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The fawn flees for its life; days later, re-united.

The wolf situation continues to vex me.

Looking back, the general consensus is that white-tailed deer populations peaked in this area in or about 2007. They didn’t crash that year – the crash came a few years later, about 2014.

Regardless, since 2007, the numbers of deer have come down a lot.

There are still deer around. Some pockets with reasonably robust numbers can still be found. But there are large acreages where deer are gone where they were once abundant. Whether you’re out on the land, out on a ride, or hunting, you don’t see deer like you used to.

The numbers on our property are not particularly robust. Part of the issue is the fact that there seems to be as many wolves hunting our land as there were in 2007, when deer seemed to be as abundant as a plague of mice.

To wit; the other morning, Lil came into the house saying something big was splashing about in the waters of the beaver pond to the left of the house.

Looking out from off the deck to look for the sounds of the splashings, a fawn soon appeared, swimming frantically.

We suspected it was fleeing for its life, being chased by wolves. We’d seen that scene before.

We watched the small spotted deer swim the length of the pond, then scramble out the far end and race into the cover on the edge of a field. We didn’t see any wolves.

We had a small task to do outside, which took only a couple of minutes. On a hunch, I walked down our laneway to the field, to see if the deer, or the wolves, or whatever, might be there.

Still in the laneway, I stopped near a small building and looked over the field. Nothing. I scanned the length and breadth of the small field again (it’s only about 3 acres) when suddenly, right there in front of me, right in the open, were two timber wolves. It was if they had materialized out of thin air; regardless, there they were. They were big and they were thirty yards in front of me.

I raised both my hands, which caught their attention and then yelled at them to “Go on, get out of here!” Which, quite promptly, they did. In an instant, they were gone.

There was no sign of the fawn.

Over the next couple of days, from the house, I watched a doe, a couple of times, move slowly along an edge of the pond, feeding, standing, looking around, all alone. I also saw, briefly, a pair of young does, but no evidence of a fawn. We feared the worst.

Then on the 4th morning after the fawn swimming, wolf encounter drama, a doe and fawn showed up on the far side of the pond, on a smooth rock opening across from where we watched the fawn during her escape run. We’re pretty sure it was the same fawn, as all spring and summer we had seen only a single fawn anywhere near the house. The fawn had always been near the pond, on the west half of the pond, which is where the doe and fawn were. The pair stayed close together for well over an hour; perhaps they were re-bonding after the recent close encounter of the worst kind – the doe spent a lot of time licking and grooming the fawn.

The literature is quite clear that on northern ranges, where the main deer predator is the timber wolf, high deer numbers only occur when good habitat and mild winters occur simultaneously over a period of several years (e.g 10+). However, high deer abundance cannot be sustained over the long-term; eventually the population crashes, usually in the aftermath of the return of a series of severe winters and deteriorating habitat quality. The rapid decline, or crash, is abetted by heavy levels of wolf predation.

Wolf predation continues to depress the deer population and can be quite effective at preventing its recovery. The deer herd can dwindle to become next to nothing; if there is nothing else to eat (i.e., no moose or elk or caribou) wolf numbers too, will inevitably crash.

How long that scenario plays out can vary, but may take several years. For deer to make a meaningful recovery wolf numbers need to go down and environmental conditions need to improve. Where I live, neither of these have to date occurred (the winters since 2014 have mostly been categorized as moderate to severe by natural resource officials). In addition, there are few moose, deer or caribou in the area, so the wolves are definitely running out of things to eat.

Perhaps they are eating bears, which is a distinct possibility.

Until the last 15 years or so, I’d go years between wolf sightings. Now, I seldom go a month without seeing a wolf, or wolves.

I don’t hate wolves and as a retired wildlife biologist I understand wolves are important in the maintenance of healthy ecosystems.

But in some areas, at times, there can be too many wolves.

I think we need more honest discussion on how to do a better job of managing wolves. For one, I think many of the present policies and legislation that pertain to how wolves are to be managed need improvements.

At this point in time, fewer wolves in the region where I live and play would, I believe, be a good thing. But any suggestion that perhaps we should be actively managing for fewer wolves (or bears) is met by an attitude by many that borders on derision.

Fewer wolves (and bears) now would lead to more deer and moose and would also benefit the wolves themselves. Right now, there seems to me to be a serious imbalance between predator and prey, a situation that simply can’t last. But who knows?

Like Yogi Berra might have said, ‘it’s hard to predict the future, because it hasn’t happened yet’.

wolves-298

Not long ago, the Ontario government was proposing to loosen restrictions on wolf hunting, largely in response to some people in the hunting community who have some political clout and connections and who believe a higher harvest of wolves will help struggling moose populations recover. I didn’t think much of what was being proposed (the intent was OK, but I thought the proposed actions had been poorly thought through). I also thought that what was being suggested would result in a substantial backlash from anti-hunters and others, who might not be anti-hunting per se, but nevertheless wouldn’t like what they saw as a good way to manage either wolves or moose and would mount an effort to block the proposed changes. See my posts ‘A Stumble and a Fumble’ (Apr 5) and ‘Missing the Mark’ (Jan 1).

Needless to say, the initiative went down in flames. No easing up or relaxing of the regulatory framework on hunting wolves. For a while, it was status quo; but it didn’t take long before changes were again being brought forward by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), this time under a new Minister.

I suspect the MNRF Minister who was in charge when the relaxing of wolf hunting regulations was proposed was heavily chastised by his party peers for the initiative. I’m also quite certain the initiative drew the ire of a number of environmental organizations who have close ties to the Liberal party and they were ultimately the ones to tell the Premier that relaxing the rules on wolf hunting as proposed was simply ludicrous and unacceptable (to them).

Governments are never happy when they have to back down on something they have said they want to do.

Thus it didn’t surprise me that shortly after the initiative was shot down, there was a cabinet shuffle and the MNRF minister lost his job and was moved to another portfolio.

The new Minister has changed course and the MNRF is now proposing to give wolves and coyotes far more protection in Ontario, albeit not across the whole of the province, but over a substantial piece of geography in eastern Ontario. The purpose is to protect the so-called eastern wolf (and very recently renamed the Algonquin wolf), a new ‘species’ of wolf found mostly in and around Algonquin Park. The same groups who were successful in lobbying the government to not go ahead with its earlier proposals to ease up on wolf hunting and trapping regs are pushing the government to close wolf and coyote hunting in 34 Wildlife Management Units’s.

Interestingly, a recent article by Carl Zimmer of the New York Times (which was subsequently reported on by Kip Hansen in a post The Gray, Gray World of Wolves on the blog https://wattsupwiththat.com gives us this story:  DNA Study Reveals the One and Only Wolf Species in North America. (my underline)

The first large study of North American wolf genomes has found that there is only one species on the continent: the gray wolf. Two other purported species, the Eastern wolf and the red wolf, are mixes of gray wolf and coyote DNA, the scientists behind the study concluded.

The finding, announced Wednesday, highlights the shortcomings of laws intended to protect endangered species, as such laws lag far behind scientific research into the evolution of species.”

Ontario scientists, in fact, have known for a long time that the ‘eastern’ wolves and gray wolves, also commonly known as timber wolves, interbreed and produce viable offspring. Given they look similar, interbreed freely, produce viable offspring and do not owe their presence on the landscape to human meddling (i.e., none of these wolves are the result of humans transplanting wolves from one locale to another), Biology 101 would say they are not separate species.

But the use of endangered species legislation in much of North America (and who knows, likely elsewhere) is seldom about the protection of species. The legislation has been usurped by what many would call radical environmentalists to get as many not just species, but populations of animals protected, so as to stop things like hunting, trapping and infrastructure development, like roads, pipelines or whatever. In Ontario, there are thousands and thousands of gray wolves, and the species is in no danger of extinction; in fact, by any measure one wants to look at, wolves in Ontario are thriving.

So . . . . first it was going to be ‘open season’ on wolves. No need for a special wolf licence and much cheaper licensing requirements, especially for non-residents. Now the big switcheroo; let’s provide wolves with even more protection, in fact increase the area where there is an outright ban on wolf hunting and trapping. Much better!!

It’s not hard to imagine the next step is to get moose populations, at least in some parts of the province, listed as a species at risk and ban hunting of them as well.

It’s almost funny how ‘protection’, in the minds of many, automatically means ‘ban hunting’, because that’s the ‘best’ option in their minds. Surely to goodness we have the ability to manage wolves and moose (and other animals) in such a way as to continue to allow hunting (and trapping) in a manner that’s sustainable. Isn’t that what the wildlife management profession is all about?

Where’s the science that supports an outright ban on hunting and trapping of wolves? Answer; there isn’t any. It seems to me it’s mostly politicians and their environmental lackeys targeting hunters and trappers, because for many if not most of those folk, hunting and trapping, in their minds, is simply bad bad bad. By the way, it’s not an ‘outright ban’; hunting and trapping of wolves by Aboriginals and Metis will continue as usual (i.e., no changes to their rights to hunt and trap as they wish).

Regardless, the scientists who support this wolf hunting and trapping ban for licensed hunters and trappers should be ashamed of themselves. Reprehensible behaviour, in my opinion.

snapper-2

The big turtle still lurks in the pond out front of our house. It’s a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpintina) and she’s huge; it’s quite likely she’s also very old. It’s been in the pond, as a large adult, for several years. And like from the start of her occupation, she’s still snapping down and making off with waterfowl.

Snapping turtles eat a wide variety of things including “a surprisingly large amount of vegetation”. Sounds like an omnivore to me.  It’s no wonder snapping turtles remain rather abundant (really?) even in areas as highly populated with people and their developments as Ontario.

In Ontario, they’re classified as a ‘Game Amphibian’. If you have a valid fishing licence (either a resident or non-resident) you can catch them ‘by hand or with a box or funnel trap’, according to the hunting regulations (what?). There’s a season for Ontario residents and another for non-residents. The daily bag limit is two and as long as you’ve never caught and kept more than two in one day, you can have up to five in your possession. There are other rules and regulations (of course!) that pertain to your interactions with snapping turtles, but the point I’m making is that since you can harvest them almost everywhere in Ontario, in a season that in many Wildlife Management Units never ends (the open season is all year long), there must be a lot of them around. Right?

However, some believe the present fishing and hunting legislation and regulations don’t do a good job of managing  snapping turtles.  And, they say, at least in some places, there aren’t many snappers left. Some of these individuals and groups believe snapping turtles should be managed as a ‘Species at Risk’ (SAR); not as a ‘Game Amphibian’.

A big problem is there isn’t a lot known about Ontario’s snapping turtles and the information that’s available is limited in scope. For example, while it’s mandatory to complete a questionnaire if you actually harvest a snapping turtle, not many mandatory questionnaires are submitted. Why? Probably because:  A, I suspect not many people who live in or visit Ontario actually harvest snapping turtles (do you know anybody?); and B;  for those who do harvest a turtle, it’s unlikely they fill in the form and report it to the provincial government.

“B” is probable because the last time I looked, no one has ever been convicted of the offence of not completing and submitting a mandatory hunt report. That applies not just for snapping turtles, but all mandatory reports about ones’ hunting activities of game animals in Ontario. So even the harvest data that does exist, is suspect.

Aboriginal and Metis, with a few restictions, can harvest snappers without a license and there are no season, catch or possession limits. I suspect that harvest methods are also less restrictive than they are for others.

Still, if snapping turtle populations have declined over time, I’m certain hunting is only one of many potential factors. Because they have a relatively low reproductive rate (the survival rate of all early age classes is dismal), anything that increases the death rate among adults could spell trouble. In some places they might be getting killed because they’re viewed as as a pests and nuisance. It’s common to see them killed owing to collisions with automobiles. Developments that drain marshlands and otherwise harden the landscape don’t do turtles favors.

Probably in some places, there are lots of snapping turtles; other places, not so many. Seems logical.

But the bottom line is no one really knows how many snapping turtles there are in Ontario.  Are there a lot? Enough? Not enough? It’s an ongoing battle that has potential for serious repercussions, not only for those who harvest snapping turtles, but for all sorts of human endeavors that require permits to proceed.

It’s busy work, keeping a lot of people occupied, but I don’t think the ongoing discussions are accomplishing a whole lot. On the other hand, it is what governments do.

Meanwhile, I know where there is one really big snapping turtle that’s still up to her old tricks. Out there in the pond, sneakin’ around, snappin’ up waterfowl . . .

turkey-121

Today I applied for a spring turkey hunting license in Michigan. Not sure how this will pan out, as there is still much to do before the hunt, if I do get to go.

Let’s look at the list: need to get drawn (apparently, the odds are good); need to renew my passport; need to fill out some forms to transport a firearm into the USA; and, I need to see if there are restrictions this year as to whether I can actually bring a turkey back into Canada from the states. Last year, a few friends hunted in the mid-west, were successful, but were not allowed to cross the border back into Canada with their birds. The problem was an outbreak of avian flu in the states – another wildlife health and disease issue. Anyway, it’s something I need to delve into and find out what the score is. No sense spending all that time and effort to travel and hunt and not be allowed to bring back a tasty bird (if I’m fortunate enough to harvest one!). On the other hand, I’ll have a chance to meet up with some old friends I haven’t seen in a while.

If I can’t harvest a bird that I can bring home from Michigan, I can still hunt in Ontario. Maybe I can do both, as the area I’m looking at going in Michigan isn’t far from Sault Ste. Marie, where there’s a healthy wild turkey population to the east, and a hunt on nearby St. Joseph’s Island. I’ll have to see how events unfold . . .

I really enjoy turkey hunting, but I find it somewhat distressing that a disease issue is once again a factor as to whether I can harvest, transport and consume my (potential) catch.

On my last post, I discussed chronic wasting disease and the fact there was a little bit of good news on that front. Not much, but a little. Despite the bad news about avian flu, most of the wild turkey story is good news. Growing up, there were no turkeys in Ontario; they were extirpated in the 1800’s. Today, turkey numbers in the province (progeny of wild birds captured from neighboring jurisdictions and then live released) are closing in on a 100,000.

There could be more. In northwestern Ontario, I think wild turkeys would do well in the agricultural areas around Fort Frances and Rainy River. After all, there are wild turkeys in parts of adjacent Manitoba, where the weather is similar, if not a bit more harsh. The problem is the government in Ontario, or at least some individuals, believe that because northwestern Ontario is outside the known, historical range of turkey, wild turkeys don’t belong. It’s a consideration which can make sense (one doesn’t want introductions of wildlife made willy nilly), but it’s not as if wild turkeys are exotic to North America.

What seems to have gotten the short shrift in this line of thinking is the fact that the agricultural lands of northwestern Ontario today bear little resemblance to what the landscape – and its associated faunal assemblage – looked like prior to European colonization. And outside of some sort of apocalyptic, catastrophic event(s), there’s no going back to the way it was. That’s nothing but a pipe dream, adhered to only by a small and radical fringe of extreme environmentalists.

However, it is what it is and with no close by Ontario turkeys, turkey hunting for me, at least for the foreseeable future, means going on a considerable hike.

All in all, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just could be better.

Silver-1

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.

otter-1

This time of year, there isn’t a lot of wildlife to see and photograph. So when Lil said there were several eagles and otters showing up every day in the open channel in front of her mum’s place, it didn’t take me long to decide to make the drive, have a visit, and tote along my camera gear. I’m glad I did.

When I arrived, there was nothing to be seen, but when Lil started to think about preparing lunch, eagles started to fly in, followed shortly by a pod of otters. A number of eagles showed up, mostly adults but one juvenile as well , and five otters.

I first tried shooting from the house, but the floor was constantly shaking (people moving and the fridge running) and even with a tripod and a lens with vibration reduction, I had a hard time getting tack sharp photos.

So I went down into the basement and out the door, and had much better luck, although some of the eagles took off and that was a bit of a bummer.

But the otters, especially two of them, were very cooperative.

I didn’t get any photos of them eating. Lil said that on a couple of occasions on previous days, they had been chowing down on clams, and once or twice I did see one of the otters chewing on something. They might also have been after fish, which could be what attracts the eagles, although this time they didn’t do any fishing as far as I could tell.

The eagles and otters for the most part stayed out of each others ways, although one day Lil said they had been chasing one another. I would have loved to have seen that!

I have been seeing a lot of otter sign while out hunting,  so I would have to say the otter population is doing well here. They are usually associated with water, but especially in winter, they often travel long distances over land.

Otters are trapped for their fur, but Ontario’s registered trapline system, whereby trappers are restricted to a specified geography (so it’s not a free-for-all), encourages trappers to manage their trapping area on a sustainable basis. There are also seasons, and limits can be imposed by the government. For a variety of reasons, trappers here don’t pursue otters with the effort they put out for other species, particularly marten.

While otters have from 1-4 pups a year, these weren’t necessarily a family group, as otters like each others company.

I hope the otters stick around. They’re nice to see and fun to watch.

note: I saw later I forgot to turn on the main switch for vibration reduction (VR). The lens has two VR switches, whereas the lens I had been using all fall ( a smaller, lighter, but less powerful telephoto) has only one switch. Oh well, I still got some great photos.

tinybuck-1

The deer season (and moose, for that matter) locally closes here on Dec. 15th. As I’ve been saying, I’m not likely going to shoot a deer, but I have been hunting with friends, who would very much like to fill a tag, as they don’t have any moose or venison in the freezer. For them, time is running out.

We haven’t been seeing much, and most of the deer we have seen have been what we first assumed to be does and fawns. But are they?

This year, I’ve seen some of the smallest antlered yearling bucks I’ve ever come across in my life. I had heard and read of very small antlered deer, but usually ‘button bucks’ are fawns with nubs that have not broken through skin. These deer, though, have tiny, polished, hard antlers. And I do mean tiny. The photo says it all (taken in our yard). At a distance, one would never guess such deer were bucks.

I’m almost positive this is a yearling buck because in August, I saw a yearling buck (it wasn’t a fawn – it had no spots) with what I believed to be its sibling sister in our front yard. It had tiny antlers; they were still in velvet and I recall thinking that they would have to do a lot of late season growing to be even on the small side of what most yearling bucks in this area sport. Seems they didn’t grow.

This isn’t the only deer I’ve seen or heard of with tiny little antlers this year, although the others are not quite as minuscule as the one in the photo. I saw and photographed one in town the other day that might have had an inch of antler on each side, and a good friend told me today he has one hanging around his house that also has antlers that likely measure around one inch. All tiny buttons for sure.

Antler growth on yearling bucks is often used as a measure of the health of the deer herd and the quality of the range.  While the range quality at the landscape scale is in decline mainly owing to the decline in logging activity, all the deer I’ve seen or heard of with the little antlers are from areas where the habitat is still good or, as in the case of the ‘town buck’, where there is ample access to supplemental food. So I think the tiny buttons are mostly a reflection of the severity of the previous two winters.

I suspect the does were in very poor shape when these bucks were born, as the winter of 2013-14 was one of the most severe in terms of snow depth (and cold) since winter severity records started to be kept in this region, which was 1955. To tell the truth, I’m amazed that any fawns were successfully raised following that brutal winter. Last year wasn’t as harsh, but it was still brutally cold and there was enough snow accumulation to spell trouble for the deer, especially fawns.

So even though these deer have tiny antlers now, I think they could still have quite the crown in a couple of years. The fact these deer are even alive (and they do look healthy) tells me they have good genes.

In some circles, the thinking might be that yearling deer with such tiny buttons should be culled, especially if the management goal was to produce large antlered bucks. Given the circumstances, I’d say that in this situation, such a strategy would be a mistake. However, that’s all simply speculation, as there is no management plan for trophy bucks in this area.

But it would sure be interesting to be able to track antler growth of these tiny buttoned bucks in the years to come. Definitely a research need.