ESCANABA - A group of graduate students from Mississippi State University are working with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to determine what is happening to the deer population in the Upper Peninsula.
The students are conducting a study about 15 miles south of Escanaba near the Delta-Menominee County line. The study began last winter and will likely go three years, depending on funding and interest from organizations such as Safari Club International, the Michigan Involvement Committee of Safari Club and U.P. Whitetails.
"The study was started in that area because we knew there would be enough deer and predators to get it underway," said Craig Albright, wildlife biologist with the DNR in Escanaba and a co-investigator in the study.
Grad studentts from Mississippi State University release a deer back into the woods near Escanaba. (Courtesy photo)
Mississippi State is involved because the principal investigator, Dr. Jerry Belant, was the biologist at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore near Munising during the time the study was conceived and he received a professor position at the Starkville, Miss. school.
The DNR decided to use the grad students from Miss. State so Belant could be involved.
"We have noticed a decline in the deer population in the Upper Peninsula during the past decade and people want to know what's going on, so it's a timely study," Albright said. "At the same time there has been an increase in predators such as wolves, coyotes, bears and bobcats."
According to Albright, there has also been a downturn in timber harvest intensity in many areas, which provides food for deer.
"There is such a level of concern on the part of sportsmen regarding the deer herd, we thought it was time to do a study on those factors that could be driving it ," he said.
Four graduate students and up to a dozen students who have graduated but are looking for field experience are involved with the study. Study objectives include estimating the survival and sources of mortality for fawns and does, estimating fawn mortality due to specific predators and improving the understanding of predator/prey interactions to enhance wildlife management.
When the study began last winter, 42 adult does were caught in traps. One of the things looked at was updating doe pregnancy rates, which was done by placing portable ultrasound units in the woods. Albright says most of the results came out as expected.
He said "91 percent of adult does and 70 percent of yearling does were pregnant. This reaffirms when people see does without fawns in the fall, it may not be because the fawns were killed by predators, but because they're young does who didn't become pregnant at all."
Albright adds people who believe predators are responsible for the decline in deer are jumping to conclusions. He said 36 pregnant does were collared last winter and a special radio transmitter was implanted. The transmitter is expelled when the fawn is born.
"Researchers who are monitoring the does around the clock are alerted immediately when the fawn is born because the transmitter will give off a different pulse rate," Albright explained. "By that time, a lot of predation events could have occurred, so we thought it was really important to catch fawns right at birth because they are most vulnerable in the first two to four weeks of life."
The fawns also wear a special radio collar for research purposes. About half of the fawns with collars were dead within two months, and 77 percent of those deaths were from predators.
Last winter, two grey wolves were captured at the study site, along with 16 black bears, nine coyotes and three bobcats. The wild animals were outfitted with GPS transmitters to log their location every 15 minutes to determine whether the predators spent a lot of time in any one spot.
The study has currently recycled into year two. "Deer traps have been opened this week to capture another batch of does to determine pregnancy," Albright said.
Out of 17 traps set by the students this week, 11 deer have been caught. Four pregnant does have been fitted with collars.
While the study is moving along smoothly, Albright says it's still too early to draw any final conclusions from it.
"We are learning as we go," he said.