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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 (https://www.ontario.ca/page/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 https://www.facebook.com/VoyageursWolfProject/ 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.

May 7 and the ice is gone – from most lakes. There’s still ice on the big, deep lake trout lakes and one can still see the odd patch of snow/ice in the bush. Last night it was -80 C, so it’s not as if the blossoms are in bloom. Fact is the pussy willows have only just begun to emerge. No green sheen in the forest yet.

At least the pond in front of the house has been ice-free for several days, albeit most mornings there is a bit of ice along the edges. But that quickly melts off and is long gone by the afternoon.

When there was a mix of open water and ice on the pond, the ducks were in active courtship. The hooded mergansers in particular were really going at it. Lots of fighting and displaying and ‘gronking’, which is the sound of their mating call.

There were also wood ducks, green-winged teal, ringnecks, common mergansers and of course mallards. Very early, a pair of Canada geese built their nest on the beaver house and we expect the goslings will be hatching any day now.

I put up a blind to photograph from and for a few days there was a lot of action for me to try and capture. However, things have slowed down considerably and lately it’s mostly just a group of three drake mallards that come by the blind. Maybe things will pick up once the nights get a bit warmer and things start to green up.

In addition to the waterfowl, there’s been a steady stream of other migrants. Of special note was a pair of willets (first I’ve ever seen) and several rusty blackbirds. And the tree swallows are back – all three nest boxes look to be claimed.

Some deer did make it through the winter. In addition to the three that were almost daily visitors for months, there have been of late a couple of others coming to nibble at greenery on the lawn. Yesterday we noticed a large paw print of a bear on the road only a couple of hundred meters from the house. Maybe it’s the big brown one I saw last spring.

spring-7

Also yesterday, in the morning, we saw from the house a very fluffy, orangy red fox catching some rays. A couple of weeks ago, just when the ice was starting to melt, a coyote – the first we’ve seen on our property –showed up one day, but we haven’t seen it since. Best of all, I haven’t seen a timber wolf for several weeks.

There seems to be good numbers of ruffed grouse as we hear many drumming, not just on our property but pretty much wherever we have been. Neva seems to find one or two to flush on her daily walk, which keeps her happy. I like grouse a lot, so seeing and hearing grouse every day is a good thing.

Lil and I haven’t seen a single moose track anywhere we’ve been. Granted, we’ve not been travelling far and wide, but in years gone by it was common to see moose tracks on our property and here and there on the roads near town. Those days are long gone.

The MNRF released its moose tag quota allocations for the 2019 hunt and, unbelievably, is planning on issuing more cow tags than bull tags across the province as a whole. This despite the fact moose numbers continue to decline and in most WMUs, moose populations are well below their targets. In the WMU Lil and I hunt (06), only 1 tag was issued – for a cow. It seems to me this is complete lunacy, but it’s also what I’ve come to expect from an outfit where I worked for more than 30 years. I’m just glad I don’t work there any more – it’s hard enough admitting it’s where I had a career. I just shake my head.

coyote-1

It seems northwestern Ontario is not the only place where canids are thriving. I’ve never seen as many coyotes in Alberta as I did this year. They were everywhere.

On the last day of the hunt, Neva took off chasing . . . something . . . and no amount of calling or whistling got her off whatever she was tracking. I even had an e-collar on her, but something must have been amiss because even that didn’t deter her. So when she disappeared over the horizon, I didn’t know what to do. So I waited . . . for about a half hour. Then, I thought I saw her, loping towards me. But it wasn’t her, it was a coyote. Which kept coming towards me. I figured she was being chased – hopefully by Neva – and sure enough, about 2 minutes after the coyote ran by there came Neva, hot on the coyote’s trail.

That was the end of her hunt for the day.

Coyotes (Canis latrans) out west tend to be smaller than their more eastern cousins, but apparently there is some evidence that their size is on the increase, possibly in response to growing populations of elk and moose. There is also a growing population of gray or timber wolves (Canis lupus) in the west.

Wolves and coyotes are incredibly plastic, and there is a lot of variation with respect to size and colour and behaviour. Some biologists have succeeded in having another species of wolf recognized (the eastern wolf, Canis lycaon ), but I don’t think it warrants being a stand alone species. It interbreeds with the gray wolf and their ranges overlap (naturally), which Bio 101 would suggest they be recognized as a sub-species, at best. Or maybe that nebulous ‘ecotype’, another way to be a splitter. In the forested east, large coyotes – or small wolves – are often referred to as ‘brush wolves’.

At any rate, wolves and coyotes are thriving over large swaths of North America. If you like wolves, that’s a good thing.

I like wolves (and coyotes), but I also think there can be too many of them. But that’s largely because I’m a hunter, and right now where I live there are lots of wolves, hardly any moose, and a low and rapidly dwindling deer population.

And not many coyotes, either ( a few, though). And that has nothing to do with human persecution or a lack of suitable coyote habitat. Apparently, timber wolves tend to lay a licking on coyotes. I suspect they have been doing just that.

rooster-1

I just returned from a trip to Alberta; did, in no particular order, a bit of hunting, photography, dog training and visiting. It was a good time.

It had been a wet year on the Canadian prairies.There was more water lying around than I’ve seen in the 30+ years I’ve headed west on a regular basis. My destination is south-eastern Alberta, an area known as the Palliser Triangle, an arid piece of the province dominated by cattle ranches with some grain growing. Cattle need a lot of land per animal out there, and in places the ground is literally carpeted with prickly pear cactus. It was so wet this year that the grasses had successfully chocked out some of the cactus, the first time I’d notice that type of vegetative interaction occur.

So, in a relative sense, it was lush. There was lots of cover and the birds and animals were able to keep hidden much more than usual. Still, I saw antelope, mule deer, white-tailed deer, moose (it’s strange to see moose in cactus country), coyotes (lots), pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse, gray or Hungarian partridge, a variety of ducks and geese, hundreds of magpies, a shrike and several other small birds and mammals.

Pheasants – always at the top of the list when bird hunting in Alberta – appeared to be up from our previous hunt two years ago, but weren’t at the levels we encountered a few years back.  As a group, we managed to harvest a few, but I only shot one. I missed a couple and the others I saw while driving for photos or looking after Neva on a lead (so I had no gun). Neva the Diva didn’t have much trouble getting on pheasants and next time I should be able to spend more time hunting and less time training. It’s a lot of fun to hunt upland with dogs and they are almost a necessity for retrieval of downed birds that can be wounded or just plain hard to find in thick cover.

The pheasants on our hunting grounds are wild birds (although pheasants are not native to North America). In Ontario and even in parts of Alberta, the vast majority of pheasants are birds that were raised in captivity and released for the specific purpose of being hunted. I like that they were wild where I go. They are smart and wily, and after a few days of hunting very difficult to get close enough for a shot, with or without the aid of dogs. And it’s not like they are everywhere – pheasants prefer a mix of agricultural crops and natural cover, so once one is away from the river bottoms, there aren’t many pheasants. Hunting pressure is concentrated during the first week of the season (which is a month and a half long) and then trails off fairly dramatically.

Over the next while, I’ll provide updates on my impression of the population status of the other game species we encountered, as well as a few other observations and anecdotes.