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Mild winter may lead to recovery of deer herds

May 7, 2010
By Tim Kobasic

ESCANABA - Given the mild weather that put last winter to bed about a month early, we may very well be seeing the beginning of a deer population recovery in the Upper Peninsula.

Signs of activity will become more evident as fawning season approaches.

There are few people who follow deer conditions and seek as much knowledge as possible on the subject who don't recognize the names of John Ozoga, Bob Doepker and Mark Sargent. They are highly respected authorities on the science of wildlife management, especially related to whitetailed deer.

Together they compiled research information and in 1993, co-published DNR(E) Wildlife Division Report 3209 - The Ecology and Management of Whitetail Deer in Michigan.

First printed through the sponsorship of Safari Club International - Michigan Involvement Committee, the report still contains vital information as to the behavioral habits, social structure, and population dynamics of deer, and is one of the best reference guides found.

We have seen two of the last three winters take a major toll on deer populations across the UP. The majority of the Deer Management Units have hovered below quotas set by area habitat biologists and antlerless deer hunting has been shut down in all except a few.

It has gotten so bad a strong number of hunters are supporting further investigation into reducing harvest quotas to take pressure off the bucks and allow more age class advancement and their ability to breed with does and return a balanced ratio.

Additionally, the winters of 2007-08 and 2008-09 saw deep snow depths and long stretches of low temperatures across the peninsula that caused high stress on pregnant does and higher than normal fawn mortality in the spring birthing seasons.

At issue are weakened does that abort the fetus pre-term, or fawns born in such weakened condition they fail to thrive, some unable to suckle much less stand shortly after birth and not receiving enough nutrition to survive.

Immediate nursing is essential to fawns as the does' milk produced right after birth has essential antibodies necessary to resist disease until the fawns own immune system becomes functional.

There is also concern over the potential predation by coyotes, bobcats, bears and wolves. Some area beef and dairy farmers have noticed wolves closer to their cattle enclosures, especially those with recently born calves.

More definitive numbers are expected to come from part one of a three phase process that will cover nine years in all, studying predators, prey and fawn habitat by Mississippi State University and the MDNRE.

The winter of 2009-10 was one of the most mild in the last 20 years. Many areas of the UP saw lower than average snowfall depths and temperatures stayed very compatible for wintering deer.

According to the information in Report 3209, Deer Behavior - Fawn Rearing: "In Michigan, most experienced does give birth to fawns in late May or early June, following an approximate 200-day gestation period.

Inexperienced does fawning for their first time usually produce single fawns a few days after experienced does.

The process of "fawning" by does is not far different than the behavior of bucks as they come into the rutting season. Experienced does will first isolate themselves from the rest of the herd and most will become almost secretive and territorial.

Young does will follow suit, however they will more likely set up their exclusive fawning areas on the edge of their mothers territory and as crowding continues, there will be as much as a quarter mile distance established between fawning grounds.

This is also an important period that allows mother-fawn bonding. Any interruption can lead to abandonment and death of the fawn.

The spring turkey hunting season is nearly half over, and nearly 5,000 hunters have tags. Observations I've heard from those afield are the deer look healthy and about to shed winter coats.

Hunters, ATV enthusiasts, fishermen and anyone out for a walk, should be more observant for fawns and stay clear of fawning areas to reduce the potential for abandonment.

If anyone happens upon a fawn that appears to have been abandoned, it may very well have been placed there by the doe who is not far off and may be watching you. If found, its best chance of survival is to be left alone.

Apparently, mother nature has decided to give the deer a break and eased conditions enabling a start to the rebound of the general population. Our job is to complement her efforts and leave deer alone.

It is not only the right thing to do for the resource, it is also the law. Unless you have a permit to rehabilitate wildlife, you may not possess wild deer. Contact your local MDNRE office with any concerns you may have..

Keep in mind what we're experiencing this spring won't impact us much for improved hunting this fall, but will bring a higher number the following season, should conditions continue as there presently are.


Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations, Charter Communications and the Internet Saturday mornings.



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