Cockburn Island suffering from predator problems

COCKBURN ISLAND— “We have serious hunter problems on Cockburn Island,” were the opening remarks made by Ian Anderson at the November 5 meeting of the Cockburn Island Sports and Conservation Club (CISCC). The Cockburn community hall was packed to overflowing with people on the Island for the annual firearm deer hunt season, and the annual meeting of the CISCC always provides an opportunity for visitors to the island to be updated on matters of deer management, as well as other aspects of life on Cockburn during the past year.

Mr. Anderson is a retired Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) conservation officer, and since his retirement he has been actively involved in trapping both on the Manitoulin and Cockburn Islands. On Cockburn he is considered the expert on wildlife management, and especially on predator control and the state of the island’s deer herd.

“We do have a predator problem on Cockburn Island,” Mr. Anderson stated. “I have trapped 12 coyote here this fall. There are timber wolves here as well, and there is a large population of black bear. These predators are seriously impacting the deer herd. I have never seen in any other area the coyote problem that compares to what exists here. There are no rabbits and the fawn deer are almost non-existent.”

To compound the threat to the deer herd, Mr. Anderson pointed out that this spring, April and May, proved to be an extremely backward spring that prevented the usual early green grass growth that is essential to a deer herd that have survived an often brutal winter season. This, coupled with the ever-present predators, has caused serious threats to the Cockburn Island deer herd.

Joe Beauchamp, a cottage owner in the village of Tolsmaville on Cockburn Island, stated that there has been an abundance of coyote and wolves right in the village this fall. This deer season, when he and his hunters were in the cottage, they witnessed seven coyotes run right past the front window of the camp, and one of the animals was an extremely large timber wolf. “And this is right in the village,” he stated.

Jim Noble said on one occasion when he was taking his boat to Meldrum Bay, having just left the Cockburn Island dock, he saw a big buck standing by the lakeshore in about one metre of water. “I realized that this was a highly irregular place for a deer to be standing, so I throttled back the engines and steered the boat closer to the shore and the location of the deer. That deer never looked in our direction, and we knew it could hear the noise of the boat’s engines. The deer just kept watching the bush in front, and it soon became abundantly clear that the wolves had chased the deer into the water. The deer could see the wolves just inside the tree-line, and it was watching them,” he explained.

Darren Rogers, who also resides in Tolsmaville, said that this summer and fall the wolves have been howling in the village day and night. And another man who lives by the main street advised that this summer a deer was chased by wolves right down the main street of the village.

Mr. Anderson cautioned that, “the wolves and coyotes that I have caught in my traps are desperately thin and scrawny to the point of starving to death. They are running out of a food supply.”

Mr. Anderson said there has been a coyote and wolf population explosion, and he cautioned that there definitely are timber wolves on the island. However, optimistically he said this winter many of these animals may cross over on the ice of the North Channel to other areas for food.

On the matter of black bears, they hibernate during the winter months and therefore are not able to take advantage of the ice to escape starvation. The meeting was told in 2009 that the club petitioned the MNR to extend the black bear firearm season until the end of the deer rifle season.

The MNR did conduct a study of the black bear on Cockburn Island and in the report just released it is recognized that to extend the bear season through the end of the annual deer hunt would allow hunters the opportunity to harvest a bear, and therefore help to keep the bear numbers in check. Throughout the study it is recognized that there is a large number of black bear locally.

One person at the meeting stated, “the MNR are really telling us what we already know.”

In the MNR study of black bears on Cockburn Island, by utilizing volunteer help from the club there were a series of barbed wire yards set up, keeping the wire a distance off the ground so as to catch only hair samplings off the adult bear in the barbs of the wire. All hair samplings were analyzed for DNA and thereby the MNR was able to determine many valuable statistics of each hair sampling. The study determined that the habitat of the island is conductive to a healthy bear population considering the nuts on certain species of trees, the wild berries, the apples from the abandoned farms on the island, and of course, by killing the white tail deer whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Local residents see all the bear signs and they also know that they are a real threat to the deer herd. While the final figures of the 2013 deer hunt are not yet confirmed, it is estimated by the CISCC, the organization that collects all the data of each deer season, that the deer harvest is down considerably. Figures released show that in 2013 60 deer were harvested, with 82 taken in 2012, 98 in 2011, and 107 harvested in 2010. Many of the deer taken were large animals, with a few fawns taken as well.

As Mr. Anderson reported at the meeting, what we are seeing for the most part are buck deer. The bucks are having to travel distances to locate a doe that is in the rut, so it is mostly the bucks that are being shot. There are few, if any, fawn. “And,” as one hunter added, “what we are doing here by shooting the big bucks is that we are killing off the breeding stock.”

This, compounded with all the predation, may well have serious consequences for the deer herd on Cockburn Island. However, while the deer hunter threat can be controlled through rules and regulations, the predation by coyotes, wolves and bears is an entirely different story.