Elk becoming a problem

As usual, the 2014 Alberta Guide to Hunting Regulations has appeared just as we are finally getting settled into fishing and other summery diversions.

As usual, the 2014 Alberta Guide to Hunting Regulations has appeared just as we are finally getting settled into fishing and other summery diversions.

But, had you thought about it at all, you could have predicted that the 2014 guide would be all about elk, even without the cover picture of a great bugling bull.

Early this year, a Brooks Bulletin story headlined War on elk just starting, say officials, producers described the farming/ranching crisis caused by Canadian Forces Base Suffield in southeastern Alberta, having introduced 220 surplus elk from Elk Island National Park in 1997.

In little more than 15 years, on prime prairie grassland, with virtually no predators, those 220 elk have multiplied to more than 5,000 head that are increasing by 20 per cent annually, and are now escaping to the surrounding country and causing major damage to the sanity, fences, grass, crops and bale yards of area ranchers.

Limited hunting seasons, mainly for cow elk, have not alleviated the problem, resulting in considerable federal-provincial dithering over what to do about a totally out-of-control herd of far too many elk, flying around counting evermore elk while military and Alberta Environment-Sustainable Resource people belatedly plotted a plan.

The decision obviously was that the province would open the area for much more elk hunting than in the recent past, so, for the coming season, as the guide states in its “Important Changes for 2014” section: “Additional Antlerless Elk Special Licence hunting seasons in Wildlife Management Unit 732(CFB Suffield) have been created;” “Additional Antlerless and Antlered Elk Special Licence hunting seasons have been created for WMUs 124, 144, 148 and 150” (the whole area surrounding WMU 732).

Many of these seasons run from Sept. 1 to the end of January 2015. Obviously, wildlife managers are hoping that hunters, by filling their freezers, will achieve a substantial herd reduction, thus making more radical measures, like helicopter culls, unnecessary.

Several years ago, I predicted we would soon be seeing true trophy bull elk being taken in the CFB Suffield area. That has come to pass, as startlingly demonstrated by Frank Gilham of Medicine Hat, Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine’s 2013 Hunter of the Year, Elk Category, who took his magnificent bull measuring 367 2/8 Boone & Crockett points in WMU 150 near Jenner.

Gilham took the bull the way he takes all of his superb big game trophies: by being a tenacious, patient, even stubborn, quadriplegic hunter. I may have to reconsider my decision to quit hunting, now that I have a scooter to give me some of my former shank’s mare range back.

Before I became a handicapped person and was able to walk the woods following my Brittanys from can see to can’t, I’d start hunting season on Sept. 1, chasing ruffed grouse for six weeks until the pheasant season opened, generally around mid-October.

Our last Brittany, Beau, has been gone a year now, and hunting birds without him wouldn’t be the same, but an article in the 2014 guide, “Grouse Logic 101” by old friend Neil Waugh, inspires thoughts of how I might go grouse hunting by quietly cruising boreal aspen parkland trails on my scooter, looking for ruffed grouse gorging on clover.

In this country, you never know what kind of a grouse season it’ll be, bonanza or bust, until you get into the woods.

But in recent years it seems to me that the highs and lows of ruffed grouse cycles have not been as severe as they traditionally have been in western North America.

The ruffed grouse is probably our most studied upland game bird. Various aspects of its appearance and behaviour have always fascinated me, starting with the tail. You can tell the sex of a ruffed grouse from the black band on the rim of the tail: if it is continuous, the bird is a male; a female if the band is interrupted by two centre feathers. In these latitudes, we have grey and red phase ruffed grouse, most noticeable in the tails.

I have always marched to the drumming of ruffed grouse in the spring, but totally failed to photograph the procedure because of low light when it generally takes place. Some ruffed grouse will also drum in the fall when the light intensity and photo period mimic the spring and fools the male’s vital organs into thinking it is breeding season again.

I shot my last ruffed grouse with a camera around mid-September years ago when I was hunting them with a shotgun and fall mushrooms with a big paper bag. Suddenly, for the first time ever, I was attacked by a grey-phase male ruffed grouse in full spring mating display. We went along in lock-step, with him occasionally feinting to charge me.

When I ran out of film, I left him to it. Delicious as they are, it would have been churlish to shoot him with a shotgun after such a performance; besides, I doubt he was in any mood to be flushed.

Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at bscam@telusplanet.net.

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