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


Anonymous said...

A surefire way to thin the deer herd is to require hunters to take a doe before they can harvest their buck. I think they are doing this in Wisconsin.

Uffdah-ya said...

I have seen many changes over the years in managing the whitetail deer population in Tennessee. We allow more deer to be harvested over a longer season, yet the population remains higher than desired. Our archery season begins in late September and runs through to the first Friday of November. The next day is the start of the muzzleloader season, followed by the gun season which runs into the first week of January. Tennessee is divided into three separate zones, each with its own harvest numbers. Here in West Tennessee, we can take three antlerless deer a day with a special permit. Or, we can take three antlerless deer for archery, muzzleloader, and gun, for a total of nine. We can also take three antlered deer, total.

Up to a few years ago, West Tennessee had the higher harvest numbers, but that is no longer the case. In a small area of Middle Tennessee, you can harvest four antlerless deer a day. In fact, the zones have changed significantly in recent years. The old West Tennessee zone takes up over half the state, where in the past it was confined to the Tennessee River, west to the Mississippi River.

Part of the problem is found in the fact that fewer and fewer hunters are hitting the woods each fall, with the result being a substantial growth to the deer population. With that there has been a tremendous jump in our coyote population affecting countless other creatures as well.

The attempts to slow down the out-of-control deer population explosion, have not seemed to work as planned or hoped for. I am not sure what the answer is, but it seems to be happening everywhere.

I especially hate to see the moose population suffer as a result of poor management. Unfortunately, we are dealing with issues and challenges that are far more complex and complicated than we are able to deal with.

Thomas Venney said...