Sunday, March 8, 2015

Beautiful timber wolves now out in the daytime

Large wolves were out and about at 3:20 p.m. in Nolalu
For size comparison purposes, Cork in nearly same spot. He is a 70-pound Labrador.
I wrote awhile back about how I didn't fear for Cork being taken by timber wolves because he and I are always taking our walks through the bush in the daytime while the wolves operate at night.
Well, we can discard that notion now.
One of my trail cameras got these great shots of large wolves a few days ago at 3 p.m.
The funny thing was I had just been thinking how the trail cameras got photos of wolves at night but deer in the day. I guess the wolves noticed this pattern too and started working the day shift.
Cork and I found the first traces this winter of where the wolves had killed a deer. It was right where this camera was mounted and amounted to some specks of bloody ice and bits of meat.
Speaking of predator-prey relationships, I ruminated a few postings ago about the demise of Ontario's moose population and factors that could be causing that, including predation. However, an old biological maxim is that predators never eliminate their prey. They can be a limiting force, but for the most part predators keep prey populations healthy by preventing them from becoming too numerous and by killing off the sick and wounded. We don't need to worry about wolves killing all the whitetail deer or moose!
Deer are actually their own worst enemy. They are incredible breeders and must be one of the most adaptive creatures on the planet. But when their populations become dense, they get chronic wasting disease and spread the brain worm parasite to moose.
Unfortunately, humans have grown accustomed to these over-populated herds in many places and then gripe when wolves or coyotes take any, even though they are improving the population in the long run.
The wolves that we are seeing here in Nolalu are about the only check that matters on the local deer herd. Hunters take but a few each fall. I'm afraid our culture and history here are so engrained into moose hunting that we have been extremely slow to switch our efforts onto deer.
Take myself, for example. My family has always come to camp each fall to go moose hunting. We are usually successful and that single animal is all the entire bunch of us needs for meat for the winter. So when we come back to Nolalu in the fall, I don't also hunt deer, even though they are everywhere.
Hunting regulations are to blame for some of this as well. In Wildlife Management Unit 13 around Thunder Bay, including Nolalu, there is no non-resident deer hunting allowed. Many of my family members now live in other provinces and are considered non-residents.

Going back to biology basics, the maxim about predators not eliminating their prey also states that it is habitat that really controls wildlife populations. Today, we might amend this to say habitat and climate are the bottlenecks.  Two things are changing on that front here in Northwestern Ontario. As mentioned previously, climate change is giving us warmer, drier winters, and somewhat wetter summers. The other thing occurring is a great reduction in timber harvesting. Most pulp and paper mills in the province -- in all of North America, actually -- have closed. That industry has largely moved to South America. So there is less cutting of mature forests taking place. Moose -- and deer -- thrive in areas that have been recently logged because of the new growth that provides winter browse for years afterward. It has been about 10 years since the downturn in the forest business began. Regeneration in some of those last areas to be logged will be getting fairly tall by this point, which makes it not quite as good habitat.  But frankly, I don't think habitat is a major factor yet. Our growing season is so short that these old cutovers will continue to provide plenty of browse for probably another 10 years. Still, it is a factor worth mentioning, along with brain worm from deer, predation of calves by bears and wolves, and hunting.
Something to also keep in mind is that only 100 years ago this entire region was neither moose nor deer country. It was almost totally inhabited by woodland caribou. I remember reading old copies of the Port Arthur News-Chronicle or Fort William Times-Journal newspaper on microfilm that had a  story about a lone moose track that was found near Longlac, a couple of hundred miles northeast of the city. That front-page news item was in the 1920s. (Port Arthur and Fort William were amalgamated in 1970 to become present-day Thunder Bay.) It was speculated that this lone moose had been following the railway right-of-way from the east. Railroads were still relatively new at that time. The Canadian Pacific had been finished in 1882 and what was then-called the Canadian Northern Railway in 1915.
There were stories in the papers back then about people mostly hunting caribou but also whitetail deer. The deer seemed mostly to be on the big islands like Pie Island, in Thunder Bay of Lake Superior, right in front of the cities. Moose were non-existent.
Then logging would have spread far and wide on either side of the railways and also in the general vicinity of pulp and paper mills which sprouted up everywhere there was a river that could be dammed for hydro-electric power.
Timber harvesting quickly eliminated the caribou which need mature or over-mature forests and their lichens to survive the winters. At the same time it made the region fit for moose and deer which would have migrated into the region from the east, west and south.
Today woodland caribou are found only in the far North of Ontario, where logging has never occurred. There are tiny pockets of them in other spots, the most amazing of which is the Slate Islands on the northeast side of Lake Superior. There is no logging on these five small islands which encompass only 36 km2 (14 square miles) and also no predators. Currents usually keep the lake free of ice between the islands and the mainland 10 kilometers (six miles) away and wolves and bears have apparently never made the swim.
There have been recent times when the tiny islands supported 650 caribou. However, the population also routinely crashes to just 100 or so. The islands' caribou situation has been extensively studied and the reason for the precipitous declines has been found to occur when there is a lack of vicious winter storms and winds that knock down trees loaded with arboreal (tree) lichens like Old Man's Beard.
There is also a tiny herd of caribou in Woodland Caribou Wilderness Park, just west of Bow Narrows Camp. We used to see some of these animals as they migrated between the park and wintering areas north of Red Lake. The last one I saw was swimming across West Narrows, right at the Trapper's Cabin, heading to the islands that lead to the mainland by Muskrat Bay. That was probably 15 years ago.
Bits of bloody ice were all we found from a deer killed by the wolves
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