With hunting season underway in Saskatchewan, a study is also underway looking at what happens after the hunt.
Lynsey Bent is a Master’s student in the Biological Sciences Program at the University of Saskatchewan and is currently looking at the scavenger community in the province. For part of the research, she is reaching out to the province’s large hunting community for some help.
“A lot of the time, field dressing techniques leave offal, which is gut piles like organs, tissues, etc. in the field, and this tissue can be a great resource for a number of scavengers that are native to Saskatchewan,” Bent explained of the research. To help with the understanding of the composition of the scavenger community within the province, she is looking to use trail cams on gut piles that are left in the field by hunters.
“All these hunters have been volunteer-based, and have been absolutely instrumental in the research that we’re doing,” Bent added.
When it comes to scavengers, many people think of things like vultures. Here in the province, there is only one common species of vulture, the turkey vulture, but they generally aren’t around when the hunting season begins. However, in Saskatchewan, there is a rather large number of other scavengers.
“The main scavenger we see is black-billed magpies, and I have grown a large appreciation for them over the past two years, but we also see lots of other corvids, such as crows and ravens,” Bent said of some of the birds the trail cams have captured in the first few years of the study. Birds, however, aren’t the only scavengers common in the province.
“We see our classic canids, like coyotes and red fox, and we’ve also had some more elusive species,” the researcher continued. Some of those include minks, as well as lynx and cougars. As well, other deer will sometimes come to check out what is happening at the site where the offal has been left.
The lynx and cougars were something the team was surprised to have turned up.
“I wasn’t expecting to see a cougar in one of our trail cameras, and the lynx, it was almost caught on accident, so that was really interesting as well, but it’s cool to see these very elusive species utilize this really common resource on the landscape during the hunting season as a food resource for them, and all our other more common scavenging species.”
Scavengers as a whole play a crucial role in the ecosystem of the province, Bent added. She noted they often get overlooked for their ecological role.
“They just have a very massive impact,” Bent said. “They’re integral drivers of ecological functions. They facilitate rapid carcass breakdown, so eating the actual gut pile, decomposing all those tissues, they accelerate the nutrient cycle and they minimize disease transmission and the pest population, and they also stabilize food webs.”
The study also looks at the risks scavenger species face. These are animals that eat carrion, after all, so there could be a number of contaminants such as heavy metals they are exposed to, or parasites or diseases that are in the gut pile.
The lynx and cougar haven’t been the only two elusive or even uncommon animals captured on the trailcams the team has used. Bent shared the story of something that happened east of Yorkton last year.
“We got some images of a bald eagle coming up to the gut pile, checking it out from afar. Well, all these magpies and crows were having a snack. Then eventually, the bald eagle comes in and stakes its claim and everyone else disappears, and it was just sitting there for a while eating the gut pile. That was very awesome to see.”
With the study continuing this year, volunteers are still needed. Bent is looking for hunters to sign up for the study.
“We’re only putting trail cameras out on mule deer and white-tailed deer, so if you are a Saskatchewan resident hunter hunting mule deer or white-tails this year, you’re welcome to shoot me an email,” she stated. The email address is email@example.com. Once she gets emails from volunteers, she then gets them to fill out some information, such as where they are hunting, what weapon they are using for their hunting, and what the targetted species is. If a hunter has their own trail cameras they want to use, they can, but for those who don’t have a trail camera, there are some that can be provided.
Those who do sign up to take part in the research also have their name entered into a draw for a $200 gift card from Cabela’s.
“I just want to say a massive thank you to the hunting community in general,” Bent concluded. “I don’t think conservation would exist without hunters that are on the ground that truly understand the environment at a very intimate capacity, and I think it’s really important that we have an open dialogue, and they have access to all the research that goes on that can also inform how they interact and hunt on the landscape.”