2019 Hunting and Wildlife Management Summary

F.J. Hurtak looks back on the hunting season that was, and what’s afoot in 2020

By FJ Hurtak

The 2019 hunting season is now in the books, and compared to 2017-2018 seasons all evidence points to harvest rates being slightly better on some species for this past season.

Bull elk harvest numbers showed some increases according to some of the butcher shops I contacted. One butcher told me that spike bull elk harvests were a large part of his business during the bow season.

Whitetail harvest numbers appeared to be down this past season no doubt due in part to the fact that populations have crashed in many management units. Much more on this coming up.

The guide-outfitters in this region had another tough season, according to one source in the industry. This year would make three in a row that were all very sub-par for this industry. Of course when ungulate numbers are down as they are, especially elk and moose, this information comes as no surprise, but there is much in the works to try and remedy the situation, and in this column I’m going to try and give you as much information about that as my editor will allow so let’s get at it.

Bighorn Sheep Management Study Almost Completed

The BigHorn Sheep Management Plan is now in its final draft review stage at the time of this writing. After much consultation with a variety of stakeholder groups, conservation officers and the general public, objectives have been developed that will focus on population numbers, harvest, habitat, health and predation management.

Population status was assessed for sheep management in 12 different management units. It was found that seven of those units, were either below population objectives or are trending downward, although three of the seven are small herds that were either introduced (South Salmo, Lower Arrow) or the result of natural dispersal, later aided by a feeding program (Golden).

Management recommendations that address broad-level region-wide concerns as well as specific management units are provided in the plan.

The new plan also recommends which management units and actions should be addressed first, and appropriate indicators to monitor the effectiveness of those actions are also presented.

Specific broad-level goals and objectives expressed by stakeholder groups and various levels of government include: Maintaining or improving population resiliency; maintaining viable population size; maintaining appropriate sex/age ratios; reducing risk of of respiratory disease outbreak; and to manage populations to provide quality hunting opportunities.

Therefore, the plan proposes the following:

• Continue improving bighorn sheep habitat through ecosystem restoration programs primarily in areas with minimal invasive plants.

• Conduct effective long-term control and management of invasive plants.

• Reduce access and disturbance.

• Ensure sufficient escapement of mature rams to ensure that older rams fulfill their social and biological role.

• Eliminate the non-trophy (ewe) harvest (none currently in place)

• Verify separation between domestic sheep and goats and wild sheep populations to reduce the risk of disease transmissions.

• Adjust hunter harvest to reduce harvest of adult male cougars and increase harvest of females, specifically targeting cougars suspected to be specializing on bighorn sheep.

The complete plan should be available to the general public sometime in the very near future.

Five-year Mule Deer Management Plan is Complete:

Recently I was invited to a meeting hosted by the local chapter of the Back Country Hunters and Anglers. The Guest speaker was local biologist Patrick Stent who provided some data on the Plan. Mule deer populations suffered serious declines in the late 90s and early 2000s, even though Stent said mule deer have very high reproductive potential. The plan targeted several management areas and 20-25 does in each area were fitted with GPS collars and have provided biologists over the past number of years with informative information about what the causative factors are limiting mule deer density growth.

Here are just a few of the findings that you may find interesting.

• Over 50% of the collared mule deer kills were caused by cougars.

• The highest mortality rates were in the Spring (April) and the area that had the highest casualty rate was in the Dutch-Finlay region.

• Mule deer in the study areas had a 91 per cent pregnancy rate.

• Disease did not appear to be a factor limiting density, the findings will be used to support management changes for the future.

• Population growth rate following mild winters was good.

Stent also said that the Ministry has applied for funding for a Whitetail Deer Management Study. The proposal, if sufficient funding is acquired, will focus on two study areas using radio collars again to obtain data on the primary factors influencing population trends. He also talked about the fact that the MOE is currently managing populations for the highest sustainable harvest of both bucks and does and has been doing that since 2010. That leads us to the next subject in this column.

Whitetail Hunting Regulations

Deer hunters in this region know that Whitetail populations are at historic lows in many management units in Region 4. They are making it loud and very clear that they are demanding changes to the long general open seasons of past years which has significantly contributed to the decline in numbers.

The Ministry is proposing shortening the season on Whitetail does and fawns for 10 days in October. (Currently Oct. 10th to 31st.) The new proposal is to start the season Oct. 21st, 2020, and run through the 31st. This will avoid overlapping with the elk season which ends October 20th.

It is a step in the right direction in my view, but many feel it is merely a band-aid solution. The doe season in the West Kootenay for next year is going to be most certainly abandoned, and residents here are saying that it will only concentrate the same amount of hunters into a shorter time period and will not reduce harvest rates very much, if at all.

The people I have talked to and interviewed want the season eliminated altogether, and that includes Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka. I asked him recently why he has asked the government to put a two-year moratorium on the hunting of whitetail does and fawns starting next year? “My rationale for the two-year moratorium has two very important points,” he said. “First, is the obvious over-harvesting of a segment of the whitetail deer population. We have been seeing a major decline in these populations for the past several years, and a vast majority of all stakeholders in my constituency commonly agree.

“Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is that this species and many others are suffering, because our province refuses to put wildlife first, and a well-funded, science driven, and regionalized wildlife management plan is needed immediately. We as a province are rapidly losing one of our most important resources we have, which is our wildlife.”

Few would argue with Shypitka’s comments, and a petition which is now on line under Change.Org, has already garnered almost 4,000 signatures supporting putting an end to the GOS on whitetail does and fawns in the Kootenays.

Over the past few years I have asked the Ministry why they won’t stop the seasons outright to give populations a chance to grow. The answer has been the same each time. When success rates go below 20% for three years in a row then it could be an option. (Keep in mind their current mandate for managing Whitetail as a meat species and maximum sustainability).

They also point out that not everyone actually supports the complete elimination of the GOS seasons. At Kootenay Wildlife Advisory Committee meetings with stakeholders, the BCWF and some of their affiliate clubs such as the EKWA have supported these seasons since their inception, as they did with the GOS on cow and calf elk a few years ago. To their credit, once they were given the latest population estimates on cow/calf elk populations last year they were the first group to sound the alarm bell and rally to stop the seasons.

This perhaps brings us to the very foundation of one of the major problems contributing to wildlife population declines. Without current and up to date analytics it is almost impossible to manage wildlife populations properly. With elk, the Ministry went several years between surveys, and in the meantime continued with general open seasons on cows and calves without realizing that the harvest levels were not anywhere near sustainable. So, a new funding model for wildlife management for the province is critical to help stop declining populations.

Having said that, we will indeed need a lot more than money to stop the downturn. That will need to include, sweeping legislative changes to give regional biologists more control over the land base they are trying to manage wildlife on. It appears to me that they don’t have much of that control now, and a complete restructuring of the Ministry itself will be necessary to get wildlife populations back to where they should be.

The Ministry is currently asking for public input on hunting regulations. The proposals for 2020-22 are now available for public review and feedback. Web-posting the proposed changes gives hunters and trappers who are not affiliated with any stakeholder groups, as well as members of the public, a chance to have input into the regulatory process. The feedback collected will apparently be used to inform final decision making. The public comment period will end January 17th.

Some folks have said that based on past history, it is a complete waste of time making any comments, because the Ministry is going to do what they want regardless of what feedback they receive. That could be true, But can we as hunters afford to take the chance by not providing input as the majority of us are not members of any club or organization? I think it would be irresponsible on our part not to engage in the process.

A good template to determine whether they actually do listen or not, could very well be, what they eventually do with the GOS on whitetail does. If they do nothing but shorten the season by a few days which is what they are proposing, then the above-mentioned conspiracy theory certainly would have at least some validity, because there is obviously overwhelming agreement in most circles that the seasons should be discontinued until such time as populations have rebounded. Time will tell.

Ten Year Together for Wildlife Plan

Over the last 18 months or so the government has been working on a plan for improving Wildlife Management and Habitat Conservation in B.C. Over 60 stakeholders including industry, First Nations, and more than 1,400 members of the public participated in the plan.

There are positive points about this document including a budget uplift for wildlife in 2020 of $10 million. Also, it is full of noble visions, principles, objectives and goals, but whether they can achieve success certainly remains to be seen, as the plan is very vague and lacks detail about how it will be implemented. It has no details, for example, how the new funding model for wildlife will be formulated, how regional wildlife advisory committees will be balanced and selected, and how they are going to meld science-based data with local antidotal evidence in each region.

Nevertheless, it is a document that holds some promise for the future. The Together for Wildlife Plan is available online.

Another upcoming Management Plan worth mentioning is the long-awaited Five-Year Elk Management Plan for the Kootenays, It is in its preliminary stages at present time.

Chronic Wasting Disease

This hunting season the Ministry began chronic wasting disease testing of animals from Management units that were the closest to the Alberta and Montana borders where CWD has been verified on some ungulates. It was mandatory for hunters to submit deer heads for sampling from those zones. The B.C. Wildlife Health program was happy to report that Kootenay CWD samples have all come back negative so far (October and early November, as of this writing). 479 samples were completed from over 1,000 heads which were submitted in the Kootenay Region.

They also report that submission numbers were very good in the Peace Region and the Okanagan.

Although the hunting season is over, CWD testing will continue through the winter with the last of the hunter samples, road kills, and any cervid presenting CWD-like symptoms.

The Ministry explains that they will need more samples in the future and will need to sustain the level of surveillance to maintain confidence in healthy wildlife populations.

The regional CWD coordinators were Brian Paterson in the Peace Region and Jeff Berdusco in the Kootenays. Congrats to them for their tremendous efforts and dedication to the program.

East Kootenay Trappers Association

Recently I did a phone interview with a representative of the EK Trappers Association. I wanted to find out the trappers’ perspective on things, because trappers spend a lot of time in the outdoors. More than most.

This industry doesn’t get a lot of publicity here at the local level but they very definitely can offer a lot of information to all of us, including the biologists, about what they are observing on their respective traplines.

I contacted Karen Bedell, and asked her what the EK Trappers association would like to see in the future for our region when it comes to wildlife management and the trapping industry itself. This was her response:

“The EKTA is committed to the understanding that science-based information (from biologists) combined with experience -based information, (from trappers/hunters) is absolutely necessary to make wise decisions about hunting in general and trapping regulations, and to improve our practice,” she said.

“Presently, we think that one area of shortfall is the value given to the local voice. There are many people in this region with a vast amount of outdoor experience and who have wildlife stewardship as a core value. If a regulation proposal is on the table at a regional level, and is discussed at the same table by biologists and representatives from various interest groups, why does the general public, some of whom live 900 km away, get to sway what happens here?

“The government’s web- based consultation on newly proposed hunting/trapping regulations, allows the majority of the province’s population (many of whom have no experience-based understanding of our regional challenges with respect to wildlife and habitat) to be a determining factor as to what happens here. We believe this is fundamentally wrong. Hunters, trappers, and avid outdoors people of this region, are the people with the most intimate knowledge of our current land base. Their voices by far should hold the most validity.”

Well said Karen.

Have a great New Year everyone and hope to see you in the field..

F.J. Hurtak is the author of the books “Elk Hunting in the Kootenays,” and “Hunting the Antlered Big Game of the Kootenays”. All profits from the books have gone to land for wildlife, and to habitat restoration projects

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