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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tracking wounded moose with dogs in Quebec

© 2010 John Jeanneney for Full Cry

Moose hunting is very different from deer hunting. Simon Lemay, a French Canadian outfitter, explained to me that one of the many differences is that there is a time limit for finding wounded moose that run off after the shot. You can’t just wait and find him the next morning in the time-honored American tradition.

In the case of a wounded moose you are dealing with a very large animal, 800 to 1200 pounds on the hoof. This huge and hot body mass is insulated by a coat almost as thick and dense as that of a bear. If you don’t get to the carcass in six or eight hours to open it up and cool it down, you are going to have a truckload of spoiled meat.

The size of the first moose we found was a revelation to me. The whitetails I am familiar with would have looked like cottontails along side of the moose pictured below. The call to track this one came in early one evening from near the New Brunswick border. Alain Ridel and I traveled more than a hundred miles one way to begin tracking shortly before midnight. It was difficult to get to the hit site down in a deep valley, but the rest was easy. Typically there was very little blood, and this only at the beginning, but the moose was well-hit and only went a 100 meters beyond the point where the hunters gave up. We did not stay to get the moose back up to the road. The hunters gutted him and spent a good part of the next day getting him back up the hill to the road with a big four wheeler.

Alain Ridel's Théo with the moose described above. Théo found 7 moose during the two moose seasons.

Moose hunters in Quebec, including outfitters like Simon Lemay, pioneered the use of leashed tracking dogs in Quebec several years ago. Dogs are being used more and more, not only for moose, but also for whitetails and black bears. I ran one tracking workshop in Quebec and attended another one presented by two trackers from France. Interest was high and people came from all over this vast province. I have to admit that I was pleased to see them using the same type of wirehaired dachshunds that I use down in New York.

I had made some good friends in Quebec, and was invited to come up with one of my dogs for some hands-on moose tracking experience last September. Over the ten days I learned a great deal, and covered many miles. We stayed much of the time at the evaporator house of a big maple sugar bush, where we could look down Lac de l’Est (East Lake) right into Maine. The language of my friends may have been French, but the game and the terrain were very similar to that of the moose country across the border. We actually tracked one moose that came within 100 meters of the border before he veered north. I’m glad he decided not to become an illegal immigrant.

Three moose trackers and their wirehaired dachshunds: Shown left to right are Phillipe Rainaud with Sky (three moose finds), Andre Hins with Gamine (seven moose finds), John Jeanneney, apprentice moose tracker, with Billy.

It’s worth emphasizing that from a tracker’s point of view we were not in a foreign country at all. What I saw and learned could have been applied just as well in Maine. Unfortunately, in Maine the interest in tracking dogs to find moose and other big game has been almost non-existent despite the fact that the State Legislature and the Maine DNR legalized the use of leashed tracking dogs ten years ago in 2000. Individual invitations to a tracking workshop last summer were sent to 540 Licensed Maine Guides. There was no response from the guides.

My romp in Quebec showed me that tracking wounded moose by eye is not an easy task. During hunting season the moose are no longer feeding on aquatic vegetation in wet areas that make for simple tracking of hoof marks. You don’t get much of a blood trail from a wounded moose, just as in the case of a wounded bear, because the heavy coat soaks up so much of the blood before it reaches the ground. The blood sign that you do see is generally wiped off on tree trunk and branches well off the ground.

From a dog’s point of nose a moose is easy to track. We are dealing with a big animal with lots of body scent. However, this scent does not seem to be as individualized as in the case of deer. Probably this is because moose have no interdigital glands between the cloves of their front hooves. There are small, barely visible interdigital glands between the rear hooves, but clearly these glands don’t play the same role with moose that they do in a whitetail. Fortunately, moose are more solitary and their density in a given area is usually lower than is the case with whitetails. Staying on the right line is not as difficult with moose as it is for whitetails.

From a handler’s standpoint following a dog that is following a moose is not so easy; it’s strenuous exercise. In Quebec, as in the northern US, the handler is required by law to keep control of the dog on a long leash, and this means that you have to go where the dog goes. Long legged moose stride with ease over the dead branches and dense young growth of the cutovers, but for a man this means stepping over, wriggling under or ramming through the same thick stuff. The off-lead, Garmin Astro tactics of our own Deep South would ease the situation, but this is politically out of the question in Quebec. In Quebec the handler cannot even carry a firearm as he tracks with his dog.

Tracking in Quebec made me realize that tracking wounded moose is not an activity for old men. My own tracking dog Billy is big and powerful for a dachshund, so he was a pretty good tow truck on some of the steeper uphill slopes. When there was a need to slow down in some of the thick stuff, Billy knew how to adjust his pace to his handler’s age. I agreed with the trackers I met in Quebec that a 20 to 30 pound dog is much more practical up there than a dog of twice the size.

I was in Quebec only for the bow and crossbow season, which coincided with the moose rut. Roughly a third of the moose tracked were recovered, although all reports on tracking activities have not been filed yet. The percentage of moose recoveries for the rifle season appears, at this point, to be slightly lower. We can assume that the majority of the moose not found actually survive, although it is nearly impossible to come up with verifiable numbers for this. Animals shot far back in the intestines can take more than a week to die. An experienced tracker, who can interpret the signs of the type of wound (placement of blood smears, color of blood, etc.), is in a good position to make an informed guess about the chances of survival.

There are problems with the present leashed tracking dog system in Quebec, and some of these will not be easy to solve. Most of the hunting area is owned by the Province, not by private individuals. In these undeveloped public areas communications are difficult. Cell phone coverage is poor, and the only way to get to a tracking site in these areas is over a sparse network of rocky logging roads. The game and hunter density is low so you drive far, but of course you can’t drive fast. Because of limited information relayed by the radio-telephones of the Provincial Rangers, we often drove for hours to track a lightly wounded moose that was impossible to retrieve. Things would have been better if we had been able to question hunters directly.

Hunter errors were more of a problem than I had expected. For bow and crossbow hunters Quebec’s training program could be improved. Some hunters seemed to have a very vague idea of where an arrow or cross bow bolt must be placed to produce a killing shot. Most were using crossbows, and there were too many who didn’t understand that the crossbow bolt is deflected off course when you shoot through brush. The short, heavy bolt also drops dramatically after about 35 yards. The crossbow is not a rifle.

In remote areas, like the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec, tracking dogs can be used most effectively by outfitters and guides. As they work with clients they are in the best position to stay in touch, give advice and offer the services of a tracking dog when this is needed. Simon Lemay, the outfitter in the Lower Gaspé region of Quebec, has several wirehaired dachshund trackers and believes that they are a valuable asset to his business.

We Americans have something to learn from what is going on in Quebec. Guides and outfitters, especially, can profit since moose populations are expanding. In the Northeast: Vermont, New Hampshire and especially Maine have moose seasons. New York State has about 400 of these animals, but they are not hunted yet. Farther to the west they are now present in northern states from Michigan all the way to Washington. Moose are great travelers and they seem to be penetrating down from the North as if they had never heard of global warming.

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