Noting Changes in Animal Behaviour in the Parkland Regions of Saskatchewan
One thing you learn in your twenty something'th year of obsession with the wild is how intensely we can impact wildlife and how quickly they can change their behaviour. This is especially noticeable if you frequent specific areas of unprotected land.
So I'm going to share a few first-hand experiences while hunting and exploring and a few stories of giants and lost populations based very close to home!
The Silence of the Elk - personal experience
The elk rut (the time of year cow elk go into heat) typically starts in the middle of September when the temperatures fluctuate a little more drastically. This is when you hear the bulls bulging, the cows moaning calls, and the herds of cow elk watched carefully by a dominant bull.
Or so it used to be. This is also the time when the rifle elk hunt starts. For the most part, late August and early September are still great times to see plenty of elk, with just the quiet archery season.
However, lately, as soon as the rifles start to echo in the trees, the elk fall silent. The only time you know a real elk is calling is in the late-night, when the bugle eerily howls through the poplars while most hunters are resting for an exciting morning ahead.
This isn't to say that the elk are gone. They've just adapted to be a lot harder to find. During this time, the herds are a lot smaller and they seem to avoid elk making too much noise until the open hunting season ends.
But the elk have something up their sleeves. Like many ungulates, elk have two "ruts". Cows will go into heat a second time in mid to late November. This is when it gets crazy. With only a draw season open (very limited hunters have tags for elk), the elk more freely herd up and begin to call a lot more frequently. This time of year I'm often chasing whitetail deer, and have a hard time hearing what's moving around me for the constant elk bugles.
So what happened? The crazy part is that I have noticed this drastic change within the last 3 years. Our hypothesis is simply that the elk have smartened up. Judging by the number of sightings and harvests, their populations haven't changed so much as their behaviour has. The cows are more silent during the first rut, making them harder to find for the bulls, thus the bulls don't start rutting hard until they smell or hear more cows later in the fall.
What impact does this have? The biggest concern with this is that cows are having calves later in the spring/summer with a gestation period of roughly 250 days. This means that the calves are smaller, less developed, and less experienced going into the often harsh winters making for a concerning mortality rate. An important note is that not all zones are like this. The zone I'm referring to is a mix of parkland, agriculture, hills, and lakes. There can be a huge difference only minutes away as I'll illustrate in the next story.
Moose Invasion - personal and community experience
There is no shortage of moose in this province. But somehow, in open-season zones, it's hard to find one. Travel 10 minutes out though and you'll be seeing them like mosquitos in August.
You'll also hear a lot of residents of small towns and rural areas note the increased moose presence. Although I couldn't find any concrete evidence of moose south of the aspen parkland prior to the modern "increase", it's fairly easy to assume that they likely inhabited areas like the Qu'appelle Valley and northern sections of the moist Mixed Grasslands and Parkland, but have been more noticed due to agriculture practices like bush-clearing, and increased human populations.
However, there are areas where the growing population is overly pronounced. Over the winter in the Parkland regions, we saw far more moose than deer, a bit of a puzzling reality as the deer populations have been crazy lately. Just five years ago, we would usually only see one or two moose during the fall and winter.
This year it became a problem to leave the hill upon where our cabin sits as you would regularly run into one of the three regular bulls, the lone cow, or the cow with her twin calves. All were regularly seen within a 160-acre parcel of land which is a very small area considering the size of these animals.
Put simply, the encroaching human presence in the forests has pushed moose further south, oddly enough into more human-dense areas. Again, their populations don't seem to be dwindling overall, but they're definitely being thinned-out in areas they used to thrive. Being so close to a heavily pressured area, we're noticing the immediate movement and I'm sure in the next few years we will see a bit of a leveling out of the population in the surrounding area.
Where'd the Mule Deer go? - personal experience and stories
If you listen to stories of those who lived near the Porcupine Hills spending their falls chasing Mule Deer instead of Whitetails. These days, you'd be hard-pressed to consistently see mule deer past the Parkland eco-zone (borders HWY 9 on the East side of the Province) with a few exceptions.
Mule Deer are notoriously less skiddish than Whitetailed Deer, making them a much easier target for hunters and other predators. However, they thrive in open areas where they can see threats coming from miles away. They often sit as a herd in the middle of a massive field, letting them see threats long before they can ever reach them.
A trail camera capture of a young mule deer buck. We saw another one in the summer of 2019, likely this same buck judging by the age.
So why the heck were they in the forests to begin with? It likely was just a fact of there wasn't a lot of predators or people there for quite some time. But as Sask's population grew, and more recreationists and commercial operations wandered into the boreal eco-zones, the animals were thinned out and only continued to exist in areas where they could feed and breed more successfully.
Saying this, we have noticed a few more Mule Deer near our property over the last few years, all of them being bucks who are likely establishing some kind of territory in the area. Whitetail though are still the prominent small deer species in the area.
A Silver-Haired Giant - community stories and history
Have you ever heard of the Plains Grizzly? Unless you're a history nerd like me, probably not. This was a massive bear that roamed Saskatchewan as recently as the early to mid-1900s. It was described by Henry Kelsey somewhere around 1690 as an outgrown, silver-haired bear. Other accounts call the bear a highly aggressive and persistent beast.
Fur-traders in Cypress Hills would bring the grizzly pelts until the late 1800s, when the bear seemingly vanished. It wouldn't be until the 1960s when another sighting of the bear occurred from a helicopter. This was likely one of the last plains grizzly as soon, logging operations would bore deep into the forests, bringing people ever closer to the giant bear. A few trappers described experiences with large, persistent bears that were surely not black bears until the late 1960's, then the stories ended.
So what became of the Plains Grizzly? In addition to over-hunting, the bear likely was thinned out and forced to evade humans, reducing it's chances of finding a mate and thus, ending bloodlines in remote pockets of the province. There was also a lot less food available in the late 1800's when the Great Plains Bison also went essentially extinct, beaver populations were low, and even deer and Pronhorned antelope were struggling to survive. It wouldn't be until regulated hunting and trapping helped to stabilize animal populations that this massive bear could have managed to hold a high population, but by that time it was too late.
But if you've ever snowmobiled by Cougar Canyon, or hiked the porcupine hills, you can't help but imagine how easy a massive bear could exist just behind the next pine stand.
If you want to read more on the plains grizzly, check out this great article. Another interesting note is that in 2017 in Northern Manitoba, a researcher captured an image of a Grizzly, and just a few years later another grizzly was found much further north. It's safe to assume they're still wandering Northern Saskatchewan somewhere if they're in these regions of Manitoba.
I should note that a lot of these accounts are based around modern hunting and trapping activities. This is not to say that hunting/trapping is the sole problem for these animals, but rather that these are times when most people are out and available to make these observations.
Although hunting surely has an effect on animal behaviour, their lives are more affected by changes in their habitat due to deforestation and agricultural practices. It's immensely important that all activities have an ecologically balanced approach, this way we'll see less negative impacts on animal populations while still being able to provide economically viable operation.
Lastly, I am by no means a scientist. I simply spend a lot of time with animals in the wild while hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, and just enjoying the outdoors, which lends to a lot of notable observations.
I hope you enjoyed this little thought session and I look forward to sharing more discoveries with you in the future!