Tag Archives: lichens

When I began to write this, on April 8, 2019, the temperature outside was hovering just above the freezing mark and it had just begun a rain/snow mix. Snow still carpeted the ground, although there were bare patches under some of the conifers and on some south facing slopes. The ponds and lakes were still ice-locked, except where there’s current.

Now, three days later, not much has changed, except it’s clear and cold (-60 C this morning), rather than overcast with snow and rain.

Two geese showed up on the pond on April 5th and hung out most of the day, before leaving, but they have since returned, at least once. Last year, geese arrived on the pond the same date. I suspect these early arrivals are to do with claiming the pond as their own in an effort to build a nest and raise some young, something that has been a failure on this pond two years running. Maybe this year will be different and both geese and ducks can successfully hatch and rear some progeny.

The wolves whittled the deer down again this winter, but there are still a few around. The deer population, overall, is a shadow of what it was about 10 years ago and seems to still be on a downward trajectory. As I’ve said before, I don’t think deer herds here will recover until the next spruce budworm epidemic is well underway, something that as far as I know, hasn’t even started yet. Interestingly, I did see a deer chewing on some lichens the other day, but like deer, lichen abundance is minimal.

A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation to the Canadian Institute of Forestry, Lake of the Woods Chapter, on Moose Emphasis Areas, or MEAs. Basically, MEAs are large patches of forest – e.g., 5-10 thousand hectares – where the forest managers try to coordinate the creation and maintenance of good to excellent moose habitat when carrying out forest operations, namely harvesting, renewal and maintenance of wood fibre. Dr. Vince Crichton – Doc Moose – gave a presentation on moose and moose management in general, and there were two other presentations by District Biologists as to how MEAs were actually being implemented in approved forest management plans.

I think there was a general consensus that good moose habitat is a key component of managing moose, but other factors, including predation, disease and human harvest, are also important. Unfortunately, all factors, not just moose habitat, are difficult to control.

For example, starting with moose habitat, successful planning and implementing MEAs require a skillful planning team. But that alone is not enough, as public input needs to be accommodated. In many areas, the benefits of MEAs might not be realized without restrictions on road access (you need roads to practice forestry, but roads also provide access to human hunters and other predators).Meaningful restrictions on road access can be difficult if not impossible, because the public simply won’t accept them.

And good habitat, even with road restrictions, might not be enough. Sometimes, predators can suppress prey (e.g., moose) populations – which in some circumstances might warrant predator control. But these days, any talk of predator control seems to be met with a great deal of derision. Governments everywhere – certainly here in Ontario – have pretty much tossed the option of predator control aside.

There’s not much that can be done about disease, but at least there have been, in this part of the country, harsher, more snowy winters of late, which has reduced (a) deer populations, which in turn has reduced the incidence of brain worm, a major moose killer, and (b) moose tick abundance. Moose ticks thrive when winters are short, but take a hit from early and late snow cover (moose die-offs from severe moose tick infestations are fairly common in some areas). Fewer deer also mean fewer wolves, so again, that’s a good thing. Bears are another story.

Human harvest can be controlled to some degree, but again, there are issues that probably should be addressed, but can’t, or aren’t. These include:

(a) there is little control over harvest by Aboriginals and Métis, who do not require licences to hunt and are generally not subject to road use restrictions. Some Aboriginal and Métis groups and communities have voluntarily agreed to moose harvest limits, but there are no enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance.

(b) despite reductions in the number of adult tags available to licenced hunters in many Wildlife Management Units (e.g., in WMU 6 there was a single bull tag issued last year – to me – and I didn’t fill it), there is still an unrestricted, two week hunt for calf moose. That means anyone with a moose licence can hunt and harvest (one) calf moose in any WMU during the ‘open’ calf season.

(c) there seems to be a mis-guided desire to have a bull:cow ratio close to 50:50. Doc Moose presented evidence that bulls can be substantially fewer in number than cows and still ‘get the job done’. It seems patently ridiculous to lower the number of bull tags and increase the number of cow tags, especially in WMUs where moose are declining and below population targets.

(d) there is also evidence that shows younger bulls are less effective breeders than older bulls, yet in Ontario, there are no restrictions on what kind of bull a hunter can harvest with a bull tag. Cows are less responsive to the clumsier wooing of young bulls as compared to mature bulls and young bulls have both lower sperm counts and lower sperm quality, making conception less likely. In addition, in many WMUs, there has been a tendency to have an early bow season, to allow hunters to call in a bull to the close range a bow hunter requires. As such, bulls are harvested before or during the peak of the rut. Fewer old bulls and harvesting bulls immediately before or during the rut might still let all the cows be bred – at least in those WMUs with a reasonable moose population –  but breeding might not be concentrated during the prime estrus, around the end of September. As a result, calving can be spread out over a longer period the following spring, making it easier for predators that specialize in taking young calves (i.e., wolves and large bears), thus reducing recruitment.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to moose management is cultural. In Ontario, moose management is not the pressing issue it used to be for the government, replaced with concerns such as the plight of species at risk and a desire to deal with climate change hysteria. The perceived indifference to moose by the government is exacerbated by the fact that many hunters have little faith in government actions or policies, resulting in a ‘I don’t give a damn’ attitude. So poaching and a general disregard for rules have, in my opinion, increased (and I’m far from alone in believing that).

While I’m not completely convinced things can’t be turned around, I’m not in the habit of looking at things through rose-coloured glasses, either. The problems are huge and not easily addressed.


Still, outside of moose (and deer) world, life is not all bad.  Spring is in the air, or at least it should be over the coming weeks. I do look forward to the return of the migratory birds and seeing the return of the colour green.

Plus many a BBQ, with a cold beverage in hand, are looming in my future. And that’s a very good thing.



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.


A little while back, I did an article on the importance of lichens for deer, and other wildlife,  I’m posting it below, for context as to why I’m predicting large losses of deer here this winter.

The last time the area I live in had a winter this severe – about 20 years ago – the forest was strewn with dead and dying balsam trees, most of them laden with lichens. Although deer south of here suffered terribly, the deer around me came through the winter in much better shape than most envisaged, and what the models were suggesting. I and others thought the reason was the abundance of lichens – where lichens were rare, deer losses were much higher than in those deer wintering areas where lichens were abundant (south of here, the forests where deer thrive are poplar and cedar, with little lichen. North of here deer numbers have never been high, it’s just too far north and winters are on average, too severe).

Now, it’s another bad winter, but the forest around me has little lichen. I think a large deer die-off is imminent.

They’re Lichen It!

By Bruce Ranta

Lichens (pronounced ‘likens’) are an important food source for many species of wildlife. Squirrels, beavers and even groundhogs relish a meal of lichen. Lichens are also a source of food for Ontario’s cervids, namely whitetail deer, moose, elk and caribou. Indeed, lichens can be the key ingredient behind population fluctuations of caribou and deer on many northern ranges.

Aside from the fact it’s a favourite winter forage, the lichen is an interesting plant. Lichens are an example of a perfect symbiotic relationship, a case where two different species depend on each other for survival. So a lichen is a plant made up of tens of thousands of individuals of two other plants, one an algae and one a fungus, united together. How algae and fungi fit together to form lichens – including many different species of lichens – is still mostly a mystery.

There are three major types of lichens. Foliose lichens are leaf-like in appearance, fruticose are shrubby or hair-like, while crustose look crusty. A fourth group, known as squamulose, are small and don’t have certain vegetative structures found on the others. Only foliose and fruticose lichens are large enough to be a meaningful source of food for wildlife.

Lichens are relatively slow growing. The fastest growing species are mostly fruticose lichens that grow on trees, referred to as arboreal lichens. These species can put on about an inch a year. All lichens grow as a result of self-manufactured food intake through photosynthesis. They also absorb nutrients from rainwater and from whatever they are attached to. They thrive in cool damp climates and do poorly in areas that are hot and dry. They reproduce and colonize mainly by a process called vegetative propagation, which means when a piece breaks off, that fragment can start a new plant. Lichens are very susceptible to air pollutants and can die and disappear where air quality is poor.

As forage for ungulates, lichens are believed to be at least as nutritious as most woody browse, although standard forage analysis results in questionable results. Still, lichens are known to be rich in micro-nutrients, some of which may play an important role in helping to deal with the stress of a long, cold winter. It’s also thought that lichens might act as a carbohydrate resource, increasing the efficiency of urea cycling and helping deer, for example, maintain a higher amount of body water than they can on a steady diet of twigs and buds. Theoretically, that would help combat cold.

It’s long been known that in winter, caribou eat little else but lichen. Their preference are ground fruticose lichens, appropriately enough called caribou ‘moss’, which upon inspection actually look like caribou antlers. Caribou also eat arboreal lichens, as do white-tailed deer, elk and moose. While ground lichens can be very abundant on exposed rock ridges and open, lightly stocked conifer forests, only caribou feed heavily on ground lichens.

Arboreal fruticose lichens can be unbelievably abundant. This is particularly true in northern forests where conifer forests of spruce and balsam fir predominate. In healthy spruce and fir forests, there isn’t much for deer to eat during the winter, and deer populations tend to be low. However, when there are huge swaths of dead and dying conifers in the aftermath of a spruce budworm epidemic, deer populations can skyrocket. That’s because budworm outbreaks create ideal conditions for arboreal lichens, especially for a group of lichens biologists call Usnea, more commonly known as ‘gray beard’ or ‘old man’s beard’.

A typical spruce budworm outbreak occurs over tens of thousands of square kilometers and results in millions of dead and dying fir and spruce. These dead and dying trees quickly become colonized by Usnea, to the point where a stand of dead fir will still look green and healthy to casual observers. In such situations, the lichens are by far the most abundant living plant in the forest.

Lichen laden forests of dead balsam (spruce don’t suffer as much mortality from budworm as do balsam) are a boon to wintering whitetails, sometimes for years. Lichens in budworm ravaged forests can be so lush deer can find plenty of food even during heavy snow winters simply by jumping from one dead tree to the next.  Eventually, though, the dead balsam fall down and are vacuumed clean by herds of hungry deer. I’ve killed several deer whose rumens were full of arboreal lichen and little else.

Moose and elk feast on Usnea as well, but caribou don’t seem to like it as much as they do other species. Caribou prefer arboreal lichens like Alectoria and Bryoria, hairy looking, dark coloured species that in Ontario, grow mostly on black spruce.

Spruce budworm epidemics occur regularly on about a 40 year cycle. In northwestern Ontario, the last outbreak started up about 1980 and took over 10 years to run its course. The next outbreak in the region isn’t scheduled until about 2020. Interestingly, deer numbers around Kenora peaked about 2007, and in a forest where lichens are now much reduced, deer are now definitely trending down.

Although old man’s beard and other arboreal lichen species aren’t as abundant in a healthy forest as they are in one with oodles of dead and dying trees, they’re still there and supplement the winter diet of all the cervids. Many trees have some lichens growing on their trunks, while other trees, such as large spruce, are often laden with lichens. While much of the lichen biomass might be high in the tree and out of reach of animals, there’s always some that can be gleaned from the lower branches. High winds can also provide deer with otherwise unavailable lichens by blowing them free, breaking off branches and knocking over trees.

Foliose lichens – the ones that look like leaves – also provide cervids with a winter food source. One type of foliose lichen, called rock tripe, is common on large rocks and rock faces that are regularly wetted or are in some sort of damp micro-climate, like along lake and river shorelines. On the lower French River, elk foraging on rock tripe on such shorelines have made a noticeable ‘browse line’. Adult elk from that area can actually be identified by their worn down front teeth, a testimonial to how much grazing on rock tripe they do each winter.

When I’m hunting deer late in the season, I always keep an eye out for areas with blowdown, or even individual trees that have recently fallen. These can be magnets for deer looking to fill their bellies, and offer excellent opportunities to jump deer or set up a stand and wait for the dinner bell to ring. I recall setting up on a knoll one afternoon in late November beside a clump of dead balsam, encrusted with lichens that had fallen over in a recent windstorm. Within a half hour, there were three bucks munching on the lichens, one within 10 feet of me.

Looking for lichens won’t necessarily put you on animals, but being aware of just how fond all deer are of this strange little plant could be what helps you bring home the venison some years.

Me? I’m waiting patiently for the next big spruce budworm epidemic.