What's Killing Your Deer?

Beginning in the early 1990s hunters in Upper Michigan began to see fewer and fewer deer. The area consists of mostly big timber and is known for having tough winters. Deer densities were never outrageously high there, but now hunters were going entire seasons without seeing a deer. Photo: Lacey Kreinesieck
In fact, the numbers are alarming. From 1990 to 1999 about 571,500 deer were harvested and checked by hunters during the gun season. From 2000 to 2009 about 420,000 deer were taken and checked during the gun season. That's a 26 percent decrease from one decade to the next. What happened? Photo: Nathan Svoboda
During the beginning of the deer population slide, gray wolves began to reestablish themselves in the UP. According to the DNR, the wolf population went from just a handful in the early 90s to more than 200 wolves in 2000. Photo: Michigan DNR
For most of the local hunters the answer to the missing deer riddle was easy: wolves ate them all. Photo: Lacey Kreinesieck
But as wildlife biologists in Montana and Idaho were screaming about wolves devastating big-game populations, the Michigan DNR held back. Even now that the wolf population in Upper Michigan has reached 550 animals (about the same as Montana), most Michigan state biologists refuse to fully blame the wolf for deer herd declines (however the agency does strongly believe wolves should be delisted). Most say that harsh winters and a decrease in timber harvest in the region have hurt deer herds more than the wolves have. But are they right?
DECIPHERING THE DEER MYSTERY
Dr. Jerrold Belant, Dr. Dean Beyer and their research team are working to figure that out. Belant, an associate professor at Mississippi State University and Beyer, a research wildlife biologist with the DNR, have launched an in-depth long-range research project that is studying whitetail mortality in a 350-square mile stretch of mixed forests and agricultural lands in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Their main goal is to find out how doe and fawn survival rates (the cornerstones of deer population), are affected by predation, winter weather and habitat condition. Pictured here is PHD student Nathan Svoboda. Photo: Heather Stricker
They've taken a two-part approach in their research. Svoboda traps and tracks the four main natural whitetail predators in the region: wolves, coyotes, bears and bobcats. Fellow researcher, Jared Duquette, traps and radio collars whitetails. He keeps data on fawns, yearlings and adult deer. In total, he has mortality data for 57 collared adult deer and 44 fawns. Photo: Nathan Svoboda
The team has been at it since 2009 and their initial findings are surprising. Duquette's initial data set runs from Jan. 1, 2009 through Aug. 31, 2010. For fawn deaths the numbers read like this: coyotes 13, bobcats 9, unknown predators 5, black bears 2, wolves 2, bald eagle 1. Photo: Jared Duquette
For adult deer mortality, wolves made more of a dent but not by much: coyotes killed 6, wolves 3, bears 2, drowning killed 2 and a vehicle collision killed 1. Keep in mind that this data is only for the radio collared deer in the study area. Photo: Nathan Svoboda
Svoboda's initial predator tracking data from 2009 told a similar story about wolves killing fawns. Of the predators Svoboda had collared, he found that bobcats killed 13 fawns, coyotes killed 3, bears killed 1 and wolves killed 1. This data was only taken from May through August. Photo: Heather Stricker
He gathered these statistics by using a GPS tracking device that gives off a signal every 15 minutes. Svoboda radio collars a predator and then follows it on the GPS. If the predator stays in one area for a prolonged period of time, Svoboda will head to the site with a dog to look for a kill. He waits to visit the site after the predator has moved on, to not disrupt its natural behavior. Photo: Nathan Svoboda
One wild card with wolves, is that it's possible for a wolf to devour an entire fawn and leave little or no trace. Consequently, this data would never be recorded in the study because there would be little evidence of a kill. But so goes the life of a field researcher. Photo: Mike Olsen
Svoboda knows that this initial data is not the solution to predator and deer management, in fact he says the study is planned to continue for at least another 10 years. There needs to be a far greater sample size before there is a clear takeaway message, but the numbers at least hint that wolves may not be the great destroyers of deer herds that some people paint them to be. Photo: Nathan Svoboda
There are at least 11 wolves, in two different packs, living in the study area. Each year the research team is usually able to catch and collar one or two wolves, but the idea is to get at least one wolf from each pack. Photo: Lacey Kreinesieck
GETTING SCIENCE INTO THE DEBATE
The wolf debate has grown venomous around the country. The abbreviated version of the current dilemma goes something like this: Hunters see less game in their hunting area and believe wolves are the problem. Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're not. When they bring their issues to a state wildlife agency they feel like they're either being ignored or deceived. Photo: Lacey Kreinesieck
Cash strapped wildlife agencies are forced to balance the needs of hunters and the needs of the rest of the general public, which generally has a limited understanding of wildlife management. They have to do this while trying to look good in front of the media and please the state politicians who run the show. Not to mention that they've been handcuffed by the Endangered Species Act. However this could change soon (read more about wolf delisting here). On top of it all, animal rights advocates and their high-powered lawyers try to switch the argument from a scientific debate to an emotional one. If that doesn't work, they look for loopholes in laws while ignoring scientific recommendations at every turn. Photo: Lacey Kreinesieck
Svoboda and the team have had to conduct their research in the middle of this environment and hope that people will take the time to stop and listen. For the most part, they've had pretty good luck.
"The landowners have been incredibly supportive and cooperative," Svoboda says. "They're interested in seeing what our results are." Photo: Heather Stricker
The team has made a big effort to reach out to the public through PR campaigns and seminars. A main part of their job is to get the public to understand the purpose of their research. "People are starting to listen to what we say," Svoboda says. Photo: Nathan Svoboda
It helps that the study is being run out of Mississippi State University, a third party of sorts. However, the research team is working closely with the Michigan DNR. Photo: Heather Stricker
Also, the majority of the funding for the project is coming from Safari Club International, the Safari Club International-Michigan Involvement committee and the Safari Club International-Northwoods Chapter. SCI is an organization for hunters, by hunters. Photo: Nathan Svoboda
Svoboda is a deer and duck hunter. And as you can see from the photos, his team is not made up of a bunch of tree huggers from the city. Photo: Mike Olsen
Despite his best efforts, Svoboda has run into some road blocks. A poacher killed one of the collared wolves and another killed one of the collared deer. Also, some people have been less than receptive to the initial data. "On some of our preliminary data … I don't think heckling is the right word, but we've already got some flack for that," Svoboda says. Photo: Lacey Kreinesieck
RESEARCH BY THE NUMBERS
In a fairly short period of time the research team has been able to record incredible amounts of data. Here are there numbers: -As of March 2011, the team handled 52 black bears (16 cubs, 9 yearlings, 27 adults), 6 bobcats, 23 coyotes, and 7 wolves. Photo: Mike Olsen
-The team captured 230 deer and had 103 recaptures during three winter trapping seasons. Captures included 100 pregnant adult and yearling does which were radio-collared and tagged. Photo: Mike Olsen
-They investigated 63 adult and yearling deer mortalities and 92 fawn mortalities. Photo: Heather Stricker
-In 2009-2010, the team collected 894 scat samples consisting of 334 bear scats, 39 bobcat scats, 288 coyote scats, 133 wolf scats and 100 unknown scats.
- During 2 fall sessions of camera surveys 14,908 images were taken from 55 camera sites.
WHAT IT MEANS
Does this research mean that wolves aren't a big factor when it comes to deer populations? No ... Photo: Nathan Svoboda
Many biologists work off of the estimate that an average wolf kills more than 20 adult deer each year (this fluctuates depending on a variety of factors). If you extrapolate that out in the UP, then the more than 500 wolves kill at least 10,000 deer each year. That's far from scientific, but it gives you an idea. To put it in perspective, hunters in the UP harvested and checked about 25,000 deer during the firearm season in 2009. Photo: Nathan Svoboda
If anything, the initial data from this study shows that the formula to deer population is a complex one. There have been many studies on how harsh winters affect deer, there have been studies on how predators affect deer and there have been studies on how food supply and cover affect deer. But there is very little research on how these three factors in combination affect deer. Photo: Heather Stricker
And the variables are endless. For example harsh winters typically weaken deer and make them more vulnerable to predators, especially wolves and coyotes. But how many of those deer would have died anyway if a wolf didn't finish them off? Also it's sometimes difficult to differentiate a deer that was killed by the environment and was scavenged from a deer that was actually killed by predators. Photo: Nathan Svoboda
The problem is that scientific data takes years to compile and it's likely that no real conclusions will surface from this study for a decade. However public opinion, especially among hunters, develops much quicker.
Only time will tell what will happen next with wolf and big-game management, but sweeping changes are likely to happen before Svoboda and the research team get a chance to finish their work. The environmental groups that sued to keep wolves on the Endangered Species List recently proposed a settlement in court and now all that is keeping wolves from being delisted in Montana and Idaho is approval from a federal judge (however it is the same judge that shot down wolf hunts in the past). Wolves would still be listed as endangered in Wyoming until the state develops a wolf management plan that U.S. FWS deems acceptable. There's a strong possiblity that hunters will finally get their long-awaited wolf hunt next fall. Photo: Lacey Kreinesieck
In the Midwest, Svoboda will continue his research and an almost identical study is set to launch in northern Wisconsin soon. Meanwhile, the wolf war wages on. Photo: Nathan Svoboda
See the rest of Svoboda's photos here and visit the team's website. Photo: Mike Olsen
Photo: Mike Olsen
Photo: Mike Olsen
Photo: Mike Olsen
Photo: Mike Olsen
Photo: Mike Olsen
Photo: Mike Olsen

Early data from a research study in Upper Michigan hints that wolves might not be the biggest deer killers.