A Northwoods Almanac for 11/10 – 23, 2017
On 10/19, Bruce Bacon, retired DNR wildlife manager from Mercer, shot a large buck with his bow about 20 minutes before quitting time. Bruce is a skilled archer and made a killing shot in the buck’s lungs, but the deer ran and didn’t bleed out initially. With the light beginning to fail, Bruce tried to track it, but just couldn’t see enough, so he had to wait until morning.
The following morning, he found the track and found the buck, now a nearly cleaned skeleton. Every bit of meat on the deer had been consumed except for the neck. Importantly, the lungs, stomach, and heart were not eaten, an indication that the scavenger was a bear since coyotes and wolves tend to eat the lungs and heart very early after a kill.
Bruce aged the buck at 3½ years, and estimated that it would have had around 100 pounds of meat on it. There weren’t any clear tracks, so Bruce put up a trail camera by the skeleton, and that evening a lone coyote was all that appeared. The second day, Bruce counted 30 crows, several ravens, and an adult bald eagle attending to what little was left of the deer. All Bruce could conclude was that it was a bear, or perhaps a sow with cubs or yearlings. If it was just one bear, he or she certainly had a feast.
Bruce noted that sows typically go into hibernation in early October and the males much later. But we had a warm October, so sows may still have been out and about.
Wisconsin has one of the highest bear reproduction rates in the nation. The Wisconsin bear population is estimated at 28,000 and has grown on average 3.4% annually since 1988. I asked Bruce if the increases could be partially attributed to eating gut piles and/or deer carcasses from bow hunter success just prior to the bears’ entering hibernation. No, Bruce said, it’s due to the immense amount of bait put out for both bear and deer. Nearly all bear hunters – there were 12,850 permits issued this year – bait for bears. In fact, work published in a research paper released in July found baits comprised more than 40% of the diet of bears harvested in northern Wisconsin (“Consumption of intentional food subsidies by a hunted carnivore” - Kirby, Pauli, and MacFarland, The Journal of Wildlife Management).
Wisconsin allows 180 days of baiting beginning in mid-April through the end of the hunting season in October, virtually the entire active period for bears. The DNR estimates more than 4 million gallons of bear bait are placed annually throughout mostly northern Wisconsin.
Bears that are fatter going into winter have bigger litters. Bears mate in June but embryo implantation is delayed until the start of the denning season. If a sow goes into winter underweight and undernourished, the embryos won’t attach to the uterine wall and develop. The better fed she is, the more likely she’ll have more cubs than the normal two to three.
Regarding deer bait, how much is eaten by bears is impossible to determine, but bears are surely taking their share. Even in those counties where baiting and feeding deer is prohibited due to chronic wasting disease, baiting and feeding is permissible as long as the food isn't intended to draw in deer for hunting.
Bruce noted that he would have gladly shared some of the deer with a coyote, since a lone coyote could probably only eat up to five pounds of meat. But the bear, or bears, were a different story.
Deer and Wolf Talk in Mercer
Keith McCaffery, retired Wisconsin state deer biologist from Rhinelander, and Adrian Wydeven, retired DNR wolf biologist who headed the DNR wolf program for 23 years, recently gave a highly informative talk in Mercer on the state’s deer and wolf populations. Wydeven discussed the recovery of wolves across the state, the recent wolf listings by the federal government and the impact of wolves on deer, beaver, and broader ecosystems. McCaffery discussed the dynamics of deer populations with and without wolves, reviewed the deer population “bubble” of 1995-2007, and offered thoughts on current management policies.
I came away with many thoughts, but they all confirmed the extreme importance of scientific research. Both men provided extensive data derived from the best research done in the state and regionally, and then carefully offered their insights on the complex questions of where we need to go with management.
I was struck by one graph related to the Winter Severity Index, a measurement that helps gauge the effects of winter weather on deer survival. The index was developed in the early 1970’s and is calculated by adding the number of days with 18 inches or more of snow on the ground with the number of days when the minimum temperatures were 0°F or below. The severity of the winter is then based on the total number of points accumulated – a winter with an index of less than 50 is considered mild, 50 to 79 is moderate, 80 to 99 is severe, and over 100 is very severe. Note that WSI data is not collected in the southern portions of the state because the milder conditions don’t significantly impact the deer herds there.
In very severe winters, up to 30% of the deer herd may be lost, dramatically affecting the overall populations. In mild winters, deer survival is high as is reproductive success.
Historically, severe to very severe winter conditions were commonly reported across the northern forest region from the early 1960s through the late 1980s. From 1960-1989, there were 12 mild and 11 severe or very severe winters. However, over the last 26 winters from 1990 to 2016-17, we’ve experienced 19 mild winters (scores less than 50), 3 moderate, 1 severe, and 3 very severe, including the record-harsh WSI of 2013-14.
The deer population is controlled largely by three factors – winter severity, habitat, and hunting. If winters continue to be less of a limiting factor, and does continue to be excluded from harvesting, deer populations should rapidly rebound, and we’ll likely soon be back to the quandary of how to control our over-population of deer.
By the way, the winter of 2016–2017 rated as ‘mild’. The average WSI across 32 stations was 30.1 compared with a 57-yr average of 60.8 and median of 49.0. Assuming adequate habitat, the last three consecutive mild winters then should have resulted in a strong population recovery.
Time will tell, of course. The issue that concerns all wildlife managers now is that deer no longer have to be brought to a registration station – one can just go home and report a kill via computer or phone within 24 hours. So, now age and condition data, as well as confirmed numbers, can no longer be assessed. As a result, we’ve sacrificed the collection of scientific data for hunter convenience, and now we will manage deer based on stories and political bias/whim, a trade-off that is in no one’s best interest.
To add further to this foolishness, on 11/2 the State Assembly passed a bill (AB 455) 57-32 allowing people of any age to participate in a mentored hunt, effectively letting anyone hunt. The measure also eliminates the requirement that a hunter and mentor have only one weapon between them. This eliminates the state's minimum hunting age which currently requires that a resident must be at least 12 years old to purchase a hunting license or hunt with a gun unless they're participating in a mentored hunt (children as young as 10 can hunt under that program). The measure now goes to the State Senate.
Sightings – Tufted Titmouse, Snow Buntings, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Snowy Owls, Horned Larks
Joyce and Jim Stocker on Carlin Lake spotted a tufted titmouse on their feeders, and soon after, their neighbors Duane and Ann Swift also spotted a titmouse, presumably the same one, on their feeders. Tufted titmice nest as far north as central Wisconsin, so a sighting up our way is always an exciting event. During the past 70 years, the range of this species has expanded northward into New England and southern Canada, with climatic warming likely the most important factor along with bird feeders. Like northern cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers, we can expect to see them nesting here in the next decade as climate change continues.
|photo by Joyce Stocker|
Migrating snow buntings are commonly being seen along roadsides. They’ll typically winter as far north as southern Wisconsin, where they can feed on the ground without worrying too much about deep snowfall, but they can winter further north if it’s a poor snow year.
Sarah Krembs sent me a photo of eight horned larks that were migrating through Powell Marsh on 10/20. Like snow buntings, they’ll migrate well south, but only need to go as far as where ground is exposed. We’ve never seen one up here in the winter, but a minimal snow year could make it possible.
|photo by Sarah Krembs|
The first snowy owls are being seen in the state. Six had been reported as of 10/31.
A female red-bellied woodpecker appeared at our feeders on 11/2. Why now and not all summer?
|photo by Bee Engstrom|
Sharon Lintereur sent me a fine photo of trumpeter swans that she and Erika Lintereur saw in Presque Isle. Some trumpeters will stay the winter, while others are now or will soon be migrating.
|photo by Erika Lintereur|
Staff at Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area conducted their annual fall sandhill crane count on 10/30 and tabulated 10,929 cranes flying out from the marshes on Crex and the nearby Fish Lake Wildlife Areas. Other major staging areas in Wisconsin include White River Marsh, Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, Sandhill State Wildlife Area, the Wisconsin River near the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center, and Comstock Marsh.
As winter begins to set in, the cranes will catch mid-November winds, circle up to heights of 5,000 feet, and head further south, most to spend their winters in Florida.
Before dawn on 11/12, look for the North Taurid meteor shower, a modest event averaging about 10 meteors per hour. On 11/13, look before dawn for Venus just above Jupiter. Mars will be near the waning crescent moon on 11/14 and 11/15 – look before dawn again. On 11/16, look, you guessed it, before dawn for Jupiter about 4 degrees south of the moon. The peak Leonid meteor shower occurs before dawn on 11/17, offering an average of 15 meteors per hour. You can also see Venus about 4 degrees south of the moon that early morning. So, get up early this next week!
Thought for the Week
“A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers . . . The sportsman of the future must get his satisfactions by enlarging himself rather than by enlarging his bag.” - Aldo Leopold