Saturday, February 28, 2015

Vaginal implants and other moose study facts

While reading studies about moose this winter I came across some really fascinating techniques and findings of biologists. Right at the top of the list was a study called Moose Calf Mortality in Central Ontario (Patterson, 2013).
Other studies done decades ago in Alaska had found that black bears may be the largest predators of moose because they consumed up to half of the calves, almost immediately after the calves were born in the spring.
At Bow Narrows Camp we have seen this exact predator-prey scenario unfold many times -- cow moose swimming out to islands to give birth and then bears swimming out to the islands and then the cows and the new-born calves swimming away from the islands on the other side. It has been impossible for us to tell how many of the calves the bears actually killed and biologists anywhere in densely forested Ontario have had the same problem. In the open country of Alaska, you can spot the moose and the bears from the air. That technique just won't work here with our continuous and thick canopy of trees.
So, in the Patterson study, biologists put vaginal implant transmitters (VITs) in 99 cow moose in Algonquin Provincial Park and Wildlife Management Unit 49. The cows were also fitted with tracking collars. When a cow gave birth, the VIT was pushed out of the birth canal and it then sent a signal to the researchers that the calf had been born so that they could quickly fix a radio collar on it and track its movements. If the calf stopped moving, like when it was killed, the collar sent out a signal and the researchers could again quickly examine the remains to see what killed it. Pretty ingenious!
The study found that bears killed about the same percentage of calves in the spring as wolves do in the winter. Between them they got 28 per cent of the calves.
It also found that 20 per cent of the cows in the park gave birth to twins but outside the park that rate was just 12.5%, probably due to poorer habitat as the researchers also found malnutrition and tick mortality was four times greater in WMU 49.
There was evidence in a study done in Manitoba that black bears can have a bigger impact on moose calves in some situations. This study was done on Hecla Island in southern Lake Winnipeg. Hecla at one time had such a dense moose population it was called the Isle Royale of Canada. (Isle Royale in Lake Superior is the location of the longest-running wildlife study in the world. Just about everything known about the relationship of moose and wolves comes from that study.)
A combination of factors was believed to have contributed to a decline of Hecla Island's moose population, to just 25 individuals in the year 2000, down from 221 in 1979. But researchers believed the building of a causeway to the island was a prime factor because it gave bears better access. As far as anyone could tell, there were no bears on the island in 1979, before the causeway, and there were 20-30 bears in 1999.
Winter aerial surveys in 2000 found that there were no moose calves at all. Back in 1979, the calf/cow ratio had been 46 calves per 100 cows.
So in an experiment in 2002, researchers live-trapped and removed 12 bears from the island. That was roughly half of the bears there. The next year they found that the calf/cow ratio jumped immediately to 40/100.
The researchers also noted other studies, one in Saskatchewan where 12 bears were removed from a 90-km2 area and the ratio jumped to 80 calves/100 cows, up from 40 in a control area.
Research has also shown that the killing of moose calves by bears in the spring is mostly done by large, male bears. As one biologist pointed out, these are the same type of bear that have caused almost all of the attacks on humans. They didn't mention it but it is also the very bears that were highly sought by hunters when Ontario had a spring bear hunt. It has always been illegal in Ontario to shoot a mother bear with cubs. That was the case when we had spring bear hunting and it is still the case now that there is only fall bear hunting. However, female bears are very much smaller than the males, so hunters never wanted them anyway.
Incidentally, the Hecla Island study found the moose calf twinning rate there was 28 per cent.
Research quoted in the study speculated that predation by both bears and wolves on moose was a greater factor when moose were already at low densities. That could be particularly relevant in Ontario which is seeing its moose population plummet, mostly, it seems from brain worm parasites transmitted by whitetail deer.
I was at a moose seminar at the Northern Ontario Tourism Summit in November in Thunder Bay and asked a biologist from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests if he agreed that whitetail deer and brain worm were the largest reason moose were disappearing. He said no, he couldn't agree because moose were expanding in southern Saskatchewan and the U.S. Northeast, both places which also have good whitetail populations.
Well, the studies I found explain why that could be the case. As mentioned in the previous blog posting, brain worm goes from deer poop to gastropods -- snails and slugs -- to moose. Southern Saskatchewan is a prairie with very little rainfall. There would be very few snails and slugs there.
And in the U.S. Northeast, acid rain, both currently occurring and from the past, has made the soil too acidic for gastropods. Biologists there have stated that acid rain is likely what is saving their moose.
Meanwhile in Northern Ontario, climate change is making the summers wetter and even better for gastropods, hence the rapid transmission of brain worm from deer to moose.
Studies in Manitoba show 100 per cent of the deer there have the parasite which is harmless to them, harmless to humans, and fatal to moose. In Grand Marais, Minnesota 90 per cent of the deer were found to have brain worm. Grand Marais is very near Thunder Bay, Ont. and Wildlife Management Unit 13 which has seen some of the largest declines of moose in the province.
Advice from a game manager in Grand Marais, if you want to save the moose "hammer the deer as hard as possible."
A perplexing study done in Quebec, way back in 1978 -- before Ontario even had a selective harvest system -- found that moose calves that were orphaned had the same survival rate as those that were raised with their mothers. This flies in the face of observations and advice of Ontario's moose managers that went to great lengths in 1982 when we started our selective harvest system to explain that a calf needs its mother to teach it survival skills in the winter. Therefore hunters who had cow tags and came across a cow with a calf, should harvest the calf and let the cow go. To shoot the cow and not the calf was the same thing as killing two moose, they preached. Now, one of the options being floated by the MNRF is to do that very thing -- kill the cow and let the calves go. That's because they want to see more calves in the winter population.
What I noticed is that the Quebec study only followed 28 calves. The sample size was so small that I have a hard time believing the results. And I personally have never seen or even heard about a moose calf surviving the winter alone.
Just for comparison purposes, here are some interesting current facts on wildlife populations in Ontario and Quebec.
Ontario: deer 400,000, moose 105,000, bear 85,000-105,000, wolves 9,000.
Quebec:  deer 367,000, moose 125,000, bear 70,000, wolves 7,000.
What jumps out at me is that Ontario has more deer, fewer moose, more bears and more wolves.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What is happening to Ontario's moose population?

Calf and cow moose, an increasingly rare sight. Photo by Jason or Larry Pons
Aerial moose surveys by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests during the last couple of years have shown a dramatic decline in the province's moose herd, to 105,000 animals, down from perhaps a high of over 120,000 a decade earlier. The actual numbers may not be accurate or even important; it's the sharp downward trend. And most alarming of all was the observation that there are very few calves in the population. So what is going on and what can we do to fix it?
The good news is the MNRF is taking the problem seriously. Last year it slashed tag numbers and this winter it is holding discussions with user groups and is floating some proposals for feedback. So far, these have been about the usual methods of management -- length of hunting season and new regulations to restrict harvest.
That's the easiest and quickest thing to do, for sure, but it doesn't address the problem of why moose are disappearing in the first place. Hunters aren't suddenly becoming better at finding and killing moose. It's something else.
Deer like these behind our house are everywhere
I've been going through as many moose studies as I could find this winter and they list many possibilities for the moose decline but the smoking gun in almost all of them is whitetail deer.
Deer are hosts for Parelaphostongylus tenuis, better known as brain worm, that is almost always harmless to them but is almost always fatal to moose.
Whitetails have taken over what was previously moose range and everywhere they go, moose end up disappearing. In Northern Minnesota the moose herd fell from 4,000 to 200 in just a few years. In Northwestern Ontario deer have advanced from the Minnesota border all the way to Ear Falls, just south of Red Lake.
Why are deer spreading so far afield? Two words: climate change. Winters are not as severe as they once were and in particular, snowfall is less. But also, summers are wetter and that means more gastropods -- snails and slugs -- which are the intermediate hosts for the brain worm parasite. Moose get infected by eating grass and weeds that have the gastropods attached to them. The parasite goes from deer poop to gastropods to moose.
Milder winters are also better for moose ticks and in some instances these ticks, which only bother moose, are so severe they cause the moose to lose all their hair and they then freeze to death.
An abundance of deer also creates an abundance of timber wolves. There are many-fold more wolves in deer country compared to areas with just moose. So even when moose escape the brain worm, more of them are picked off by wolves.
Why so few moose calves? A big reason is an abundance of large male black bears that get the calves right after they are born in the spring. These very bears were thinned out back in the '80s and '90s by spring bear hunting. But because of a political decision - not one by game managers -- spring bear hunting in Ontario was banned in 1999.
A study in Ontario showed that black bears and wolves take about an equal number of calves. Bears do it in the spring and wolves in the winter. Between them they killed about 28% of the calves. Hunters take another 16%. Put those together and you get 44%. But the aerial surveys are seeing almost none. Where are the rest? Well, it turns out that calves are especially vulnerable to brain worm.
So, what to do? It seems like a no-brainer to me to encourage hunters to harvest far more deer than they are currently doing. That will mean a major change in our hunting regulations. As it stands now, a hunter who purchases a deer licence can only shoot a buck. Experience in the U.S. has proven that buck harvest has almost no impact on deer population. Only the harvest of does will do that. It is possible for Ontario hunters to get a doe permit but they must apply for it months ahead of time. In many areas, they can also purchase additional doe permits, again, ahead of time. This process is just too cumbersome and needlessly complicated for the task at hand. We need lots of does harvested, immediately. Since most hunters would ultimately like a nice deer rack for the wall, I don't think we will encourage more deer hunters afield if we make the hunt for does only. So, I would suggest that each licence holder be entitled to multiple deer, only one of which can be a buck. And let's not make him jump through hoops to get his licence either. Anybody who buys a deer licence should get with it a buck tag and several doe tags.
Most hunters only go afield for a weekend or two. If he knew that he could shoot three deer -- one buck and two does -- then he would probably take the first doe he came across. He might then pass up does for fear of spooking a nearby buck but if the trip was nearly over, he would finally shoot another doe. If the buck tag was also good for a doe, and he never got to see a buck, he would likely take a third doe.
This change in regulations would be a gutsy move for the MNRF because it would be a relaxation of hunting laws, not a tightening of them. But it, and the return of spring bear hunting, is what is desperately needed.
Lots of deer mean lots of wolves. This one caught on same camera as deer above

Saturday, February 21, 2015

New openings in Reservation Availability

I have now made available all the cabins for 2015 that we had been holding for guests since last summer but who haven't replied to any of my letters, e-mails or telephone calls.
We've now either received deposits or have been notified that "the check is in the mail" for everybody else.
To see the entire summer, click on 2015 Reservation Availability here or at right.
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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Feathered beauty on the water

Bow Narrows angler John Andrews took these shots last spring of two pairs of common ducks on Red Lake, Ontario. The first pair are Common Mergansers and the second are Ring-necked Ducks.
The males of both species are particularly resplendent as is often the case in the bird world.
The funny thing is that after a few weeks, the males are not seen on the lake until the next year. I have no idea where they go the rest of the year.
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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A simple walk, next-best thing to fishing

Cork is ahead of me on trail during our daily walk
Modern life is full of stress and just about everyone gets wound up in it one way or another.
Bills, regulations, deadlines, worries, regrets. You just can't stop thinking about such matters.
This is why a fishing trip is so soul-soothing. When you are out on the lake, those things seem a million miles away and your mind and body have a chance to rejuvenate. But most people might only be able to make such a trip one or two weeks a year. What do you do the rest of the time?
Every week, it seems, there is an item in the news about the health benefits of walking -- not jogging, not running -- just walking.
Human beings, it seems to me, were made for walking. We can do it for long periods almost effortlessly. Study after study show that this simple activity keeps our bodies in really good shape.
Joints, bones, muscles, heart -- every part of us, it seems, responds positively.
But the greatest benefit of all may be to our minds. Just like our bodies need rest each night, our minds need a regular break from the multitude of thoughts and conversations that continually run through them. This is why some people meditate, to calm down their minds and give their brains a rest. It's a difficult skill for most people to master but for some reason, it seems much, much easier to do when walking. In fact, there is a discipline called walking meditation.
However, even if you knew nothing about the formalities of this practice, you just naturally do it every time you walk outdoors. It might go something like this: as you walk down a path you become alert to the songs and calls of birds; you feel with your feet the texture and contours of the ground; the wind blows against your face and you feel the sun against your skin; leaves rustle; the snow swirls and drifts; squirrels scurry up trees. Your body warms to your movement. You feel the pull of gravity as you walk uphill and the exhilaration of its release as you walk down. You become conscious of the world, of life, and how you are moving through it, how you are a part of it.
You are experiencing life in the moment, not reliving the past, not worrying about the future. It is, literally, a wonderful feeling.
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Sunday, February 8, 2015

The wonderful, mystifying world of beetles

Every once in a while you see some bug-thing happening that you would like to know more about. For a week or so last summer there were "rafts" of water bugs hanging off many of the docks in camp. I just assumed they were whirligig beetles because you see them do this sometimes -- a couple hundred of them packing together.
So, I didn't rush right out in a boat to see what these bugs last summer were. I did notice that the groups were a lot bigger than the usual whirligig rafts. Eventually, though, I did look and found they weren't whirligigs at all, nor were they water striders nor water boatmen -- all the usual suspects. They were beetles, that was for sure, but unknown to me. My insect books didn't shed any light either.
It is possible I will never see them again, for a fact. That's because there are hundreds of thousands of species of beetles, more even than plants, and much more than all the other orders of insects.
It is believed that most species of beetles are yet to be discovered. So, you really might see a particular species of beetle only once in your life, and it may be totally unknown to science.
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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Test your knowledge on Ontario fish regulations

Is this 27.5-inch pike legal to keep?
1. The northern pike above held by my nephew, Mac Baughman, is 27.5 inches as shown. Fish regs in Northwestern Ontario state there is a no-keep slot size of 27.5-35.4 inches. So is this fish the "perfect" pike, just under the slot size?
A. Absolutely!
B. No, because the tail is not being pinched which will make the fish longer and into the slot size.
C. No, because if it measures 27.5 inches, it is actually already in the slot size, albeit at the beginning.
D. Both B and C.
2. If you have a Conservation Fishing Licence (it comes free with your fishing package at Bow Narrows Camp) which has a daily and possession limit of two pike and two walleye, are you allowed to take fish home with you and if so, how many?
A.  No. You are not allowed to keep any fish.
B. Yes, you can take home two pike and two walleye.
C. Yes, you can keep one pike and one walleye to take home and one pike and one walleye to eat while you are at camp.
D. No. You can only keep fish to eat while at camp: two pike and two walleye.
3. If you have a Sportsman's Licence, which has a daily and possession limit of four northern pike and four walleye, is it OK to put your limit in the freezer to take home the first day you go fishing and then keep other fish later on to eat at camp?
A. No, because you would be over your possession limit.
B. No, because you would be over your daily limit.
C. Yes, because you would have your possession limit in the freezer and then could use your daily limit for eating at camp.
D. Yes, because you would then be assured of having your possession limit to take home and could keep other fish on the Camp Limit.
4. If you catch your daily limit of, say, two walleye on the Conservation Licence, in the morning and eat them for lunch. Could you then catch two walleye in the afternoon and put them in the freezer to take home?
A. Sure, once you eat the fish they are gone and you can start catching your limit all over again.
B. No, you would then exceed your daily limit of two fish.
C. No, you would then exceed your possession limit of two fish.
D. Yes because no one will ever know the difference.
5. How many rods can a fisherman use at one time in inland (non-Great Lakes) waters in Ontario?
A. One, during the summer
B. Two, during the winter
C. Four
D. Both A and B
6. For really big fish, such as very large northern pike and musky, is it OK to use a spring gaff instead of a landing net?
A. No because spring gaffs are illegal
B. No because these fish are more likely to get off the spring gaff than out of a landing net
C. Yes
D. Yes, provided the fish are at least 40 inches in length
7. Is it legal to throw out a minnow and bobber at the dock, tie your rod to a tree, and watch the bobber from the cabin porch while drinking a beer?
A. No because it is illegal to drink beer on your porch in Ontario
B. No because it is illegal to fish with a minnow
C. No because it is illegal to leave a rod tied to a tree
D. No because by the time you can run from the porch to the dock, the fish will be gone
8. You catch a small perch while fishing and think it would make good bait for big northern pike. Is this allowed?
A. Yes, it is how the biggest pike are taken.
B. No, perch are a gamefish and cannot be used for bait.
C. No, not if the perch was alive, but if it was dead it would be OK
D. Yes, as long as you use a circle hook and not a treble hook
9. You accidentally kill a northern pike in the slot size (27.5-35.4 inches). You didn't mean to do it; it was just an accident. Can you keep it?
A. Yes, but only to eat at camp, not to take home
B. Yes, it is an offence to throw away and therefore waste any gamefish
C. Yes, if it was an accident, you can keep it either to eat or to take home
D. No
10. Is it legal to drink beer in a boat?
A. Yes, but it must be from a Canadian brewery.
B. No
C. Not if you are the driver but it's OK for passengers
D. Yes, just don't throw the empties overboard

1. D
2. B
3. A
4. B
5. D
6. A
7. C
8. B
9. D
10. B

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Sunday, February 1, 2015

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