Western Canada’s 2012 Hunting Forecast

hunt-forecastWestern Canada’s Hunting Forecast: A mild winter of 2011-2012 means great prospects.

The winter of 2011-2012 will be remembered in Western Canada for being mild — one of the warmest and driest on record. So mild, in fact, that some winter game surveys could not be conducted because of lack of snow, a very unusual occurrence. This was a very welcome change from the previous nasty winter (2010-2011), which claimed numbers of big game animals and resulted in restricted hunting and lowered success in 2011.

Canadian winters can be tough on man and beast and some game animals do not survive. But if a doe and her fawn succumb to winter kill, the impact to the population is more than the loss of those two animals. She was almost certainly carrying a new fawn from November breeding and had the previous year’s fawn still at her heel. So, the immediate impact of the death of both animals is the loss of three generations, and that does not include the potential production for that doe or her fawns as they become adults. The implication for hunters and game managers is that it can take more than one mild winter to recover from one severe winter. Therefore, many of the biologist’s reports this year mention the continued impact of the cold and snow of 2010-11.

However, with a mild winter and a summer now behind us, it is time to look more closely at the hunting prospects in Western Canada for the fall of 2012:

Manitoba

The past winter was a very easy one by Manitoba standards and will have allowed better than average winter carryover. Ken Rebizant, provincial big game biologist, still has some game population challenges to manage, but had encouraging things to say for local hunters.

Moose

Manitoba moose are one of Rebizant’s challenges. Numbers are down in the western uplands (Porcupine Hill and Duck Mountains) as well as GMA 26, southeast of Lake Winnipeg.  As part of the moose population rebuilding, some GMAs will see a total closure for moose hunting and other areas will be partially closed. For the rest of the province, though, moose numbers appear to be stable and the mild winter ensured good carryover.

Elk

Manitoba elk are certainly a bright spot for hunters. Wherever found, such as Duck Mountains, Interlake area and Spruce Woods, elk numbers are healthy and stable. This species shrugged off winter and the coming hunting season promises to be among the best in recent years.

White-tailed deer

The mild winter helped, but one good carryover is not enough to erase the effects of winter 2010-11. Across Manitoba, deer numbers are still down. For most of the province, the bag limit is one deer (either sex) per hunter. There are some GMAs where a second and third deer licence will be available because the management objective is to reduce deer numbers. In GMAs 17A, 26 and 36, for example, a smaller deer population is part of the moose recovery program because deer can harbour brain worm, a disease fatal to moose.

 Caribou

Manitoba caribou hunters can give a sigh of relief. After a temporary westward shift in migration pattern, the Manitoba caribou herds are back. The numbers are robust and the seasons are generous.

 Black Bear

Winter severity is not an issue for bears, and this species continues to be a good choice for Manitoba hunters. The game numbers are stable, hunting pressure is generally low and hunting success is generally high, which is a recipe for an excellent season.

Wolf

Wolf hunting is increasing in popularity with Manitoba hunters. Wolf numbers are stable to increasing, the seasons are long and there is no tag required. Some hunters have found coyote hunting techniques such as game calls to be effective at drawing wolves within shooting range.

 Upland Game Birds

Relatively high numbers of forest (spruce and ruffed grouse) and farmland (Hungarian partridge and sharp-tailed grouse) birds in recent years combined with a mild winter and early spring promises that Manitoba hunters should have pretty good shooting this fall.

Wild turkeys in the southwest of the province provide excellent sport, although it can be frustrating for hunters not familiar with the techniques for consistently taking these big birds. The early spring of 2012 meant a very early start to nesting season, which in turn means more robust chicks, higher survival and a promise of better hunting to come.

Saskatchewan

Provincial game biologist Brad Tokaruk called the past winter “abnormal for Saskatchewan.” Fortunately for hunters it was abnormally mild and that should ensure above normal winter survival of the animals we like to hunt. However, the severe impacts of 2010-11 will still be seen in the restricted seasons for deer and pronghorns.

Moose

There does not appear to be any bad news regarding Saskatchewan moose this year.  Overall, moose numbers are stable, winter survival will have been excellent and there are few reports of winter ticks. An additional bright note is the farmlands, where moose continue to thrive in surprising numbers, finding pockets of suitable habitat and freedom from predators. Tokaruk’s simple assessment for 2012 moose is “good hunting.”

Elk

Hunting prospects for elk are also very good for 2012. Hunter harvest of this species for 2011 was down a bit, but Tokaruk attributes that mostly to poor hunting conditions during that season and expects that success will rebound this fall. The lion’s share of the Saskatchewan elk harvest comes from east/central zones, near the Porcupine and Pasquia Hills. The Cypress Hills in the southwest corner can also be a good bet for elk hunters.

Mule Deer

There is no joy yet for Saskatchewan mule deer hunters. This species suffered significant losses across the south in the bad winter of 2010-11. As part of the rebuilding of the population, quotas will remain low and, in fact, some antlerless quotas may be reduced further for 2012. The only good news is that the recent mild winter is just the thing to boost the recovery.

White-tailed deer

As with mule deer, this species also suffered declines last year. For much of the province, fawn recruitment was dismal. The regulations may be further tightened to reduce antlerless harvest in the worst hit areas. The past winter was encouraging, but Tokaruk warns that it may take five years to see whitetail numbers fully recover.

Pronghorn

The number of pronghorns is still below target due to winter die-off from 2010-11. The hunting season for this species was closed in 2011 and will remain closed for the coming year.

Black Bear

This species continues to be a good bet for hunters, although hunter interest has declined in recent years. Bear numbers are basically unaffected by adverse winter weather, so the population is more stable than with other game animals. The vast majority of bears are harvested from the Forest Ecozone, WMZ 56 to 73.

Upland Game Birds

Cool spring weather can be hard on chicks. For the past couple of years, winter and spring weather conditions have not been ideal for bird production, so the numbers of all upland species have been modest. However, the 2012 winter and spring will certainly help improve that prospect. Saskatchewan’s game birds lay large clutches of eggs, so with good spring and summer survival there should be more young, naïve birds around and hunting this fall should be improved over the past few seasons.

Alberta

Last winter, Alberta saw mild temperatures and little snow.  “A great winter for game,” was Provincial Wildlife Biologist Rob Corrigan’s brief assessment, although it did have a minor downside. The lack of snow precluded some of the surveys that would have produced more quantitative assessments of game numbers.

Moose

Winter surveys for moose could not be completed because of low snow cover, but the mild winter will certainly have allowed significant survival. This, coupled with good survival for the past few years, promises some big smiles for Alberta moose hunters this fall.

Elk

Great winter carryover added to good population numbers means productive elk hunts. One significant regulation change in several zones this fall will see the general archery season for elk changed to draw for any weapon.

 Mule Deer

The effects of the bad winter of 2010-11 are still evident for Alberta’s mule deer.  Numbers are still down and to help the species rebound, there will be a reduced number of antlerless licences available this fall. The surveillance for Chronic Wasting Disease received fewer samples in 2011 than in previous years, supporting the assessment that mule deer harvest was down significantly. Historically, the Prairie (series 100) WMUs produced the highest mule deer harvest and that is likely to be the best bet for 2012.

White-tailed Deer

As with mule deer, white-tailed deer populations suffered significant die-off in the winter of 2010-11.  However, this species can recover population quite quickly in good conditions and the past winter carryover will help boost the population. For 2012, though, to aid the recovery in the areas with concerning deer numbers, hunters will see reduced numbers of antlerless tags available. Whitetail hunting will not be as good as two years ago, but still very good.

 Pronghorn

Surveys of this species found the population down by as much as 40 per cent, due to 2010-11 winter kill. The reduction in hunting permits that was introduced last year will continue for at least another year while biologists monitor the recovery.

Black Bears

The best hunter success for this species is in the northern forested WMUs and into the foothills, and overall, the supply of huntable bears exceeds hunter harvest. So, those who do hunt bears will have great sport. There will be some minor regulation changes in 2012 to more closely align the season dates across the province. Hunters should also be aware of the regulations where baiting of bears is permitted and where a second bear tag is available.

Cougar

Corrigan reported that cougar numbers appear to be up again this year and there will be new hunting areas for this species opened for 2012.

Upland Game Birds

The past mild winter will help the carryover of favoured game birds, but the real boost to bird populations comes with a warm and dry spring.  Formal game birds surveys are now very infrequent, but the anecdotal reports are that numbers are at least stable and the outlook is for an average season for 2012.

Wild turkeys are now established and support a hunter harvest in some of the WMUs along the boundary of the Mountain (400 series) and Foothills (300 series) in the extreme south west corner of the province.

British Columbia

The past winter was mild for most of the province but not universally a blessing; there was nastiness for some game animals. Parts of the northern half of the province saw a lot of snow, but the mild temperatures caused significant crust to form. Crusty snow inhibits sharp hooved ungulates like deer from moving easily and getting food, but also favours predators like wolves and coyotes, which can run on the top of the crust. There were very high snow accumulations in much of the province, but fortunately that came mostly in the higher elevations and late in the winter, so the overall impact on wintering ungulates was not severe.

Moose

Across the north moose numbers appear to be stable and few winter ticks were reported.  Populations are still down, though, recovering from two bad winters of the past five. With the mixed weather conditions of the winter just past, moose prospects for northern hunters are fair to good. However, in the central part of the province there continues to be significant concerns about moose, now backed up by surveys that verify reduced moose numbers. Cariboo Region moose hunters can expect fewer opportunities and reduced success. In the south, though, moose are doing well, recent surveys showed significant population increases in some areas of the Kootenay and Okanagan Regions.

Elk

BC elk hunters are a happy lot.  Elk numbers are up just about everywhere they are found. Highlights are new hunts for Roosevelt elk on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, expanded seasons for Rocky Mountain elk in the Okanagan and Kootenays, and growing elk numbers in the central and north east parts of the Province. Focused management in conflict areas has resulted in fewer elk and lower hunter success in the agriculture zones of the Peace and East Kootenay.

Mule Deer

This species is found throughout the province, but hunters will have to hunt a bit harder this year to score. Black-tailed deer on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland are stable or increasing but face issues with winter habitat loss and predation. In the central and southern interior, recent surveys found adequate buck ratios in most areas, but overall numbers are down, likely due to predation. In the north, mule deer numbers are down because of the severe winter of 2010-11 followed by the crusty snow conditions for the winter of 2011-12.

White-tailed deer

Across the south, whitetail numbers are stable or up, while in the northeast whitetail numbers are generally down. The recent general open season for antlerless deer has increased hunter interest and hunter harvest.  For this species, the prospects for 2012 are very good.

Black bears

BC hunters are missing out on a great hunt. Bears in good numbers are found in just about every corner of the province, but hunter interest has waned. Those hunters who leave home with a bear tag can expect to cut it. Vancouver Island continues to be a good bet for a big black bear.

Wolf

Hunter interest and harvest for this species has been increasing slowly, but not keeping pace with the reported increases in wolf numbers. There will be a new open season in the Okanagan and relaxed restrictions in the northern Regions.

Cougar

Limited snow on the ungulate winter ranges reduced the ease of tracking cougars and thus effectiveness of cougar hunters last winter. With a normal winter and a normal amount of snow, hunting for big cats should be very productive this coming season.

Upland Game Birds

The Regional biologists were cautiously optimistic about BC bird hunting for the fall. Nowhere seems particularly outstanding and “spotty” a suitable description for this year’s prospects. The mild winter and early spring will help bird numbers, but hunters should not expect to easily limit out on any upland bird species.

 Waterfowling in the West

Waterfowl hunting should be excellent this fall, which is especially good news after the mixed reports for big game hunts. The big snowpack of 2010-11 caused record duck production across the prairies in 2011. All the nesting ponds and lakes were filled to the brim and the soggy ground meant idle cropland, which also benefited ducks. With the recent dry winter, though, 2012 will not be quite so favourable for duck nesting.  However, duck numbers are still robust and hunters should expect very good shooting basically everywhere across the West.

This is shaping up to be a banner year for goose hunting too. Spring came early to the Arctic and that usually means high nesting success. Snow geese continue to arrive in huge numbers, especially in Saskatchewan where hunters can again expect to bring tens of thousands home to the oven. For excellent hunting of Canada geese look more to the other three western Provinces, with both Alberta and Manitoba hunters taking close to 100,000 geese each annually and another 10,000 harvested in BC.

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