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Back from the Brink

Back from the Brink

How Canada’s deer population recovered from brutal winter die-offs.

By Brad Fenson

I found the perfect spot to set up my blind and watch for a big buck.

A funnel of trees between two large wetlands created a pinch point that deer had to use when going from bedding to feeding areas. It wasn’t difficult to see they were using the area, as they had pounded the snow down to bare ground on several trails.

I set up on the downwind side of the trees and started my vigil. I was pulling up the zipper on the blind when the first buck appeared. A 10-pointer, it was tempting. However, I knew that there were some real bruisers in the area, and I had plenty of hunting days left.

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It was mid-November, and the rut was in full swing. In all the years I’d hunted in Alberta, I’d never seen so many deer. It was a steady parade of bucks and does chasing back and forth through the funnel. I felt spoiled and was passing on bucks I’d have shot in a second a few years earlier.

By noon, I’d seen close to 20 bucks. There was a selection of different age classes, and I felt I had found a stand that would produce for years. By dark, the number of bucks I saw had grown to 34.

The next day, I finally saw the one I wanted. I wasted little time shouldering my rifle and making the shot. I was elated and couldn’t believe what an incredible year it had been, and I was already looking forward to next year.

Those hopes and dreams didn’t last long.

Old Man Winter moved in with a vengeance, and once it started snowing, it seemed to never quit. By Christmas, I was on the roof of my house shoveling snow to prevent it from collapsing.

That was the winter of 1996-97, and after one of the best hunting seasons I’d ever had, the future looked grim. Over a vast region of western Canada, deer died is massive numbers. Estimates in Alberta were that 40 to 60 percent of the herd was lost.

Back from the BrinkThe next hunting season required many more hours in the field to see a small fraction of game I saw the year before. I didn’t get a trophy-class buck, and that was the case for a majority of hunters across the province. There were still a few of the legendary bucks taken, but the number and overall quality was severely reduced.

That first big winter mortality event was six years ago. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only one. Two other bad winters further reduced Alberta’s herd, and scouting my favorite hunting areas for sheds produced more full skeletons than shed antlers.

The mid 1990s were the glory years for whitetail hunters. The deer population in western Canada was higher than ever, and along with increased numbers came an increase in big bucks. Hunters in good habitat could afford to be picky and would often see an exceptional number of mature bucks.

Average snow accumulation for Alberta’s Prairie Region is about a foot. The Parkland region averages 2 to 3 feet, and the Boreal Region can see even more. That might seem like a lot, but the deer there have adapted to survive average winters. The years that get 6 to 12 feet of snow are the ones that have devastating results for whitetails.

In some cases, during the worst years of the most recent die-off, the region got more than 6 feet of snow. Whitetails that made it through relied on ranchers’ feed yards or hay stakes. Not all deer have access to agricultural groceries, and mortality in the Boreal Forest and fringe areas was extreme.

Back from the BrinkThere is some good news. Population estimates for white-tailed deer in Alberta for the 2010 fall hunting season were estimated at about 270,000 animals.

Hunting was good in 2011, and many hunters reported seeing up and comer bucks. Instead of hunting days at a time without seeing an antlered deer, it wasn’t out of the ordinary to see five or six on any given day.

The Alberta herd estimate might seem like a small number to deer hunters coming from states that harvest more deer every year than Alberta has in total, but the Canadian prairies and harsh winter environment will never permit deer herds to grow to the habitat’s maximum carrying capacity. There will always be population fluctuations, and harsh winters take out many of the younger bucks.

The good side to the severe weather is the strongest, and often bigger-bodied bucks survive to pass on their genes. Some grain fed bucks tip the scales at more than 350 pounds. All that muscle and fat helps get them through the bad years when snow prevents access to browse.

Alberta’s deer managers have set post-hunting season population ratio goals of about 30:100:60 (buck, doe, fawn). Even with bad winters, Alberta is within that range for most Wildlife Management Units.

Fortunately, Alberta’s whitetail population has the ability to grow quickly, especially under ideal conditions.

WMUs across the north show 40 to 50 fawns per 100 does. Areas throughout the farmland show counts as high as 115 fawns per 100 does, which means the herd can almost double in a single year. Northern fawn counts aren’t as high because of increased predation and less food.

Whitetails continue to expand their range in Alberta and are showing up in forest and bog areas where they’ve never been before.

Watching the record books makes it easy to identify Canada’s trophy trends. In good years, there are lots of entries with scores that cause so many American hunters to save up and head north.

In slim years, entries are drastically reduced, and the eye-popping bruisers simply aren’t there.

Back from the BrinkEnvironment Canada reports on snow accumulation provide insight into how the deer will fair from year to year. If average snow accumulations occur, the herd will be on the rise and the big bucks will continue to get bigger. When snow accumulations get above average, expect an impact on deer.

The big bucks tend to get hit hard by bad winters. They are often run down and out of reserves after the rut, making them vulnerable to cold and deep snow. The other problem is increased predation in deep snow.

Whitetails have a tough time escaping from coyotes and wolves in deep snow, making them easy targets. Even if a deer does manage to plow through snow and evade a predator, the cost in energy reserves can prove fatal as well.

If there’s a freeze-thaw-freeze occurrence, deer have to strain to get through snow and an ice layer for food. Predators, meanwhile, often run on top of the ice.

In Canada, bad winters are inevitable. Nature takes its course, and deer numbers fluctuate based on what the habitat can support through a given winter.

The key for U.S. hunters heading across the border is to do your homework. Watch weather summaries and examine record books to find how the trophies are trending.

Talk to your outfitter and ask what to expect. A good outfitter can tell you whether it’s realistic to hold out for a 170-inch buck, or if you should shoot the first 140 that steps out. Hunter preferences play a role, as well. If you’re happy coming home without a buck because you wanted to hold out for a giant, that’s perfectly okay, too. The key to a successful outfitter/hunter relationship is for both parties to be honest.

This season will be a good one. Trail camera pictures already being circulated show some impressive bucks.

I know the perfect funnel where I’ll spend the majority of the 2012 season.

Helpful Websites

There are a number of websites hunters can check for information regarding white-tailed deer populations and management in western Canada.

Keeping and eye on the weather for previous winters will let you know exactly what to expect when planning your next adventure.

Saskatchewan government: www.environment.gov.sk.ca
Alberta government: www.srd.gov.ab.ca
Additional information on hunting season and wildlife management can be found at www.mywildalberta.com
Alberta Professional Outfitters Society: www.apos.ab.ca
Saskatchewan Outfitters Association: www.soa.ca
Natural Resources Canada (snow accumulation): www.atlas.nrcan.gc.ca
Alberta Environment (water supply and snow accumulations): www.environment.alberta.ca

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