Archive

Tag Archives: winter

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. https://alcesjournal.org/index.php/alces/article/view/227)

 

I haven’t posted in a while . . . been busy doing renovations to the house, among other things.

It’s been a relatively nice winter. The snow hasn’t piled up too deep, not overly cold and today it’s sunny! But hey, it’s a northern Ontario winter, which means that although there’s been snow on the ground since the end of October, there will still be snow on the ground a month from now. It gets to be a drag.

There are not many deer left in this part of the world. A few hang around the house, which is nice. And while there are still timber wolves lurking about, their numbers are down. How could they not be? Few deer and even fewer moose. Maybe they are Farley Mowat wolves, surviving on mice. 

Anyway, here’s my most recent column published in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. It’s the unedited version, as per usual.

What’s a Deer Yard?

wtdeer-24

Year round,we have deer in our yard, but our yard is not a deer yard. A deer yard is an area where deer concentrate during the winter months.

In Ontario, deer yards can be as small as a few hectares or cover tens of square kilometers – they have been talked about, described, managed and mismanaged for at least 100 years. Today, deer yards are more properly referred to as ‘deer winter concentration areas’.

White-tailed deer have been described as ‘yarding up’ for the winter ever since the days of early settlement, when knowing where deer were was critical information – especially during winter, when food and money were often scarce.

Deer biologists have long believed deer living in the forest, on northern ranges where winters can be long, cold and snowy, yard up for two main reasons: ‘energy conservation and as a defense against predators’.

Deer have relatively long legs, but by the time snow depths hit 50 cm, movement is severely restricted. Conifer cover intercepts snow and deer can move around under conifers with relative ease.

But, when deer from any given area are concentrated under conifer cover, food availability becomes an issue. Problems are exacerbated because browse is not that abundant under heavy cover and deer yards that are used year after year – a common behavior – tend to become over-browsed. Eastern white cedar, a tree that provides both food and cover, often has a distinct browse line, where there is no greenery below the reach of the deer.

To cope with deep snow, food shortages and potential predators, deer in forested areas make trails, use windswept ridges, frozen lakes and rivers, snowmobile trails and even plowed roads.

In the forest, conifer cover is a critical component of a deer yard – it’s usually where deer spend most of their time – but other, adjacent habitats are also important.

Deer don’t exist only in the forest. They also thrive in mountains, prairies, agricultural lands and, increasingly, in urban areas. Wherever they are, especially if winters are snowy, deer generally use habitats differently in the winter than during other times of the year.

For example, in southern Ontario, where forest cover can be limiting but snow cover often is not, deer still tend to concentrate in certain areas during the winter months. A winter concentration area might be a park, ravines, a string of woodlots or something else – anyplace where there’s resting, hiding and escape cover, abundant food and a dearth of predators.

In northwestern Ontario, deer yards used to be a problem with the old Land and Forests and later, the MNR. Managing a deer yards was problematic because the consensus was that deer in northwestern Ontario ‘didn’t yard up’. Since they didn’t ‘yard-up’, forestry and wildlife habitat management prescriptions weren’t applicable.  Deer did – and still do – concentrate their winter activities in certain areas, just not in what could be described as a ‘yard’.

Management issues around identification of deer yards were largely resolved with the adoption of deer winter concentration area concepts.

In Ontario, a mapped winter deer concentration area is information useful in land use and resource management planning on both private and Crown lands. All levels of governments, and agencies like the OFAH, have policies and directives that recognize deer winter concentration areas as a value.

Deer winter concentration areas are constantly changing. With time, forest fires, insect infestations, severe winds, floods, logging, and infrastructure development of all kinds change the landscape. Predation levels rise and fall.

Concepts and definitions of deer winter concentration areas are important, but it’s still okay to talk about ‘deer yards’. Just be sure to make it clear what you’re talking about . . .

The Loring Deer Yard

Situated in the wilds somewhat below the French River on the Pickerel River system, east of Hwy. 69 and west of Hwy.11, The Loring Deer Yards has been one of the largest and longest lasting deer yards in Ontario.

It was first identified as a deer yarding area soon after deer in central Ontario became common, around the turn of the 20th century.

Severe winters, especially in 1961, wiped out tens of thousands of deer in the province, alarming many who loved deer and deer hunting.

Logging, which had seemed to coincide with surging deer herds in forested areas, was on the wane. The Dept. of Land & Forests was led to believe that by replicating logging efforts, the deer population south of North Bay could be rejuvenated.

By the late 1970’s, the Loring Deer Yard was an official MNR program. Bulldozers and snowmobiles were used to build and maintain trails to help deer move through deep snow; browse and later, other deer foods like pellets were provided; and, wolves were trapped to reduce predation.

Studies were done and results published. Policies, directives and reports were written.

There wasn’t a deer manager or biologist who didn’t know about the Loring Deer Yard and who hadn’t heard about Ernie Bain and Paddy Stillar.

By 1988, management efforts had doubled the size of the Loring Deer Yard. In some winters, it held as many as 20,000 deer.

But, time brings change. MNR(F) adopted new policies and directives. Active deer yard management efforts declined. Eventually, trail-making and feeding was a role for volunteers. Predator (wolf) control was discontinued.

In recent years, deer numbers in what was once the best known deer winter concentration area in Ontario, if not Canada, have plummeted.

Is the Loring Deer Yard history? Only time will tell.

January, 2020. Happy New Year!

Winter has set in and the forecast is for a cold spell. But first, some (more) snow.

It was cold early to mid-fall in 2019, but then it turned ‘mild’. Not a snow-melt above the freezing mark mild, but few -200 C bone chillers, the last couple of days a minus 32, but no minus forties at all. All in all, a rather pleasant Christmas and New Year holiday season.

The moose and deer seasons are closed and I stop grouse hunting on Dec. 15. For years and years Dec. 15 was when the moose, deer and grouse hunting seasons used to simultaneously close here in the part of northwestern Ontario where Lil and I live. In recent years, there have been some season length extensions to grouse seasons, but I haven’t taken advantage of them. It seems that once the snow comes, the grouse are hard to find and from my perspective, a 3 month hunt for big and small game that ends Dec. 15 is all I want or need. By then it’s time for get ready for the upcoming holiday season and try and be primed to participate in the festivities.

And so here I am in early January at the beginning of a brand new decade. A hundred years ago we’d be entering what came to be known as the roaring 20’s.

But this is a new time and place. We’ll just have to see where it leads.

As usual for me, this is when I reflect on the hunting seasons that just passed. As I previously wrote, I had a wonderful hunt with Neva, our Wachtelhunde hunting dog and companion.

I didn’t go moose hunting as neither Lil nor I even applied for a tag to hunt an adult moose. In the two Wildlife Management Units we like to hunt, there was only 1 tag available in each unit. One of the tags was for a cow, which seemed ridiculous (if there are so few moose that licensed hunters are provided with only 1 tag, why would it be for a cow?) and in the other WMU, we had no idea where there might even be a moose in a place with both access and where there was a reasonable chance of success. So we opted out of applying for a tag, but bought licences to retain priority for future draws. Prior to the season, and then during the season in a WMU where I was deer hunting, I did see moose.

I didn’t shoot a deer, either. I did have opportunities, but did not have a doe tag and the few bucks I saw I opted not to shoot.

There are lots of places where I see game during the fall hunting season where I can’t hunt. Some of the animals are on protected areas and other properties I have no permission to hunt on; sometimes I see animals I don’t have a tag for; and, there are a lot of animals that are on or adjacent to a road. Around here, you can’t shoot down, across, or from the traveled portion of a road and on some roads you can’t even have a loaded firearm until you are well away from the right-of-way. And on many roads, it can be dangerous to come to a stop unless you can pull off, which isn’t always possible. Often, there is simply no space to stop, pull off or park.

So given all these places where I’m not hunting, I take advantageous of photographic opportunities when I can. As with a gun, there’s still much more seen than shot, and there’s still places where I can’t shoot with the camera – but there’s more spots where I can pull out the camera to try and get a shot than there are spots I can pull out a gun.

I also have to say that shooting wildlife with a camera isn’t easy. Often, it’s harder than with a firearm. For example, shooting ruffed grouse on the fly with a camera is quite the challenge that I haven’t yet mastered and likely never will (although for me, the same is true with a shotgun . . . ). Still, I sometimes score and when I do, it’s a very satisfying feeling.

Similarly, I’m always trying to get good shots of buck deer. Deer are not near as plentiful here as they used to be a few years back, but there’s still some around. The best place to see buck deer though, is in the city. Over the past few decades, deer in northwestern Ontario, like in a lot of villages, towns and cities all across North America, moved in, found suitable housing and are now a fixture in many neighborhoods.

The other thing with the camera is that you can shoot any species at any time with no need for a license or a tag. There’s waterfowl, fur-bearers and basically anything that walks, crawls, slithers, swims or flies can be the subject of a photo shoot.

whiskey-1

But now that we are into January, there’s not near as much life around. Big game hunting is over as it is for waterfowl and upland game birds. With respect to photo shooting, the majority of birds have left, many of the animals have gone into hibernation and most of the deer have lost their antlers. I still see a few grouse – lately a couple come each evening just before it gets dark to bud in the white birches. A few other odds and sods, but it’s not a wildlife viewing paradise by any stretch.

rgrouse-12

So the hunting season is a wrap and photo season has transitioned.

Still, it’s a New Year and it’s all good.

Time to go ice-fishing.

trout

A couple of postings back (https://wildlifeperspectives.wordpress.com/2019/01/28/its-piling-up/), I wrote that the snow was beginning to pile up. After that post, it really piled up!

In Kenora, February has so far been the snowiest month of the 2018-19 winter, with a whopping 70.8 cm of the white stuff hitting the ground. Kenora’s normal snowfall for February is 18.6 cm, which means the snowfall for the month was 381% higher than normal.

Obviously, that’s unusual. Up until the end of January, it looked like it was going to be a relatively good winter for the local deer herd, with only about a 30% chance the winter would wind-up being classified as ‘severe’ (based on winter severity indices predictions used by provincial deer managers).

Of course, the only way it could become ‘severe’, was if it snowed a lot and the snow stayed on the ground. Well it did, and so far it has. If you had bet on the odds, you’d have lost.

The last day Kenora had that was above the freezing mark was January 4, when the temperature climbed to a miserly high of 10 C. No melting at all after that and none predicted until March 11, when the temperature is predicted to hit a high of zero.

Right now, the snow depth around my house in poplar stands (which is the kind of forest where snow stations are located to assess winter severity) is 60 cm or more; 50 cm is the threshold that most agree puts deer are in trouble. Fifty cm is about the height of a deer leg, which means more than 50 cm and deer are plowing snow with their chest, which is what I’ve been seeing.

There’s also a rule of thumb that says if you have 50 cm on the ground for 50 days, a lot of deer will perish and does that do survive, will have many stillborn fawns.

How long snow cover lingers will be critical for the deer. The weather forecasters are predicting a big change in weather patterns sometime after the middle of March – much milder temperatures – but if it keeps snowing, and it doesn’t have to snow a lot, there could easily still be snow on the ground into late April.

The deer I see around our house are staying under conifer cover when they can because the snow is not near as deep there. But, there’s not much food under the conifers, either.

In the City of Kenora, the deer are running around on the railway, cleared streets and sidewalks, looking for food, especially handouts. They’ve pretty much eaten all the available browse and what’s left is mostly inaccessible because of the deep snow. It’s illegal to feed deer within city limits – according to the bylaws – but lots of people are ignoring those laws and there is next to nothing being done by way of enforcement. I guess that’s good for the deer; if it weren’t for handouts, the city deer would more than likely be starving.

Deer are adaptable animals. Interestingly, I think these urban deer – a relatively new phenomenon in northwestern Ontario (although Sioux Narrows, about 100 km south of Kenora, has had an ‘urban’ deer population for many decades), will probably be what lets the deer herd recover in future years – at a much faster rate than otherwise would be expected. That’s if the near future sees a series of low-snow winters.

History would suggest there will be those less severe, low snow winters and that deer herds will recover.

On the other hand, deer were mostly absent from northwestern Ontario in the 1800’s. Since there’s no predicting the future – although everyone likes to do that – all we can really do is wait and see how the future actually unfolds.

One thing I can predict with near certainty is that the 2019 deer hunting season in the Kenora area will be rather unspectacular, at best.

I remain hopeful it won’t be a complete washout.


The top two photos were taken Nov 19, 2016. The bottom Nov 6, 2018. Same deer?

It has been a cold autumn, although there isn’t near as much snow as there was at this time last year. The ponds and shallow lakes have frozen over, which usually signals that the winter snowfall will be less, as opposed to more. I’m good with that, as shoveling the drive isn’t my favourite winter pastime.

Moose season is still open and although I have a bull tag, Lil and I haven’t been able to fill it. We were scuppered early in the season by a couple of poachers who were trying to shoot moose for which they had no valid tag. They wound up chasing them away from Lil – she had been sitting by a small meadow near a road and listening to the moose making their way to her, when these nitwits came by, spotted at least one moose from their vehicle, and jumped out after them. The moose ran between Lil and the poachers so she was afraid to shoot. I was a short distance away watching one of two spots – the frightened moose ran through the spot I wasn’t watching.

As I said, scuppered; we didn’t even get ID off the poachers who sped away in their truck after Lil yelled at them.

Then, a couple of weeks later we were headed home and there were 4 moose on the road, one a yearling bull which would have been just fine to tag. But, you can’t shoot from or down a road and the moose were able to escape in the thick bush and flooded timber beside the road.

We had a couple of other close encounters, but lately we are seeing far more wolf tracks than moose sign. The wolves are running up and down all the roads and trails (for miles and miles!), which are keeping (along with human night hunters) the moose deep in the forest, where it’s impossible to hunt them (and there aren’t all that many moose; I have the only adult tag issued for the Wildlife Management Unit we’re hunting).

It is amazing how many wolves there are in this area (timber, or gray wolves, not coyotes). Over the last decade or so, I’ve seen several dozen wolves. During the same time, I’ve seen less than 10 moose.

But although the wolves are for certain killing moose, it was white-tailed deer that were largely sustaining the wolf population over the winter. I would have thought that when the deer population collapsed a few years ago, wolf numbers would similarly collapse, but so far, that hasn’t happened. I suppose there were still enough deer around, but I can’t believe there are now enough deer left for the wolves to make it through this winter.

Worse, last winter was long and the snow was deep. Officially, it was classified as ‘severe’, which should have translated into a further decline in deer numbers.

And the evidence from this fall sure supports that. Driving north 50-60 km to our moose hunting spots this fall, we have yet to cut a deer track in the snow. During our walks for moose, we’ve seen a grand total of 3 deer tracks.

When I went to our traditional deer hunting areas, the picture is still grim. A few days hunting specifically for deer didn’t yield a single sighting. There were tracks – here and there – but very few rubs and I only came across a couple of small scrapes under two adjacent jack pine trees on a pipeline ROW.

Lots of wolf sign, though.

So given the lack of deer everywhere, I thought I might as well hunt deer on our property, given there are a small number of resident does and I figured a mature buck should, or could, show up from somewhere during the rut. We had seen a single spike buck off and on during the summer, but that was one buck I wasn’t prepared to harvest.

I also thought I might get a chance to take a wolf, as they have been regularly chasing the resident deer and are continuing to whittle them down.  In addition, it appears the wolves took our one, resident beaver just before the pond in front of the house froze over. All that work, fixing up the lodge and putting together a feed pile for the winter, for naught.

I watched the small field on our property several mornings and evenings without much luck. I did see, on a couple of occasions, the spike buck and what I assume is its twin sister, but that was about it. No wolves, either.

Then, on Nov. 6, a large buck appeared. I took a couple of photos and then decided I should harvest it. I had never taken a deer from our property (this is our 22nd year there), but I figured it might be the only chance I would get this year, so I took it.

It was a nice buck and the wear class age puts it at 5 ½ years. That’s amazing!

To have survived that long in the midst of such high wolf density is close to a miracle.

What’s also amazing is I think it could be the same deer I photographed two years earlier breeding a doe beside the house. After that, I had never seen that buck again.

Of course, I can’t be sure it’s the same buck. But the photos do suggest to me that it’s at least a possibility.

I do feel somewhat sad about killing it, but at least I know it’s passed on its DNA, which is a good thing.

And I’m still going to be hunting wolves – which were in the yard again last night. There’s just way too many, in my opinion.

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’.

Different species avoid bad weather – winter – in different ways.

It’s easy to see why the global warming issue is so big. It’s all about the weather, and every last one of us is affected by the weather.  Despite hopes, beliefs and hard effort to control the weather, the best way to minimize harm that might come to you because of bad weather is to use protection: a rain coat as opposed to a rain dance.

Our obsession with the weather goes back a long way; for example, there is a lot of talk of weather – and controlling it – in the Bible. While I haven’t done an extensive check, I’m sure weather plays a big part in all religions and cultures. Simply put, we are weather dependents and, using again a quote from a country song, “It’s always been that way.”

In Canada, winter weather is usually the worst.  The majority of birds in this country migrate south, en-masse, to avoid winter weather. Some animals also move to areas with better winter conditions, but many others have evolved to find a good spot to lie down and go to sleep for the winter. They only wake up when the weather improves. The rest have to face winter weather head-on and find a way to cope with the cold and snow and the storms.  It’s a tough go to try and survive a winter when, for months on end, the food supply never increases, only dwindles; temperatures are constantly below freezing and everything is covered with snow.

Because of the significant impacts winter weather has on wildlife, wildlifers use a variety of techniques, including indices, to assess the impact of winter on particular types of wildlife. In states and provinces where winters regularly decimate white-tailed deer populations, winter severity indexes were developed that generate numbers that are used to categorize the severity of a winter and provide estimates as to the number of deer that likely perished over-winter. The categories are generally “Mild, Moderate and Severe”; the higher the number, the more severe the winter.

The winter that just passed in the area where I live, was long, windy, cold and snowy.  The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, which has as one of its responsibilities the management of deer, categorized the winter as “Severe” in the district where I live. There’s no doubt it was a hard winter on the local herds of white-tailed deer.

Still, some deer survived. I’ve seen a few around.

A few years ago, deer were common, sometimes abundant, hundreds of kilometers north of where they’re common today. But a series of hard winters, and some other factors, pretty much rubbed them out. I recently authored a paper with a colleague that showed how deer (and moose) populations have fluctuated in this area over the past many decades; we concluded that landscape level perturbations (e.g., fire) are the main reasons these populations fluctuate wildly over time; and of course, much of these perturbations and related events are weather related. You can read the paper here: http://alcesjournal.org/index.php/alces/article/view/227

Animals cope with the elements by living in habitats that provide them with the essentials of life, namely food and cover. If you are in the business of wildlife management in North America, part of the job is likely addressing habitat management issues. There’s still a strong belief by biologists that habitat is often, if not usually, the key factor affecting the survival of a species. If habitat is suitable, and there’s enough of it, most animal populations should do okay. Habitat isn’t easy to describe, and it’s used differently by different animals.

A feature of good habitat is the ability to provide relief from the weather. Deer often congregate in specific areas, usually called a ‘yard’, where both food and cover are available.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, effort and money that could be spent on trying to do a good job of wildlife habitat management is, I think, being spent on trying to manage the weather. It’s a real flip-flop, and not without consequences. Spending billions on trying to manage the weather (e.g., climate change) is increasingly being viewed with much scepticism. Some say it’s environmentalism. I think it’s mostly virtue signaling – spending lots of money being ‘green’, without much in the way of actual, tangible results.

Personally, I can think better ways to spend money on conservation of wildlife than squandering millions (billions?) on windmills that are notorious bird and bat killers and don’t really make a dent in reducing CO2 emissions.

However, priorities do differ amongst jurisdictions and on-the-ground habitat management programs do exist in some places. In some – the state of Michigan comes to mind – they can be surprisingly robust. Elsewhere they may be close to non-existent. If sound habitat management programs aren’t in place and funded in the area where you live, there’s a good chance many species of wildlife near you are floundering.

Habitat management is not the be-all and end all when it comes to looking after wildlife, but there’s little doubt good habitat, and habitat management policies, is a whole lot better than poor habitat and a focus on reducing our ‘carbon footprint ’.

I’ll be addressing habitat issues a bit more thoroughly in future postings.

ruffies-2

A New Year is upon us and my best to all.

Here in Northwestern Ontario, we had a very mild fall, up to December, when winter finally came. We now have close to 50 cm of snow on the ground and the temperature has been in the – 20 0C range for much of the past month, including today. No – 400 s, though, which can occur, and is something I really don’t like. Things just start not working and worse, start breaking, at that temperature.

The whitetail deer does around the house are still able to walk around in the snow without too much difficulty. The snow is not quite to their bellies, is light and there is no crust. The deer went into winter in good condition – courtesy of that mild autumn – and barring another big dump of snow soon – as well as a normal ‘end’ to winter around the first of April, should get through OK. A rule of thumb is 50 days of 50 cm of snow and there will be significant deer mortality. Not quite there yet and what is there can be expected to settle several centimeters over the next few days. No major snowfalls forecast for the immediate future.

The wolves have not been around for several days. However, where we went ice fishing for lake trout on New Year’s Day, we saw that there had been 4 or 5 of them out on the ice the previous night.  Given where we were fishing isn’t all that far from home as the crow flies, that’s where the missing wolves might be. With deer numbers way down from previous years, this could be the winter that finally brings wolf numbers down, too.

It’s interesting that once the snow comes, the ruffed grouse seem to almost disappear. I suspect they feed voraciously on buds in tree tops (such as white birch) at dawn or dusk, fill up their crops and then spend days roosting in either the snow or thick conifers, until their food source is exhausted. Then the cycle is repeated. I recall one winter seeing where a grouse had plunged into the snow and stayed there for several days (I saw the plunge hole and recognized it for what it was). By week’s end, I thought maybe it had perished, but when I went to check, the bird burst out of the snow at my feet, startling me, of course, as they are wont to do.

It looks right now that most of Canada is experiencing cold and snow. Even Lala land in Vancouver, British Columbia, has snow and ice on the ground. Many Vancouverites are ill prepared for snow and cold and many don’t even own a snow shovel. I’m sure the carbon tax will help people cope.

There is no getting around the fact that winter is hard on wildlife. Of course, some species are adapted to it, but in areas with regular, harsh winters, the abundance and diversity of species is a pale shadow of what thrives in warmer climes. The winter of 2013-14 in much of the country, including where I live, was horrendously long, cold and snowy, and wreaked havoc on the local deer population. It didn’t do our struggling, reintroduced elk population any favours either. Pat Karns, a former and now departed wildlife biologist in Minnesota, once wrote a paper ‘Winter: the Grim Reaper’, outlining how winter, more than any other factor, was responsible for deer dynamics on northern ranges.

It’s a classic and a ‘must read’ for wildlife biologists and nature enthusiasts alike.

The hunting season, for white-tailed deer and grouse, in my area ended ½ hr after sunset yesterday (correction:grouse season is still open; it now closes at the end of December. But I have never hunted past Dec 15, which is when the season used to close.)

It was a rather uneventful day. I didn’t go hunting and hadn’t been for several days. For the second straight year I didn’t harvest a deer. I did have opportunities; more than last year. I saw at least 4 different bucks. Yearling bucks were the youngest and smallest; the other bucks were at least 2 ½ years old and the largest one might have been 3 ½.

I took a number of ruffed grouse and a few spruce grouse this autumn (plus some pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge in Alberta). I hunted with my dog Neva here and in Alberta, and a bit with Lil and our other dog, Dory (near home). Dory’s front legs have never worked properly so she’s had that handicap all her life. But Neva seems to have brought her joy and Dory now enjoys being able to hunt with us, even if it’s only for a very short time during an outing.

The moose hunt also ended, but my moose hunting this year was restricted to the week I flew into the wilds of Manitoba; zippo on that hunt. I did have a tag for moose hunting in Ontario, but I wasn’t interested in hunting a calf because I don’t believe in calf hunting (not like it’s being done in Ontario); and, I didn’t have an adult tag on my moose license – nor did any of my normal hunting buddies.

The highlight of my hunting season was in early September. Saw a magnificent bull elk on a misty morning. There is no licenced hunt for elk in Northwestern Ontario, but someday there might be. Elk were re-introduced in this area in 2000 and although there have been some setbacks, there are a few herds around that seem to be doing OK. There’s been some encouraging reports of late, so ‘fingers crossed’.

The last few days of the hunting season have been cold and windy; into the minus twenties in Celsius – ‘silly arses’ – degrees. Too cold for me to want to go hunting.

There were not a lot of deer around anyway; most days when I went hunting I didn’t see a single deer. But tracks and dropping and rubs and scrapes showed there were deer scattered about and twice we saw deer along the highway driving to our hunt spot, or coming home after the hunt was done.

I saw almost as much wolf sign as deer sign. Everywhere I went there were fresh wolf tracks. On a few occasions we could hear them howling, sometimes quite close by. On a hill my buddy Deryk and I have hunted for years, there was very little deer sign (none on the hill itself) but we counted at least a dozen piles of wolf crap. More than once we saw wolves.

When it gets cold and snow covers the ground, the ruffed grouse just seem to disappear. I hadn’t been shooting any lately, not just because it’s been cold, but more important, many places now convenient to hunt might be areas where trappers are working; some trap sets could easily be tripped by an inquisitive dog and that would be the end of that. We had been letting Neva hunt grouse on many of our almost daily walks on our property; I just hadn’t been trying to shoot them. I like seeing the grouse and if they stick around, we can continue to ‘hunt’ them all winter, or at least on some nice days when there a few birds out and about.

Now that deer and bird hunting is over, I think it might be time to hunt wolves and get ready to do some ice fishing.

Maybe combine the two.

And maybe dream of an elk hunt.

shrike-1

Shrikes seem to be fairly common where I live. That’s the northern shrike (Lánius excúbitar), one of two species found in North America. My old field guide to the birds says the northern shrike is ‘a rare robin-sized bird’; according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) they are a species of least concern, so I take it they’re a species believed to be in good shape.

The northern shrike breeds in the far north, but migrates to more southerly climes to spend the winter. Ones I see are likely both migrants and winter residents, seeing as we live well south of where they breed, but just on the northern fringe of where they winter.

This time of the year they’re feeding on small birds and rodents like mice and voles. I suspect the one I’ve seen several times over the past little while is checking out the birds that hang around the feeder; particularly the black-capped chickadees, redpolls and red-breasted nuthatches. To date, I haven’t seen it catch anything.

The other shrike species is the loggerhead shrike (Lánius ludoviciánus). My field guide calls them uncommon; the Ontario Field Ornithologists report they’re listed as Endangered under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, although in North America as a whole they are still fairly numerous, albeit populations have declined noticeable since the 1960’s. Authorities estimate there are about 5.8 million loggerhead shrikes (breeding population); as such, they are not in imminent danger of extinction, rather they are a ‘common bird in steep decline’. A breakdown as to where they are is as follows; 82% spend some part of the year in the U.S., 30% in Mexico, and 3% breed in Canada.

In Ontario loggerheads occur mostly in two grassland habitats – the Carden Plain north of Lindsay and the Napanee Limestone Plain; both areas are in eastern Ontario.

A number of reasons have been put forward regarding the declining numbers of loggerhead shrike. One I put a lot of credence in is the loss of habitat. Much of the habitat ‘loss’, I believe, is affiliated with changing farming practices: many farmers used to graze cattle in woodlots, which led to many farms having thorn bushes, like hawthorns, become the prominent woody shrub. But farming associations said this was poor farming practice and a variety of incentives has, over time, resulted in farmers clearing the land, converting grazed woodlots into pasture.

Loggerhead shrikes liked the heavily grazed woodlots, open pasture, not so much. I suspect loggerhead shrikes in North America initially benefitted from poor grazing practices and mushroomed far over their baseline. In this context, their decline is not too alarming, at least not yet.

Interestingly, there was pressure on Ontario farmers who still had loggerhead shrikes to keep their heavily grazed woodlots as this was deemed to be ‘critical habitat’ under species at risk legislation. It caused a furor (governments telling farmers what to do!) and helped fuel the Ontario Landowners Association’s property rights movement and their slogan ‘This Land is Our Land’ , followed by the tagline ‘Government Keep Off!’.

As I said, where I live, there seems to be only northern shrikes. And no angry, shriking farmers.