Hopefully by next spring dozens of deer will be wearing high-tech tracking collars as they trot about central and western Kansas.
Those deer, with global positioning system tracking collars, will be part of the most comprehensive deer study in the state, said Levi Jaster, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism big program coordinator.
“Some of our biggest goals will be to see what kinds of habitats the deer prefer. Also, establish survival rates, and the causes of mortality, of adult mule deer and whitetails,” said Jaster, a Missouri native who has had the job a few months. “We want to know how many are dying from what causes. That includes mortality from hunting, but also beyond just hunting. We’d like to know what impact things like deer/vehicle collisions have on populations, and as much as we can about predator mortality on all kinds of deer.”
The study hopes to shed light on the fawning process, hopefully showing biologists the kinds of habitat does prefer to use when they are having fawns. Tracking collars placed on newborn fawns could be especially informative as Jaster and others try to learn what it takes to get a fawn from birth to a mature, reproducing deer.
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Mostly funded by excise tax
The project will be conducted by Wildlife and Parks and Kansas State University. K-State students will help do much of the research. Both are donating funds to the project.
Jaster said cost of the research is “currently north of a couple of million dollars.” Much will come from federal excise taxes paid on hunting and shooting supplies.
Those funds can only be used for programs that benefit wildlife species that can be hunted, and to provide more hunting and target shooting opportunites. Wildlife and Parks generally has to provide around 25 percent in matching funds, and has used the excise tax funding for things like the popular Walk-In Hunting Area program and constructing several new target ranges on state lands.
The Kansas Bowhunters Association donated $5,000 to the project Thursday at a Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Commission meeting.
“We’ve always been about conservation, and a lot of our members are concerned about the decline of mule deer in Kansas,” said Bob Griffin, KBA president. “We were already discussing what we might be able to do to help mule deer before we heard about the study, so when we heard about it we wanted to do all we could to help possibly make a difference.”
Griffin thinks the $5,000 donation is the largest his group has ever given to a conservation project at once. He pointed out that Wildlife and Parks will use the donation as matching money for more federal excise tax funds.
“That really means our $5,000 turns into $20,000 for the research project,” said Griffin. “That makes our donation even more important.”
Both whitetail and mule deer
Funding was just approved just a few weeks ago, so Jaster said some of the plans are still being set. He’s not sure how many deer will be fitted with tracking devices. The project is slated for at least three years.
Current plans are for two study areas. One will be where mule deer and whitetails have strong populations. The other where whitetails are doing well, but the mule deer population is smaller and/or struggling.
As recently as 30 years ago, mule deer were common over most of central and western Kansas. Even into the early 1990s they made up a significant part of the deer population as close to Wichita as around Medicine Lodge. Now, they’re rare in those same areas. Nationally, nearly all states with mule deer have experienced population declines.
A series of public meetings at several locations in central and western Kansas will be held to educate the public and solicit cooperation from private landowners. Those locations and dates have yet to get set.
Jaster predicts the deer will be captured in late winter, when their actions won’t impact hunters because all deer seasons are closed, and should have limited effect on ranching and farming activities.
It’s also a time of year when deer are often concentrated around good food sources and are easiest to see because most tall cover has been knocked down.
High-tech capture and collars
Specialized crews will be hired to capture the deer with net-gunning from helicopters. Jaster said it’s a widely used capture tactic with a low mortality rate and lets biologists select specific deer for the study.
“If you’re using traps, you may keep getting the same kinds of deer, (like young bucks) over and over,” said Jaster. “It’s important we get the mixture that we need.”
Most of the deer will be fitted with GPS collars that send coordinates to a satellite at pre-set intervals. Biologists will get emails when a coordinate is entered.
Jaster said the GPS collars are superior to traditional tracking collars that require a telemetry unit in the field to locate the deer. As well as more accurate, with coordinates available at about any time, it also has less impact on the area where the deer are living because researchers aren’t moving around.
Captured does will be checked with portable ultra-sound units for pregnancies. Jaster said most pregnant does will have a seperate tracking device inserted vaginally. It will be expelled when she gives birth. A few hours later biologists will place a tracking device on the newborn fawn.
Hunters will not be able to get exact locations of deer from researchers, but Jaster wants them to be part of the survey.
“Once we have the deer marked, we want hunters to treat them just like every deer out there,” he said. “Hunting mortality, and how deer react to hunting pressure, are important parts of the study. If someone would shoot the deer without the collar, they should shoot it if it is wearing a collar. As much as we can, we want to keep hunters involved. Studies like this can have a huge bearing on them, eventually.”