Deer migration study underway

ESCANABA — The Discovering television show, airing every Monday evening on WLUC TV6 from Marquette, was started in 1981 by then field reporter Buck Levasseur. His creation came from doing bit reports for the station related to the outdoors, mostly about natural resources management. It grew to a stand alone program exploiting all that was available for discovering in the unique outdoors features, recreation and resource management of the U.P., thus the name.

Buck’s work grew the program to undeniably one of the best outdoors shows in the Great Lakes Region. Upon his retirement, Brian Whitens of Hermansville took over the show, adding his style of coverage. It continues to exploit the varying opportunities for outdoors recreation, and coverage of conservation programs taking place in the U.P.

I had the chance to watch last week’s show. It covered a deer migration study underway in four locations along the western U.P./Wisconsin boundary. The purpose of the study parallels that done three decades ago to better define the corridors deer traveled between winter and summer habitat. Then it was the second time such work had been undertaken where self-collaring tags had previously been used. Unfortunately the original study had a very low rate of return on data and was not a solid scientific information source. The next phase occurred in 1989 as the first major project undertaken by a newly formed conservation organization, UP Whitetails Association, Inc. (UPW), a non-profit club committed to reinvest their funds 100% related to the UP.

The project involved going out in the field at strategic locations to live trap, tag and release deer. The late Dick Aartila, biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), championed the program and UPW was the source of funding and participate in trap construction, training and then doing the work. Wildlife Technician (the late) Dan DeLisle, who worked with retired wildlife biologist and whtietailed deer research specialist John Ozoga at the Cusino Research Station to study deer. There they used a square mile enclosure to study resident varying deer habits which led to a compiled total analysis publication used to define the “Ecology and Management of Whitetailed Deer in Michigan” (MDNR Report #3209) written by Ozoga, biologists Bob Doepket and Mark Sargent.

I was a member of the first wave of field volunteers and went to the training sessions that taught how to safely handle trapped deer, perform some measurements, attach an ear tag and then release them safely back to the wild. We had to work the program 24/7, reset the traps and perform field repairs when necessary. We were mentored by MDNR staff, especially wildife technician Frank Short (now retired). The program ran for ten years and was very successful across the U.P. and yielded a never before obtained 37% return on data. It also involved the US Forest Service on national forest lands.

Previous studies indicated a relative short seasonal travel distance of U.P. deer. The trap-tag-release series showed that some deer traveled over 50 miles every year between winter and summer habitat complexes. In addition to being trained on deer handling, members of UPW refined the method of removing and then securing deer from the tap to minimize the down time of each animal, most lasting just over a minute or two. The results came to result in a less than a one percent mortality rate from the study, less than previous similar projects. It was a rustic atmosphere in remote locations and sometimes harsh elements. and achieved a greater appreciation of those professionals who do this kind of work day in and day out.

What I saw last week was a flashback to what we did three decades ago. In fact, I learned that some of the box traps used were actually those we built back then. They had been stored in Baraga and the local trades school students repaired those units and built additional traps needed to do the study.

I sat in my chair and blurted out directions to those handling the deer. My wife looked up from her knitting as a blurted out things like, “Keep those back legs together to protect the hips and pelvis!” They used the same initial handling sequence we did in securing the legs by straps and then tying front to rear while measures were taken.

It was hard to appreciate the handlers lengthy process where we had learned how to work a deer in similar fashion to a NASCAR pit crew. I also realized some of data being collected are far more sophisticated than what we did and could easily account for the additional handling time needed.

By coincidence, this week I had the opportunity to speak with Al Ettenhofer, founder and current central committee chairman of the eight chapters of UPW, and Buck LeVasseur from Discovering. We all worked together on the first tagging study for the decade it ran. It was amusing to hear all three of us were doing arm-chair quarterbacking while viewing the show.

We’ve seen seen big changes to habitat since the first tagging project was done and there has never been an analysis of deer movement to and from Wisconsin. It will certainly show how migration patterns have changed and may be a link to the transmission of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) into Michigan as it is prevalent in areas just thirty miles outside the UP.

It is more efficient in that it utilizes GPS collaring that will issue data on movement twice each day. Upon completion the study will once again move across the total UP and will, for the first time, be used in the Lower Peninsula to better understand deer movement patterns.

It is really awarding to think what is taking place today is another example of the hands-on heritage in conservation that once again originated right here in the U.P.

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

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