The regular big game hunting season comes to a close in all Northern Zone Wildlife Management Units at sunset on Dec. 14 with the conclusion of the late muzzleloading season.
Although preliminary DEC estimates indicate that the deer take was down a bit from last season's harvest, the hunting season can still be considered a great success. It was the first year the state allowed 14 year old hunters to legally take to the field in pursuit of big game.
As a direct result of the new Mentor Law, the DEC has seen hunting license sales increase of about 3.5 percent, from about 1.375 million last year to more than 1.421 million through Nov. 30 of 2008.
A spokeswoman for the DEC describes the increase as "a favorable reversal of the long-term decline largely attributable to the demographics of an aging population."
Prior to this year's license sales figures, the average age of New York's big game hunters had approached 53 years of age. With the addition of youthful hunters, this figure is expected to drop dramatically.
In the 2007 big game season, there were 37 hunting accidents with six fatalities. In 2006, only one fatality was reported for the season. The 2008 season ended with four fatalities. Sadly, this tragic total included a local hunter from Keene.
In the 1960s, the accident rate was 19 per 100,000 hunters. Since 2000, the rate has dropped to 6.5 incidents per 100,000 hunters.
From 1996 to 2002 the average number of accidents reported in New York was 56 but from 2003-07 the average dropped to 33.
Although the regular big game season has concluded, there remain numerous opportunities to still go afield for small game such as rabbit, ruffed grouse, squirrel and pheasant or for furbearers including fox, raccoon, coyote or bobcat.
A number of common myths have circulated throughout the Adirondacks over the years. The two I hear most commonly regard rumors that the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation is "secretly restocking" wolves (and/or) mountain lions in the park.
I recently spoke with Ed Reed, a wildlife biologist with NYSDEC Region 5 in Ray Brook about an incident regarding a "wolf that was hit by a car and taken away by the DEC."
Such reports are common, yet the details always remain sketchy and despite the frequency of these stories, to date there has never been a carcass recovered or a legitimate photograph of either a wolf or a mountain lion provided - with one exception.
Reed explained that the DEC is very interested in following up on such reports. "We are very interested in finding out about the existence of wolves or cougars in the park," he revealed. Ken Kogut, a former Region 5 wildlife biologist now working in Region 6, is very interested in reports of mountain lions. He has actually witnessed one himself. "If you ever have a report of tracks or a kill," Kogut offered,"Please let us know. We have several game cameras which we will set up immediately. We have as much interest in discovering these animals as the public does."
Reed expressed the same opinion.
Reed further explained that if the DEC were actually to attempt restocking wolves or lions, the effort would require an expansive planning including budgets, reports, permits, landowner notification and a comparable commitment of staff and personnel.
Such an effort would be impossible to hide from public scrutiny or review from organizations ranging from environmental groups to the Conservation Fund Advisory Board.
Although a large coyote shot by a hunter in the town of Day a few years back was later verified by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to be a gray wolf, investigation later determined that the animal was a released captive.
Recently, there has been a great deal of fanfare regarding the natural reestablishment of moose to the park. Additionally, New York leads the nation in the successful reintroduction of bald eagles, a project which began with a hacking site at Follensby Pond near Tupper Lake.
With the return of these natural natives such a qualified success, it isn't much of a stretch to believe that wolves and/or mountain lions are next on the list of returnees.
However, wolves and mountain lions are large predators that require remote environs which are rich in prey such as deer and small mammals. Although the park supports a healthy deer herd, the adjacent lands along the St. Lawrence River Valley, the Champlain Valley or the Mohawk River Valley would be much more conducive to suitable prey species.
As creatures of convenience, wolves and cougars would be likely to frequent such game rich environments rather than the harsh and inhospitable environment of the Adirondacks.
Both species are opportunistic predators. They would take advantage of opportunities to scavenge road kill, further exposing their presence and possibly ending up with the same fate. Surely, there would eventually have to be a carcass.
Additionally, as coyotes colonized the east in the early 20th century, data suggests they may have hybridized with remnant populations of wolves, most likely in Canada.
It is known that coyotes do not cohabit lands with wolf, which actually prey on coyotes.
Another common misconception is that the coyote is responsible for decimating the Adirondack deer herd. Again, the blame is misplaced.
While deer do comprise a major component of a coyote's diet, they tend to feed heavily on more available, less energy dependent prey such as rabbits, mice and grasshoppers. In the summer, they feed heavily on blueberries and raspberries which account for almost half their diet. Coyote prey mostly on fawns, though a pack can bring down an adult.
Reed explained that black bear have a far greater impact on fawn mortality than coyotes. Furthermore, he stated that the majority of deer killed by coyote in the winter are determined to be those in a weakened state or malnourished. This determination comes from studying the amount of fat in the bone marrow of these dead dear.
Many old timers would disagree with such assessments. They will point to the great hunting days of the 1950s and 1960s when deer were abundant. However, this was also a time when the forests were still in production or recovering from clear cut logging practices or fires. The altered, Adirondack habitat favored deer.
Despite expected protestations, the fact remains that coyote are not solely responsible for the demise of the Adirondack's once great deer herd. Man is. Our forests are no longer altered to the extent they once were. Fires have been contained, controlled and clear cutting is nearly nonexistent. The habitat is no longer conducive to big herds.
"Harmony with the land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators...the land is one organism." ...Aldo Leopold.
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org