Western Canada’s 2011 Hunting Forecast

Western Canada’s 2011 Hunting Forecast: A tough, long winter and a nasty spring has paid a toll on some game species — but don’t worry, there are still great prospects for many species in all Western Provinces.

Canada is the “Great White North.”  However, while the very white winter of 2010 to 2011 may have been great for some winter sports, for coming hunting prospects, the past winter was anything but great.

For game populations, winter is a bottleneck and the narrowness of that bottleneck is determined by the severity of the winter. Canadian wildlife is used to cold weather, but when combined with prolonged deep snow, survival can be challenging for these animals and winter mortality increases. All across the West this year, unfortunately, the snow lay deep through January, February, March and even well into April. Most wildlife biologists expect that this extended winter will cause some mortality of the species we like to hunt.

Of course not all the game animals died and there were areas across the West where winter was not severe. So hunters need not despair, but we will have to accept that the coming hunting season will be more challenging than most and our harvest is likely to be down. Deer numbers appear to have been more affected than the populations of the larger ungulates like elk and moose. Bears, of course, slept through the whole thing and are generally under harvested across the West, so this might be the right year for every hunter to have a bear tag in his hunt pack.

There are even some upsides to the heavy winter snowpack. The extra moisture filled the prairie duck ponds, replenished depleted soil moisture and promoted the succulent growth of browse shrubs, which means healthy game animals come fall.

Taking a closer look, province by province and species by species, here are comments from Provincial game biologists on what western Canadian sportsmen can expect in the coming hunting season.

Manitoba

“A winter that was long and cold with lots of snow,” was the simple summary from Ken Rebizant of Manitoba’s Wildlife and Ecosystem Protection Branch. This is not great news for hunters in a province that has seen several tough winters recently. The soggy spring that followed, though, was great for waterfowl and actually not bad for big game animals.

Elk

Rebizant was very positive about elk survival and hunting prospects for the fall. Elk numbers are stable or slightly up, with good reports from the Interlake, Duck Mountain and Spruce Woods areas. There is still active management for bovine tuberculosis in Riding Mountain National Park, but that elk population too, is on target. Hunters can expect as good an elk season in 2011 as any in recent years.

White-Tailed deer

Unfortunately, winter will have taken a toll on this species and hunting regulations will be tightened in response. The second deer licence will be removed from the Interlake and southeast Game Hunting Areas this fall to match the existing one deer bag limit in the south west of the province. However, licenses for a second and even third deer will continue to be available in specific GMAs.

Moose

The hunting season for moose will stay open for most of the Province, but there are population concerns in specific areas, notably Duck Mountain and GMA 26 south east of Lake Winnipeg.  Hunters may see fewer opportunities and some hunting closures as Rebizant and his colleagues work to rebuild these moose populations.

Caribou

A thorough inventory over the past two years found that caribou numbers were down, but still in huge herds across the north of the province. Caribou hunters had typically enjoyed very high success, although that too declined last year. The reduced hunter success is likely due, in part, to a change in the traditional distribution of these animals, many of which moved west, even into northern Saskatchewan. Manitoba hunters hope that that is not a permanent shift in caribou range.

Black Bear

This species manages to avoid the worst of winter by hibernating. Rebizant reports that bear numbers are high and hunting prospects are excellent. Manitoba black bears average about 400 pounds, but trophy boars may reach 800 pounds.

Wolf

Hunting wolves is catching on in Manitoba. Hunters are taking an interest in this species and the harvest has increased in the past few years. Wolf numbers are stable or increasing and hunting opportunities will also increase, with new areas open this fall and a two-wolf bag limit in certain areas. There is a research project in Duck Mountain and GMA 26 designed to assess the impact of wolf predation on moose, for which hunters are requested to submit biological samples.

Upland Game Birds

There was a good harvest last fall of forest grouse species (spruce and ruffed grouse) in Manitoba, which suggests that we are somewhere near the top of a population cycle. Hunters should expect as many birds this fall, although a cool spring did not encourage chick survival. Farmland game birds (Hungarian partridge and sharptailed grouse) were at surprisingly high numbers last year and that is promising for this fall. Wild turkeys too, continue to provide very exciting hunting. Their numbers are down slightly, due to some wet springs, but hunter success is still better than 50 per cent and there will be a new season for youth hunters, for one week before the season opens for adult hunters.

Chronic Wasting Disease

Rebizant wants to remind hunters that Chronic Wasting Disease is still a potential issue in the Manitoba. Fortunately the disease has not yet been reported in the Province, but with CWD reports from North Dakota and Minnesota as well as Saskatchewan the disease is all around.  The policy for Manitoba has been amended to read:

“It is illegal to bring into Manitoba a cervid that has been killed in another province or state without first removing the head, hide, hooves, mammary glands, internal organs, and spinal column, and leaving these parts in the place of origin. Antlers and connecting bone plate that has been detached from the remainder of the skull and has had all hide and other tissue removed, may be bought in, provided the bone plate and antler bases are treated with a solution of not less than two percent (2%) chlorine. Raw capes and hides that have been detached from the animals and sealed in a waterproof container that ensures that no fluids, tissue or hair can escape may be brought in provided that they are delivered, within five (5) days of entry, to taxidermist or a licensed facility for chemical processing into a tanned product.”

Saskatchewan

Many Saskatchewan hunters are in for a shock this fall. Some hunting opportunities will be reduced and in some cases closed. A nasty winter followed by a nasty spring caused above average winter mortality, according to big game manager Brad Tokaruk. The worst hit areas of the Province were along the east and southern borders and the regulation changes are needed to deal with depressed game numbers, particularly of deer and antelope. So, for some hunts, hunters will have to scale back their expectations this fall and be prepared to hunt a bit harder. However, even with this caution, the hunting forecast has several highlights.

Moose

There is good news for Saskatchewan moose hunters for this fall. Moose numbers are up again in the farmlands zones and there will be 4 new hunts opened for 2011. The north east of the Province (WMZ 56 to 59), which is traditionally a good moose producing area, was hit particularly hard by winter and some moose may have succumbed. Elsewhere in the province moose numbers appear to be stable and hunting should be as good as last year.

Elk

This species also appears to have weathered the past winter well, with the possible exception of those the east central area of the province where snow was particularly deep and long lasting. No reductions in draws are planned yet and, in fact, there will be two new hunts open this fall, again in the agriculture zones (WMZ 21 and 52).  Moose Mountain Provincial Park (WMZ 33) continues to be the top choice for elk hunters, particularly those interested in a non-trophy animal.

Pronghorn antelope

Saskatchewan will be closed to pronghorn hunting for 2011. Large numbers of these animals migrated from Saskatchewan south into Montana, but encountered severe winter there as well. Many did not make it through. Closing the hunt is a significant step to have to take, and a real shame after several years of increasing pronghorn numbers and increasing hunter opportunity. The only positive thing to say about this situation is that the species has shown that the population can rebound.

Mule Deer

Mule deer were severely affected by last winter, especially along the US border, an area which had until now had been a high producing area for this species. For 2011, hunters will see quota reductions and fewer opportunities for both antlerless and either sex licenses in most of the Province. The west central part of the province around Swift Current was less affected by winter and will likely be the best choice for mule deer hunters this fall.

White-Tailed deer

Tokaruk reported that his office received many reports of stressed, starving or dead deer from all parts of the province last winter. He suspects that there will have been significant losses and as a result, there are significant changes to hunting regulations. The resident antlerless white-tailed seasons will be closed for most of the Province. The best choice for whitetail hunters will likely be the western border between North Battleford and Meadow Lake. There are also changes to the regulations for Canadian resident white-tailed deer hunts and hunters should check the Hunters and Trappers guide on the Ministry website for details.

Black Bear

Although the past winter was long and cold, bears slept through it all. They awoke to find very well watered habitat and lush new vegetation. Hunter interest in bears has waned over the past few years, but with deer numbers down, this might be the year for sportsmen to include a bear tag in their wallet when heading to the field this fall or next spring. The most productive area for bear hunters is along the southern edge of the provincial forest.

Upland Game Birds

Cool spring weather can be hard on the chicks of some upland birds and so hunters may end up with smaller numbers in the bag this fall. In the forest, prospects for ruffed grouse are expected to be modestly better than last year, which was better than the year before, so that is positive news. However, the upland birds of the prairies: sharp-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge and pheasant likely found the past winter and spring to have been a challenge. Populations of these birds are expected to be down, especially in the southern and eastern areas of the Province.

Alberta

The Provincial big game biologist Rob Corrigan described the past winter for much of Alberta as “difficult,” although the east central areas were spared some of the worst of winter weather. Deer and antelope populations were impacted more that other big game species.

Moose

Alberta moose hunters have reason to be happy. This species is built for Canadian winters and the population, which had benefited from a previous mild winter, will have maintained numbers through the most recent winter.  Even moose winter ticks cooperated by being scarce this past year. So hunters should expect as good a moose season as any recently.

Elk

This species weathered the past winter almost as well as moose and no significant regulation changes are planned. In the Peace country, there were more reports of crop depredation because the snow pack forced the animals into the farmland, but there were no records of winter mortality. Late season elk hunts will continue in the agriculture areas. Prairie elk numbers are up, especially from Wainwright south through Suffield to the Cyprus Hills. So, Alberta elk hunters too can expect a very good season this fall.

Mule Deer

Winter took a toll on this species. There are reports of winter mortality from many parts of the province, including the Peace Country, Medicine Hat area and Edmonton to Swan Hills. Corrigan says that the season dates will be the same as last year, but there will be fewer permits available. Chronic Wasting Disease continues to be an issue in mule deer with 20 new cases recorded last year. There was also a significant expansion of the range of the disease in 2010, into WMU 152 in the Red River valley and the first positive report from the North Saskatchewan River valley. The only encouraging note for mule deer hunters is that the deer numbers had been strong until this year, so there will still be some decent hunting to be had.

White-Tailed Deer

White-tails too, will have suffered some winter mortality and there will be a reduction in the number of antlerless deer tags available in 11 WMUs. On the plus side, though, the deer population had been very healthy, in fact above the provincial population target.  So, while there are some localized concerns, there are still lots of whitetails out there.

Antelope

At the time of writing, the 2011 pronghorn counts had not been done, but the preliminary reports were of fewer animals around, due to winter kill. No season closures are currently planned, but there will likely be fewer permits available this fall.

Black Bears

In Alberta, the population of black bears is robust, or healthy, or however you want to say it, there are lots of bears out in the bush. To encourage more participation, hunters will have lengthened seasons in both the coming fall and in the spring of 2012.

Cougar

Corrigan reported that there has been a dramatic increase in both the number and the range of cougars in the province, so there will be a significant increase in cat hunting opportunities.

Upland Game Birds

The prospects for upland bird hunting depend a lot on a warm and dry spring. Regardless, the potential is there for good nesting success this year because the melting snow will recharge the soil moisture and promote dense vegetation, and thus good nesting cover. Bird hunters will find new opportunities this fall, with more standardized season dates, earlier opening day for bow hunting and more Sunday hunting.

British Columbia

The winter of 2010/11 was long, but not uniformly severe across the province. The northern and eastern parts of the province saw the worst of winter but in the southern interior and the south coast, while there were record snow accumulations in high elevations, snow in the lower elevations was about normal.

BC is now on a two year hunting regulation cycle and with 2011 being an “off” year, hunters will not see any significant regulation changes this fall.

Moose

Right across the north of BC, there continues to be some concerns about moose numbers. This is not an emergency, but moose hunting in the northern Regions will likely be “less than excellent” this fall. From Prince George south, though, moose numbers are stable or increasing. Extensive logging in response to mountain pine beetle attack is improving moose habitat, but the high bull harvest that followed the burgeoning road access caused managers to reduce the length of the open season for Regions 3 and 8.

Elk

The hunting prospects for elk in BC could not get much better. This species is doing well in all the traditional areas, especially the agriculture zones of the Kootenays and Peace country, but is also expanding into new areas on Vancouver Island, Sunshine Coast, Omineca and Okanagan, which often results in new LEH opportunities.

Mule Deer

The prospects for mule deer this fall will depend a great deal on where you choose to hunt. For the northern half of the province, snow lay very heavy on the deer winter range last winter and deer numbers will have suffered, particularly the young animals.  The same may be true for parts of the Kootenays. For the central and southern interior, though, the high snow accumulation was mostly at the high elevations, not on the winter ranges and deer survival should be excellent. Meanwhile, predation is suspected as the cause of low mule deer numbers for some areas of the Lower Mainland Region.

White-Tailed Deer

Most reports suggest that the past winter was less hard on this species than for mule deer. So, considering the high numbers of deer across their range, this is good news for hunters. These deer are most common in the east of the province, especially near the agriculture areas of the Kootenays and Peace. However, this species has been expanding its range steadily westward into the Similkameen, Nicola and Thompson drainages and into the Nechako. The province wide general open season for antlerless whitetails introduced last year will continue.

Mountain Sheep

There was not a lot of updated information this year, but thinhorn sheep numbers across the north appear to be stable. Regulation changes in the Skeena Region significantly increased the resident hunter harvest of thinhorns in 2010 and should do so again this year. For bighorn sheep, the news is mixed, with no significant trends or planned regulation changes. Kamloops Region bighorns are doing well. Cariboo Region bighorns continue to do poorly. Kootenay Region bighorns numbers are stable, while Okanagan sheep have a mixed report, some herds up, some down.

Black Bear

The comments are similar from every regional biologist in BC when it comes to black bears in their respective Regions — lots of animals and limited hunter interest.

Grizzly Bear

There are no open seasons for grizzlies in BC, but many opportunities for limited entry hunts (LEH) some with very attractive odds. The worst that any biologist had to say about grizzlies in their respective region was stable, but most thought the bear populations were increasing. An issue in some areas is the harvest of female bears, which not only impacts the productivity of the bear population, but also impacts the number of LEH authorizations available in future hunts.

Wolf

Across the southern parts of the Province wolf numbers are up and, actually, so are hunter interest and harvest. However, by far the highest harvests of wolves come from the three Northern Regions (6, 7A, 7B).

Upland Birds

It seems that 2011 is likely to be one of those (fortunately) rare years when there just are no good hunting prospects to report for upland birds in BC. Low numbers, a long winter, a cool and wet spring have all combined to produce one of the most consistent and least positive bird hunting forecasts for BC in a long time. Diligence or experience will certainly pay off with birds in the bag, but achieving bag limits on any upland bird species will likely be uncommon this fall.

Waterfowling in the West 2011

While big game animal and upland bird populations are down a bit, waterfowl numbers are up more than a bit, in fact, for some species, 2011 promises to be a banner year. Across the West, Canada geese are at near record numbers and are creating issues in towns and agriculture areas, but this is great news for goose hunters. Similarly, snow goose numbers, already very high, continue to grow despite the harvest of over a million birds a year from the central flyway. On BC’s Fraser delta, snow geese continue to arrive in record numbers and have expanded their range from the delta well up into the farmland of the Fraser Valley.

For prairie duck hunters too the news is good because the extra water from the massive amount of winter snow has topped up the wetlands and the habitat for breeding ducks is excellent. All of these reports suggest that waterfowl hunters, pretty much anywhere in Western Canada, will have excellent sport this fall.

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