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Final capture: Game and Fish wraps up three-year mule deer study

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Dan Thiele, Kevin Monteith and Heather Abernathy carry a mule deer doe

From left, Dan Thiele, Kevin Monteith and Heather Abernathy carry a mule deer doe away from the base vehicles and people to be released on Dec. 16 near Mayoworth. The animals are given a light sedative and pain killer to prevent stress and pain while the research team takes measurements and collects a variety of data from each collared doe.

Three years of work came to a ceremonious end the morning of Dec. 16 as Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials and other stakeholders captured and examined a collared mule deer for the final time.

The study, conducted to help manage a declining Upper Powder River mule deer herd near Kaycee, will give biologists like Cheyenne Stewart, Game and Fish Sheridan region wildlife coordinator, an idea of the biggest problems facing the herd.

Game and Fish, along with the University of Wyoming Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources and the Bureau of Land Management, captured, collared and followed 119 adult doe mule deer over a three-year period. In total, 70 deer were collared at a time — 67 died during the study and had their collars re-deployed, Stewart said. 

“That is more than we expected and, in general, high rates of adult doe mortality can be a concern for herd productivity and management,” she said. “But it is too early to draw any specific conclusions because our final captures only mark the beginning of our data analysis. We still have a lot to learn about the relative impacts of different causes of mortality observed and how those may impact deer within the herd unit differently.”

The study required cooperation with more than 40 landowners, Stewart said. Each year, crews set up staging areas and completed captures on private land with permission from landowners.

The goal for the final capture was 52 deer. Helicopter crews were able to capture all but four, whose collars will automatically drop off in January, at which point Game and Fish will review their movement data, Stewart said.

University of Wyoming students set up the work station

University of Wyoming students set up the work station as the sun rises over the snowy morning on Dec. 16, starting near Mayoworth and finishing just south of Barnum. The University trailer carried mats, scales, ultrasounds and a wide variety of other equipment that the team uses during wildlife capture studies like this one. They have been traveling around the state working on a variety of projects and with different species including both mule deer and bighorn sheep.

Isa Stewart, 3, clings to her mom Cheyenne’s leg as the group of researchers

Isa Stewart, 3, clings to her mom Cheyenne’s leg as the group of researchers and volunteers talk through the plan for the day on Dec. 16, near Mayoworth. The helicopter crews left first to find the first deer of the day while the volunteers got the base area set up and decided who would help with the different tasks.

The deer were tested and measured in a variety of ways

The deer were tested and measured in a variety of ways, collecting data that will be fully studied and organized after. Each of the does received an ultrasound to read the fat percentages of the animal in multiple locations. This serves as one way to check in on the health and durability of the herd.

The capture process, after three years of practice, runs smoothly. Typically, two deer are captured at once. The animals are blindfolded and given a mild sedative to keep them calm as they are transported, probed and prodded.

Aside from a few attempts to wiggle away from researchers and subsequent bleats in protest, the mule deer largely submitted to the scientists’ testing. And it’s all done pretty quickly — the team was able to capture and take samples from four deer in 30 minutes.

Researchers removed the collars and piled them in the back of a truck after three years of following the herd’s GPS coordinates. After a series of tests researchers turned the deer loose, either by walking them away from the staging area and letting them take their own tentative first steps back into the wild, or by hitching them again to the helicopter to get dropped off where they came from.

Stewart said that use of a helicopter drop-off depends on how far away from the staging area the deer were picked up. If it’s more than a 3- to 4-mile radius, the helicopter is used.

The 30 minutes of discomfort for the deer makes available a comprehensive data set that shows the health of the herd through each individual animal’s measurements — weight, length and girth — as well as blood samples to analyze genetics, fecal samples to test for parasites and rectal tissue samples to test for chronic wasting disease. Researchers also performed an ultrasound to measure body fat.

The results for individual deer health are instant, though a comprehensive data set that characterizes the entire herd won’t be available for several months. Game and Fish, along with University of Wyoming professor Kevin Monteith, will start analyzing the data in the spring, Stewart said.

Studying these same deer each year could help researchers learn about deer movement, habitat selection and how weather influences body condition of deer coming off summer range, Stewart said in a Bulletin interview at the start of the study.

GPS data on the collar is recorded every two hours, tracking their movements. Dan Thiele, former Sheridan region wildlife coordinator who kicked off the study in 2019, said one of the more surprising bits of data so far are deer movements across the Bighorn Mountains.

In the end, researchers learned that some deer are resident deer — occupying the same habitats year-round; some are short-distance migrants — moving up and down the elevational gradient; and some are long-distance migrants — moving up in elevation and north into the Bighorn Mountains.

The deer were picked up and brought back to the home base

The deer were picked up and brought back to the home base via helicopter, and were then carried over to the scale and measuring area to on a large yellow tarp on Thursday. They planned to finish off catches on this day with a total of 17 does left to catch of the 48 total deer that were able to have collars recovered during the week.

Zach Turnbull looks for the final weight of the doe

Wearing yellow gloves, Zach Turnbull, the Buffalo wildlife biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish, looks for the final weight of a doe after the group laid her on the scale on Dec. 16, starting near Mayoworth and finishing just south of Barnum. At least three people had to work together to carry each deer on the tarp.

UW students took a blood sample from each doe after the collar

UW students took a blood sample from each doe after the collar was removed from the does. Then each animal was measured for girth and length from nose to tail. Everyone on the crew had a specific job making it possible to take and record multiple measurements and samples at once to finish quickly.

The GPS collars that the deer have been long wearing

The GPS collars that the deer have been long wearing were removed and final sets of data collected on Dec. 16, after a roughly three year project studying the heard living west of Kaycee. The research team collecting data included people from local Game and Fish, the BLM, the state veterinary lab and a team of students and faculty from the University of Wyoming.

Kevin Monteith helps guide a doe up

University of Wyoming associate professor Kevin Monteith helps guide a doe up as she is released on the edge of the base site on Dec. 16, near Mayoworth. Each animal receives a small sedative and pain killer so as to prevent stress and pain while the team takes their samples. The sedative is intentionally left small enough to allow the animal to maintain strength and movement for a clean release that allows immediate, safe travel.

The collars also notified Game and Fish if the deer wearing a collar died. From there, Game and Fish employees retrieved the carcass, which was then sent to Jennifer Malmberg, pathologist at the Wyoming State Vet Lab and an assistant professor in veterinary sciences at the University of Wyoming, who would determine the cause of mortality.

“Part of this study is to try to get to the bottom of why that is, what is taking these deer out of the population so quickly,” Malmberg said. “So far, we found a lot of chronic wasting disease, some winter kills, some starvation type of issues. And then this year, we also had viral hemorrhagic disease.”

Stewart said that mortality rates were higher than expected, which could be a concern for herd productivity and management.

This kind of research — and the subsequent ability to make science-based management decisions — has only come about in the past 10 to 20 years, Thiele said.

“It was surreal when we finally collared the deer and got going,” he said. “We certainly have had some variation in precipitation over that (three years), and whether that will show in the body condition on some of these deer or not, I don't know. Research tends to answer some questions but always generates more, so there will be questions we don’t have answers for.”

Stewart said that regional biologists learn a lot about the big-game herds they manage through annual survey work, general field time, habitat projects, population modeling, public contacts, harvest surveys and hunting seasons. Partnering with researchers can fill in the gaps for field managers to make more informed management decisions.

“This type of work can help us with immediate decision-making, such as setting annual hunting seasons, as well as address longer-term resource management questions and concerns,” Stewart said.

Once biologists and researchers analyze the data, the department will host public meetings in Kaycee and Buffalo to share the results and to discuss management options, Stewart said.

“We want the data to help inform us about the most immediate concerns for these deer so our management decisions are effective and rooted in sound science,” Stewart said.

Katie Luukkonen observes and guides another state lab

Katie Luukkonen, a senior laboratory scientist with Wyoming Game and Fish, observes and guides another state lab representative in taking a rectal sample from one of the does on Dec. 16.

The research team worked from two different base camps on their final day

The research team worked from two different base camps on their final day of data collection, relying on a helicopter team to locate, capture and bring the does back to the given base camp, this one tucked against the red wall in Barnum. The deer are carried by helicopter in bags with a blindfold to keep them calm and still during the short flight. Most deer are released on the ground after data is collected but a few are flown back to their pickup location.

To help keep the deer calm and still their eyes

To help keep the deer calm and still their eyes are covered with a face mask and their feet are bound with a leather belt of sorts on Dec. 16. Neither causes pain but helps prevent the deer from getting scared or from making dangerous movements that could hurt themselves and the researchers.

Representatives from the state veterinary lab took rectal samples

Representatives from the state veterinary lab took rectal samples from each doe that will be used to test for CWD after collection on Thursday starting near Mayoworth. The test serves as a monitor for the mule deer herd to try to predict the prominence of chronic wasting disease.

Radio, GPS collars were used to track and observe the deer over the course of the study

Radio, GPS collars were used to track and observe the deer over the course of the study, and were finally removed during the final data collection day on Dec. 16 starting near Mayoworth and finishing just south of Barnum. The study itself included a total of 70 deer, 48 of which were captured for the last time to have collars removed and data collected during the week of Dec. 16.

Most deer were released on the spot after all samples and measurements

Most deer were released on the spot after all samples and measurements were taken on Dec. 16 next to the Red Wall near Barnum. However, a few deer were picked up far enough away from the base site that they were flown back out to their pickup location at the end.

 

Alex joined the Bulletin in March 2021 and covers health care, energy and natural resources. Reach out with ideas or comments at alex@buffalobulletin.com.

Photojournalist

Jessi Dodge joined the Bulletin as a photojournalist and a Report for America corp member in 2020. If you have ideas or comments, reach out at jessi@buffalobulletin.com.

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