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 with Rob Miskosky

Alberta's Deer and Antelope Take a Hit

Fish and Wildlife Officer Andy Nestorovich had the same story to tell as everybody else that we’d talked to; deer were scarce, in fact, very scarce.

We were hunting the first rifle season at Camp Wainwright. My son had the draw and I was his guide, but my job was getting tougher by the minute—encouraging deer sign was difficult to find. We’d hunted hard, walking several miles each day and while we did encounter deer, the occasions were rare and fleeting.

Nestorovich, who was patrolling the second rifle season on the base, had talked to enough of us to know that disappointment was high among the deer hunters. “Everybody is telling us the same story,” he’d said.

Moose were being taken with some consistency; they had fared the winter well, being the strong, tall creatures they are. Elk were said to be doing fine as well but the deer had been hit hard, especially the whitetails.

The 2010 hunt at Camp Wainwright saw over 500 deer harvested over the five three-day seasons. When we left the base early in the afternoon on the third day of the 2011 first rifle season, a mere 37 deer had been reported, and typically as the hunts progress, the number of harvested animals declines. Things weren’t looking too good for those successful in the later draws this year.

Dakota Miskosky spent hours glassing the countryside for deer at Camp Wainwright,
but most often the landscape was bare.
While checking in on the morning of the second day, a gentleman behind the check-in table was overheard telling others of better than 30% winterkill. A murmur among those who had heard suggested 30% wasn’t high enough. “More like 50%,” one fellow offered.

And I fall into that group, based on what we saw and what I remember from my last hunt there, when I could have filled my tags more than once. But not so this time.

Over the past eight years, Camp Wainwright has offered up an average success rate of 71% when it comes to harvested deer. That number is sure to decline after this year.

Earlier in the season, during the prime weeks of November, I spent upwards of 18 days chasing whitetails in the Athabasca region, an area well known for a good whitetail population. However, that population has been in decline as of late as well.

In a conversation with Athabasca Fish and Wildlife Officer, Darcy Boucher, I was told that he too, had noticed a decline in the number of deer being seen, namely on routine patrols. And these guys are on the go, patrolling for several hours each day during the hunting season.

“The numbers of deer are definitely down,” said Boucher, who also tries to get out deer hunting as often as he can. “I saw only one shooter buck on the hoof this year, that’s it.

“In other years, where we’d see 50 or 60 deer, now we’re seeing a dozen.”

Boucher also told me that during this past spring they responded to a large number of calls regarding dead or dying moose that had succumbed to tick infestation, yet not as many deer concerns. While they did have some deer that were emaciated and perishing within haystacks, mostly fawns of the year, the calls weren’t of any greater number than past years. Boucher chalks that up to the sheer size difference of the animals.

“Farmers won’t usually call if it’s a deer,” said Boucher. “A moose is another story though.”

And if you talk to hunters from southern Alberta, they’ll be the first to tell you that deer numbers are terribly low, perhaps lower than at any other time over the last several years.

Never mind the antelope.

According to Area Wildlife Biologist, Dale Eslinger, antelope in southern Alberta have been hit extremely hard over the past two winters. Especially those antelope that didn’t migrate further south... and even then their odds weren’t great.

“It’s not very good,” said Eslinger from his office in Medicine Hat. “We know there was considerable loss.”

In fact, antelope in southern Alberta have been kicked around to the decline of 40%, perhaps as high as 50% in some areas.

“We had 500 to 600 antelope trying to survive right here in the city. Forty to 50% of those died too,” said Eslinger, referring to the fact that antelope don’t do well eating people’s cedar bushes.

“I’d say this is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Eslinger. “In ‘95-96 it was bad, but this is worse.”

Alberta’s southern deer also took it on the chin. According to Eslinger, many of the deer were trapped in wintering areas, only to succumb to a lack of food, and coyotes that could run on top of the deep, crusted snow.

“We had snowdrifts as high as 20 feet. It was like a moonscape out there,” said Eslinger, describing a tough scene for survival.

“We’ll know more after the aerial surveys are complete for deer. We’re flying WMU 118. I think it’s a good unit to survey because it was one of the hardest hit units.”

Provincial Big Game Specialist, Rob Corrigan, also concedes our deer and antelope have seen better days, echoing Eslinger’s sentiments. But he too suggests they’ll know more after the surveys are flown.

“We’re flying WMUs 110, 202 and the Camp (Wainwright) again,” said Corrigan. “We’re doing them again to better assess the winterkill.” Provided weather conditions don’t hamper their efforts, as often happens when doing aerial surveys.

The winters of 2009 and 2010 were tough ones on our smaller ungulate populations; of that, there is no doubt. And it was just a matter of time before the toll would become noticeable. Unfortunately, perhaps more noticeable than one would like. ■

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