I have stayed active with respect to trying to keep tabs on our local elk herd. In 2000 and 2001, we brought and released 104 elk from Alberta into northwestern Ontario, as the animals were once extant (they existed) in this area.

We have 7 ‘critter cams’ and are using them to monitor the elk herd. After a rough start, the elk seem to be holding their own, although the critter cams show there are a lot of big predators – bears and wolves – so their future is by no means assured (there are also other issues, like poaching). We think the habitat is suitable, but there are a lot of variables. The pics from our cameras will hopefully help in answering at least some pieces of the puzzle.

Interestingly, the elk seem to be the animals who have the biggest interest in the critter cam itself. We have many eyeball shots of elk – like this 6X6 bull – but very few similar shots of any other mammal. The other species sometimes see or acknowledge the camera – especially the bears – but only the elk take real interest in them.

In addition to elk, we have lots of pics from 2013 of of bears, wolves, white-tailed deer, moose, foxes and snowshoe hares, as well as a few shots of birds like jays, sparrows, crows and even a hawk. No shots in 2013 of cats, even though lynx are common. Bobcats are rare but there, and while cougars are present, there are not many. And that’s an understatement.

Using these cameras is a lot of fun and provides us with valuable information, such as reproductive data (are the elk cows producing offspring [yes they are!])? and relative abundance of predators.

The biggest pack of wolves we recorded in 2013 was 7 – mostly, the wolves were either alone, or with another adult.

I’d also like to say that the native Ontario elk – the eastern elk sub-species – which recent research suggests was not really a sub-species at all – is extinct (so if we accept the eastern elk wasn’t a sub-species, elk were merely ‘extirpated’ from Ontario). The re-introduced elk have not been recognized by the province as a species at risk. Total elk population in Ontario, all from re-introduction efforts, is about 1,000. Some have been here (mostly in the Sudbury area) since 1932.

When I summarize the data from 2013 Lake of the Woods release site (soon), I’ll post it, and provide some more commentary.


It took over six weeks before I found out that the mature mule deer buck  I harvested in SE Alberta was ‘fit’ for human consumption. SE Alberta has Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in its deer herd, and testing of hunter-killed deer for the presence of CWD is mandatory. While mine was OK, one of the 4 deer in total our party took (another adult buck) did have the disease. That was quite a shocker.

CWD is one of a family of diseases that are referred to as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, also called contagious prion diseases. Other diseases in this family include so-called ‘mad cow’ disease (BSE), scrapie and Creutzfeldt-Jacobs, which occurs in humans. These are all brain degenerating diseases, with no known cure. The suspected causative agent of these diseases are prions, which are abnormal, very poorly understood, cellular proteins.

While I was waiting for the results of testing on my mule deer – a CWD infected deer is not recommended for human consumption, although no cases of transmission of the disease from deer to humans has been recorded – I spoke with Dr. Margo Pybus with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. Dr. Pybus is the go-to expert in Alberta on CWD.

We discussed the disease, and I asked Dr. Pybus what she knew about the role of natural predation, and whether predators like wolves might help contain the disease. Dr. Pybus referred me to Dr. Michael Miller, who works at the Colorado Wildlife Research Center.

I contacted Dr. Miller and he provided me with a couple of published research papers that suggested cougars could detect a deer infected with CWD, even in early stages of infection. Although predation rates by cougars on CWD infected deer was found to be as much as four times that on non-infected deer, there did not seem to be any impact with respect to halting the spread of the disease.

All the deer species are believed to be susceptible to CWD (infected mule deer, whitetails, moose and elk have all been recorded – no caribou has been found with CWD, but experts think the disease just hasn’t spread yet to areas where caribou range). Every individual that become infected with CWD dies. In some areas of the USA, up to 40% of the deer are walking around infected with this disease. Where the disease is prevalent, the deer population – to date – always declines.

CWD continues to spread – relatively slowly – but there is no indication that it can be eradicated from an area once established. If detected early, concerted efforts at reducing the local deer population seems to have prevented new loci from being established.

The only other good news about this disease is that humans, as yet, don’t seem to get it. And one would have to assume many hunters have eaten CWD infected animals, given it’s now widespread distribution in western USA and Canada.