Many wildlife studies take place behind the scenes; if you don’t happen to hear or read about them or stumble upon them in progress, you never know they occur. Such is the case with a fairly extensive deer research project underway in northwestern Kansas this year.
The project has two stages; the first stage is to capture and collar 120 deer, the second stage is to monitor those deer and their fawns to collect valuable data about Kansas deer. I spoke with Levi Jaster, Big Game Coordinator with Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism who is supervising the project. He says there has been a noticeable retraction of the KS mule deer population, slowly withdrawing westward, while at the same time the whitetail population is also spreading westward. Jaster told me “We are already on the western edge of the mule deer range and hate to see their population dwindle any more here in Kansas, and Nebraska is not seeing the same problem, so that leaves us Kansas wildlife biologists searching for answers.” Jaster says all studies about deer mortality rates, habitat use and reproduction rates have been done in either the Dakotas or Texas, neither of which have topography or conditions representative of Kansas, so everyone felt it was time for a KS study to be done.
Eight KS counties were chosen; Decatur, Norton, Sheridan and Graham in the extreme northwestern corner, and Logan, Gove, Scott and Lane a little farther south. In February, 120 deer divided evenly between each group of counties, between whitetails and mule deer, and between bucks and does were netted from a helicopter and collared. Bucks were given a quick health check including blood samples, fitted with GPS radio collars that will remain on them for their lifetime and then released. Does were airlifted to an area set up with handling facilities where they were each given an ultrasound to determine pregnancy rates and blood samples were drawn.
They were then ear-tagged and fitted with a GPS radio collar that will drop off after a predetermined number of weeks. Before their release each doe was also given a small vaginal implant transmitter (VIT) that will drop out when she gives birth and help researchers attempt to locate fawns. This entire process was completed in only 4 days. To process the does, KDWPT staff was joined by Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit staff, K State graduate students, veterinarians, volunteers from the Kansas Bowhunters Assn. and landowners who allowed access to their land.
The second part of the project will begin in mid to late May when collared does begin to birth fawns. The transmitters will begin transmitting when they are expelled and are linked to each does collar, giving researchers data on when and where fawns were born. The thinking is that since fawns are hidden for the first few days of their lives, if the signal can be tracked within a few hours after birth, most fawns can be located. Each will be quickly checked, measured and fitted with a special expandable collar so it can be tracked also. The goal is to find and collar 80 – 90 fawns this spring.
Data collected during this first-of-its-kind 3 year study here in KS will help researchers learn more about Kansas deer reproductive and mortality rates and causes of mortality, deer movement, survival of different year classes of deer, and mule deer and whitetail deer interaction. This data will help provide much needed insight into deer densities, deer-human interactions, crop damage and the effects of habitat and crop changes on KS deer populations.
I asked Levi if there was anything else he wanted deer hunters to learn from this story, and he told me “We want deer hunters who see these collars to act as though the collar doesn’t exist. If they were going to harvest a collared deer before they spotted the collar, harvest it anyway. If they were going to pass on a collared deer, pass on it despite the collar. This will give us real-world, real-time data.” Fifteen years ago, my wife and I hunted for several years where she grew up in Meade County, and back then we could expect to see as many muleys’ as whitetails. Today, I know that whitetails are much more prevalent down there, so I’m anxious to see what this study turns up; a wonderful way to continue to Explore Kansas Outdoors!
Steve Gilliland, Inman, can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.