Hunting Forecast 2014: Ontario

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After the pleasant days of summer and the anticipation of the hunting season, last winter seems but a bad memory best forgotten. Much of Ontario experienced a worse-than-average winter in 2013/2014 which, compounded by a slow start to spring, will affect hunting prospects, particularly for deer. For 2014, several areas will have fewer species tags and game seals available and hunters may have to plan to hunt a bit harder to be successful this fall. Fortunately, deer populations were pretty robust for the province, so a loss of some animals in the past winter is not a sustainability issue or a hunting disaster.

 

Moose

This species is built to handle a Canadian winter and moose were little affected by the most recent season of snow and cold. However, with that said, all is not well for Ontario moose populations. Recent surveys found population declines in many management units, which continues a decade-long general downward trend in moose numbers. Low calf recruitment has been noted in many WMUs across the north of the province. There does not seem to be one single factor, but more likely site-specific issues with parasites, disease, habitat condition, predation or poaching. Moose winter ticks, for example, were widespread in the northeast region for the third winter in a row, with reports of severe hair loss and some subsequent mortality.

Regardless of the cause, the result is that the moose population in many WMUs is below the management target. Recent inventory found a few WMUs with increased numbers of moose, and those will have modest increases in bull and cow tags. In most cases, however, hunters will see reductions in moose hunting opportunities. In the WMUs with the most dramatic declines, tag numbers may be reduced by up to 90 per cent compared to 2013.

The exception to this general situation is the southern region, where the moose population, albeit relatively small – about eight per cent of the province’s moose – has been steadily increasing for the past decade.

In 2013, the northeast region saw 50 per cent of the provincial moose hunting pressure, with 39 per cent of the moose harvest, while the northwest region had 30 per cent of the hunters but 46 per cent of the harvest, and the southern region saw 20 per cent of the hunters and gave up 15 per cent of the harvest.

For planning a moose hunt, two areas of relatively high hunter success are north and west of Thunder Bay (WMUs 2, 4, 5, 12A) and south of Timmins along the Quebec border (WMUs 28, 40, 41.) Those hunters looking for trophy bulls or a high quality hunting experience should consider the less accessible areas. Generally, the further north you go, the more limited the road access and the lower the hunting pressure.

The Ministry of Natural Resources recognizes that there are challenges facing Ontario moose populations. The ministry is working on a new provincial moose harvest strategy, based in part on input from hunter surveys conducted in 2013. Moose hunters are encouraged to complete the annual hunter survey and return it promptly to assist biologists managing moose populations. Information on the hunter survey is available at Ontario.ca/huntersurvey.

 

Elk

This is a recent wildlife management success story. Elk were once abundant in parts of Ontario, but because of unrestricted hunting and habitat loss they were extirpated from the province more than 100 years ago. That changed with the re-introduction program of the 1980s and 1990s. Now, thanks to natural reproduction and additional translocations, elk are found in huntable numbers in six WMUs northeast of Peterborough. The number of draws available is relatively small and the hunter demand is high, but the opportunity is to harvest a magnificent game animal. In 2013, 23 elk were harvested, all from either WMU 57 or 61. However, recent helicopter inventory and anecdotal reports show that elk populations are healthy and slowly expanding their numbers and range in the areas open for hunting.

 

White-tailed deer

Deer are found throughout most of Ontario, but the highest populations are in the south. This species is more susceptible to adverse winter conditions than elk or moose and across the north deer populations suffered some losses in the winter of 2013/2014. For a few WMUs, deer numbers are reported as stable, but for the majority of the province, deer numbers are expected to have declined. Fortunately, there are still excellent deer hunting opportunities in all regions. In addition, this species has a high reproductive potential and can respond quickly to favourable weather conditions in future years. However, for 2014, the numbers of antlerless deer tags and additional seals have been reduced.

In 2013, the estimated provincial hunter harvest was 76,000 deer, with 75 per cent taken in the southern region. The remaining 25 per cent of the harvest was split equally between hunters in the northwest and northeast regions.

In the northwest region, adverse winter conditions have reduced deer numbers to the lowest in a decade. Hunting prospects in this region are rated as low in the north and fair in the south and better in the southwest (WMUs 6 to 13.) The highest numbers of antlerless tags are for WMUs 7B, 10 and 13, while WMUs 8 and 13 have the most additional deer seals available. In 2013, the combined resident and non-resident hunter success in the region was 46 per cent, with the best success in WMUs 6, 8 and 10.

The situation is similar in the northeast region – deer hunting prospects improve the further south you look. The highest numbers of antlerless tags are available in the very south of the region (WMUs 43B and 47.) The number of additional deer seals was reduced in WMU 47 and eliminated in WMU 42, but for all other WMUs seal numbers are unchanged. Last season, there was decent deer hunter success in this region, with the highest being in WMUs 38, 39, 43A and B and 45.

For the southern region, deer numbers and hunting prospects improve dramatically compared to the north – the milder winter weather, longer growing season and more productive soils means that this region supports about three quarters of the province’s deer and a similar proportion of the hunter harvest. Deer are common throughout the region, but the most productive hunting areas are in the Aylmer, Guelph and Midhurst MNR districts. Prospects for 2014 are about as good as any recent years.

 

Black bear

Winter weather has little impact on bears; they sleep through most of it. However, bear numbers do respond to the quality of food available in the summer and fall. The bear food index for 2013 was above average, which promises more and healthier cubs for 2014 and more adults in coming years. The provincial harvest is about 4,000 bears. The northeast region supports almost 50 per cent of that total harvest, with the most productive areas being WMUs 28, 42, 21B and 41. In fact, WMU 28 sees the highest hunter participation and highest hunter harvest in the province. About a quarter of the provincial bear harvest comes from the northwest region, and there the most productive WMUs are 21A, 15B, 13 and 5. In the southern region, hunters are most likely to score in the Parry Sound, Bancroft and Pembroke MNR districts.

Bear hunters can help the MNR improve management of black bears and hunting opportunities by submitting premolar teeth from each bear harvested (see page 76 of the Hunting Regulations.) Tooth analysis allows biologists to determine age distribution and sex ratios in the harvest and develop regulation to maintain hunting opportunities and a sustainable harvest.

The ministry has introduced a two-year pilot bear harvest project. For 2014 and 2015, there will be an early (May 1 to June 15) open season in WMUs 13, 14, 29, 30, 36, 39, 41 and 42.

Also new this year is a regulation to protect bear families. Hunters must be a bit more selective. It is unlawful to shoot a cub or any bear accompanying a cub.

 

Upland game birds

For bird hunters, the hunting prospects for the coming season are mixed. Bird populations respond to factors such as warm and dry spring weather, which promotes high chick survival, and water from melting snow that restores soil moisture and promotes vigorous shrub growth and thus better cover from predators. In 2013, growing conditions were good and there was a great berry crop. However, severe winter weather and the long, wet spring of 2014 will offset some benefits to upland bird numbers. So, it is likely that hunters will find birds this fall, but it is unlikely that they will regularly harvest bag limits.

Ruffed grouse are the most widespread and popular of the upland game birds. They are found in good numbers across the shield in the northeast and northwest regions, but in the southern region unsuitable habitat in agriculture and urban areas limits grouse numbers.

Spruce grouse are more of a forest-dwelling species than ruffed grouse, but have a similar distribution pattern.

Sharptailed grouse are found in pockets of suitable prairie-like habitat in all three regions, but their numbers are not large and there is no obvious population trend.

Woodcock numbers are as good as any recent years, according to singing ground surveys.

There is a season and limited harvest of gray partridge from WMU 65.

Wild turkeys provide excellent sport and a significant reward of juicy meat for the successful hunter. The spring hunt is especially popular because there is little else open for hunting at that time. The provincial turkey population estimate is 75,000 birds, found mainly in the southern region. The outlook for the fall 2014 and the spring 2015 hunts is excellent. These birds are expanding their range and 2014 will see a new open season for WMUs 42 and 47.

 

Waterfowl

Nesting conditions, particularly for the Arctic nesting birds, has been good for several years and those waterfowl populations are doing well. Snow geese, in fact, are considered overabundant and as a result there is an extra season for this species: March 1 to May 30, in addition to the 107-day open season in the fall and winter. Hunters may now legally use recorded calls when hunting snow geese. The daily bag limit for snow geese is 20, while for Canada and cackling geese the daily limit is 10. There is no possession limit for these species. In 2013, there was “stellar” production for both the Southern James Bay and Mississippi Valley populations of Canada geese. However, increased predation and reduced gosling survival means that the forecast for 2014 is for average or even below-average numbers of geese.

Also, good news for duck hunters: the season for American black ducks has been extended to the full 107 days and the daily bag and possession limits have been increased.

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