Thursday, September 06, 2012

Wildlife - For Jitka and Hanka

We recently held a large family reunion and were visited by distant relatives from the Czech Republic (Jitka & her daughter, Hanka). Afterwards, Jitka expressed disappointment that she did not encounter more wildlife while in Canada, expecting to see large animals in a more prominent fashion. Hanka even had to write a report about the plants and animals she saw in Canada, but had to leave out the animal portion. There must be a perception that if you come to Canada you will see wildlife roaming freely and abundantly when the reality is that encountering wildlife is an uncommon event that causes me to count myself lucky when it occurs. It is a special moment when I see a moose on a canoe trip.

Here is a list of some animals that are possible to see while paddling in this part of Canada (Saskatchewan). I've excluded birds, fish, rodents (except the biggest rodents) and other small critters from the list because the list would get far too long and complex. It is in approximately descending order with the animals I'm most likely to see at the top.

Moose swimming across the Montreal River. Photo by Rob Kunz.
  1. Beaver. I see beaver almost every time I paddle. Not only do I see them when paddling, we also hear the loud "kapuch" of their tail at night.
  2. Snowshoe Hare. Rabbit stew, anyone?
  3. Moose. The largest member of the deer family, I've seen these about 4 times now while paddling (twice in Prince Albert National Park, once on the Montreal River, once while paddling the South Saskatchewan River). In recent years moose have gotten much more common in the farming areas of southern Saskatchewan.
  4. Garter Snake. My kids have taken to searching the forest floor for garter snakes to catch.
  5. Fox.
  6. White Tailed Deer. Deer (white tail, then mule deer) would be at the top of the list except that this list has a paddling focus, and most of the northern places I paddle don't have many deer. The odds of seeing them when paddling the South Saskatchewan River are fairly high.
  7. River Otter. Otters are pretty cool to see. I've seen them in Prince Albert National Park and in 2010 we saw some on the Churchill River. In the winter I've seen their sliding tracks in the snow.
  8. Porcupine. Porcupine are all over, and in theory I should see lots of them, but I don't unless you count the dead ones on the side of the road. I know they are up in the trees and I often look for them, but only very rarely do I see them.
  9. Mink, Ermine, Weasel, Fisher. I'm lumping these members of the weasel family together, they are the smallest members of this list.
  10. Coyote. We often hear these at night, especially when paddling the South or North Saskatchewan Rivers.
  11. Raccoon. We have lots of them and I know they are around because I see their tracks in the mud, but I've never seen a raccoon on a paddling trip. I've seen hundreds of them dead at the side of the road.
  12. Woodchuck/Groundhog. We saw one in 2010 while canoeing on the Churchill River. My friend Mark claims they are quite common and he often sees them on the drive north. I never have.
  13. Black Bear. I've seen one once while paddling in BC, and many times driving. My most recdent bear encounter was a young animal that came to check out the messy smelly fish fry last month at the in-law's cabin at Candle Lake just as we were starting into supper. I chased it off making lots of noice and banging a 2x4 against the tree it scampered up into.
  14. Elk. What is it about elk and national parks? In Banff, Jasper and Waskesiu you will see them wandering the town streets. My odds of seeing them when paddling are not so high, but much better than some other animals.
  15. Lynx. I heard a lynx once while hiking, but have never seen one. The sound was very disturbing. More common than most people know, they are good at avoiding being seen.
  16. Wolf. Again, Prince Albert National Park is the likeliest place to see these elusive creatures, perhaps while on a snowshoe trip. The only wolf I have seen in the "wild" was walking down the middle of the road in PANP and was sick and perhaps starving.
  17. Cougar. There are more of these around than we would ever realise, they pass silently leaving little trace, and give a wide berth to humans.
  18. Buffalo. There are some places in Prince Albert National Park (and area) where it would be possible to see free-roaming wild buffalo (bison).
  19. Woodland Caribou. We have them, but the herds are small and during the paddling season tend to be farther north. They aren't coping well with human activities in the north.
  20. Badger. Wide ranging with large territories and rarely seen.
  21. Wolverine. Cousin to the badger and largest member of the weasel family. Wide ranging solitary animals with massive territories, these animals avoid humans and don't cope well with disturbances in their habitat.  
  22. Grizzly Bear. 120 years ago there were large herds of buffalo that roamed the prairies of USA and Canada, and many animals followed these herds. The Plains Grizzly was one of the animals that lived off of the buffalo and followed the massive herds. After settlers came the buffalo were hunted and removed from the prairies, and the animals that relied on those herds disappeared. The Grizzly Bears of the Alberta foothills are the last remnants of the Plains Grizzly population. It is still possible, but quite unlikely, to see Grizzly in the northernmost regions of our province, but it is likely a stray animal that wandered south from the Tundra rather than wandering east from the foothills. (On a related note, a Polar Bear was once seen swimming in the far northeast part of Saskatchewan. It was a young male that was starving.)
It is more common to see signs (tracks, scat) of these animals than it is to see the animals themselves. There are a few reasons why it is unlikely to see any of these animals very often. First, many of them are active at dawn and dusk, a time when it's hard to see wildlife and when we are not usually paddling. Most of our paddling is through areas of bush or forest which although it provides a home for the wildlife, it also provides them with ample cover, making seeing them very difficult as they don't stand around in the open. Also, hunting by local natives keeps the populations of the large game (i.e. moose) low in the regions that are close to native communities. Further, this is often a harsh country with a hard winter which means survival is often quite low. Many of these animals also require very large ranges - dozens to hundreds of square kilometers. The populations are not dense. Finally, the reason my family doesn't see as much wildlife as we might otherwise, relates to the fact that we have 2 young kids with us, and they aren't often quiet.

Finding signs of the animals is much easier than seeing the animals themselves. These are otter tracks on MacKay Lake in the snow on a very cold day. The otter runs a couple of steps, slides on it's belly, then pushes itself with it's hind feet while sliding on it's belly. 

The more common way to see moose lately, a recent photo by my father in the fields near the family farm.