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Southwest Wisconsin CWD, Deer & Predator Study Newsletter

Issue 2: August 30, 2017

Welcome to Field Notes, the newsletter of the Southwest Wisconsin CWD, Deer, and Predator Study. Each month we’ll bring you stories and findings from the field to keep you informed about our progress. This initiative stems from Governor Walker’s commitment to reevaluating chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin. Our goal is to comprehensively examine factors that could impact deer survival and deer population growth in southern Wisconsin. Those include chronic wasting disease, predation, habitat suitability and hunter harvest.

Learn more about our study design by visiting our website.

91 fawns collared in first field season

Photo Credit: Caitlin Henning

“Do we have permission here?” asked Katie Allen, a DNR research technician, with some urgency as she slowed down our van and pulled over to the shoulder, hugging the wall of a narrow valley a few miles from Highway 23. What she meant was, Do we know who owns the land in front of us, and do we have permission to enter.

Before she could find the answer, three vans of DNR staff and public volunteers had piled out onto the roadside to watch something extraordinary. A doe and a coyote were running across the valley floor in broad daylight. But it wasn’t the coyote giving chase. The doe bucked and charged headlong at her predator, chasing it across the field and into the tree line on the far side of the valley, a few hundred yards in front of us.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Henning

“She must have a fawn with her,” said Mike Watt, a reserach scientist with the DNR, “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

While Katie made phone calls, the group began tittering back and forth about whether we would be able to cross the fence line. Our mission that morning was to find fawns, as many as possible, and radio collar them for the CWD, Deer and Predator Study. Does drop their fawns during a brief window each spring, and for 18 days in late May and early June, search crews left the DNR Dodgeville office each morning and afternoon in search of fawns.

A few moments later, the landowner drove past and stopped to talk. “Sure,” he said, “you’re welcome to go in there.” When asked if he’d like to join us, he laughed, “No way. Everything you see is marsh right there.”

Photo Credit: Caitlin Henning

With the lure of a fawn so close in front of us, the prospect of soggy boots couldn’t stop us. We went in, shimmying under the barbed wire fence. In a search line, we plodded through the reeded marsh and splashed across a stream bank to the site of the chase. There was no fawn. By the time we arrived, it was already well hidden in the grass or possibly off in the woods.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Henning

With several more scheduled properties to search that day, we quickly headed back to the vans and moved on, momentarily disappointed but not discouraged. Fawns are so naturally well camouflaged that Dan Storm, the DNR’s Deer and Elk Ecologist, estimates that crews walk past most of them in their search. “That’s why we need so many volunteers out here,” he explained. It’s a sheer numbers game in an all-terrain Easter egg hunt for a prize tailor-made not to be found.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Henning

For the first few days of its life, a fawn’s best strategy for survival is to lie still in deep grass or brush cover. With the right cover, their tawny fur and spots give them excellent protection from predators as well as search crews.

To find the fawns, DNR staff and volunteers lined up arm-length apart and walk straight ahead, looking for hidden fawns as they go. Working the search line together, DNR staff and volunteers hiked through pastures, thickets, wetlands and woods with gloves on, ready to encounter a fawn with every step. With more volunteers, our lines become wider, covering more ground with each pass.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Henning

The signal when finding a fawn is, appropriately, to shout out, “Fawn!” to the rest of the group. The DNR crew then quickly gathers around, counting on the fawn’s instinctive defenses to keep it perfectly still. The first crew member to arrive quickly slips a blindfold over the fawn’s eyes to reduce stress. In the span of a few minutes, DNR staffers weigh the fawn and take a genetic sample from its ear. They then ear tag and slip on a radio collar, double checking the frequency before removing the blindfold and releasing the fawn.

The radio collars are sewn with pleats that pop open one by one as the fawn grows. Around the fawn’s first birthday, the last pleat will pop, and the collar will fall away.

All told, we collared 91 fawns, made possible with the help of 186 volunteers.

Spring 2017 Fawn Collaring Numbers
East West Total
Collared 52 39 91

Photo Credit: Caitlin Henning

Now that this year’s collaring is over, crews scan the radio waves each day checking the status of each fawn’s unique radio frequency. If the fawn is alive, the collar sends out a slow pulse signal. If it hasn’t moved for more than six hours, the pulse quickens, letting the field crew know to search for the fawn and investigate its cause of death.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Henning

Each collared fawn helps tell the story of herd health. One of the central questions of this study is to understand what factors drive deer mortality. One aspect we’re interested in is the survival of newborn deerfrom time of birth to early fall. Newborns are particularly vulnerable, and their survival strongly influences recruitment. Year after year, knowing how many fawns in our sample reach recruitment will tell us a lot about the overall herd’s size and vitality.

We will continue collecting fawn data for the next three years. If you’re interested in volunteering next year, let us know by clicking this link. You will receive a reminder email when sign-up opens again in March.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Henning

Using GPS to understand animal behavior

Photo Credit: Jerry Davis

In the early hours of May 22, collared button buck No. 24213 struck out south from his natal range, the home territory where he was born and weaned. He covered only about a mile of ground before choosing his new home turf. Fifteen days prior, on May 7, another button buck, number No. 24201, began moving east from his own natal range. He walked for three days, eventually turning northeast in search of his new home. He chose a patch of woods and open fields more than 10 miles northeast from his birthplace. He made two sorties out from his new range, one north and one south, before settling into a routine.

We know that male deer leave their natal ranges around their first birthdays or shortly thereafter during the following rut. Before GPS collars became available, researchers relied on radio telemetry to track deer movements.

We checked on radio collared deer one at a time, sending out field crews to scan for their collar signals. If a deer was on the other side of a hill or had moved too far in the days since its last ping, we had no way of knowing where it had gone or why, or if it was even still alive. Even in the best conditions, we could only estimate a deer’s location.

Buck No. 24213 moved south from his natal range, settling just over a mile from where he began a day earlier.

This limited picture of deer behavior narrowed the types of research questions we could ask with radio technology. In the past we would notice that a deer had left its natal range. After driving back roads with our telemetry equipment, we would (hopefully) find its new spot, never knowing what happened in between.

The path of buck No. 24201. He set out from his natal range in the southwest of the photo and moved northeast to his new home range over the course of three days.

With radio telemetry, we could see the big pictue of deer behavior. For example, we knew that male deer disperse from their mothers’ ranges when they are about a year old. Now with GPS collars, we can monitor deer remotely, almost in real time.

This wealth of location data allows us to study the fine-grained details of deer behavior. For example, how do deer behave just before and during their dispersal from natal ranges? Do male deer make small exploratory movements before setting out? How does the landscape influence how far deer will move? Do they take a straight path, or do they search around before settling in one spot? What do they look for in their new home range, and do they immediately settle there? Or do they search around before choosing?

Beyond dispersal, GPS collars allow us broadly to understand how animals move and use the landscape. In our next newsletter, Part II of this article will look at how advances in GPS technology allow us to collar smaller animals, like bobcats, and learn about their elusive behavior.

Bucks No. 24213 and No. 24201 are just two examples of the many dispersals we’ll see over the course of this study, and they behaved very differently in their dispersals. As we observe more deer dispersing, we’ll be able to uncover patterns in their movement. But for now, we are content to marvel at some of the unique things these deer are showing us.

When can you learn about fawn collaring numbers? How about deer dispersal and fawn-to-doe ratios? check our communications calendar

Photo Credit: Jerry Davis

The Southwest Wisconsin CWD, Deer & Predator Study is a five-year project to study the health and mortality of whitetail deer in Wisconsin. As of August 2017, we still have not concluded our first year of study, and we will continue to amass data as time goes on. As the GPS maps in this newsletter’s article on buck dispersal shows, even individual deer can provide a large amount of data. But it’s only when taken together over time that these individual data points begin to paint a picture of population health and behavior.

Still, we want to share with you our progress and the data we find along the way. The newsletter will highlight our study’s design, the researchers and citizens who make this work possible and also our interim findings.

In the Annual Project Cycle below, you can see that we designed our communications calendar to line up with our field work calendar. Rather than ticking off every fawn collared, we will wait till the end of fawn collaring to share those numbers, giving you as big a piece of the overall data puzzle as we have at the time. Similarly, we will share hunting and non-hunting adult survival numbers after the new year.

Throughout the year, each newsletter will include a seasonal update, leading to our end-of year annual report.

  • Early Fall Seasonal Update (September - October): Includes information on fawn survival and the number of pre-hunting marked predators on the landscape.
  • Winter Seasonal Update (November - December): Includes information about non-hunting deer survival and updated predator collaring numbers.
  • Mid Winter Annual Report (January - February): Contains a summary of the previous year’s work, including collaring numbers for deer and predators, early observations and details of our field work. The annual report will also include fawn to doe ratio survey results, deer dispersal, updated predator collaring numbers, observations on deer mortality and predator cluster investigation descriptions.
  • Late Winter Update (March - April): Contains updates on winter deer and predator field work, including a more in-depth look at our study design.
  • Early Spring Seasonal Update (May - June): Includes winter collaring numbers for adult deer and predators as well as the CWD testing results for captured deer.
  • Summer Seasonal Update (July - August): Includes an account of fawn collaring numbers and an update on predator cluster investigations.

This newsletter is the primary source for updates on our findings, so please stay subscribed and tell others you think might be interested that this is the place to get the most recent news on the progress of the Southwest Wisconsin CWD, Deer & Predator Study.

Volunteer opportunity: Host a trail camaera with snapshot Wisconsin

Photo Credit: Snapshot Wisconsin

Landowners in Southwest Wisconsin get to see a trove of wildlife moving across their properties. Birdfeeders and tree lines are excellent places to spot for animals, and each season brings something new to observe. But have you ever wondered what goes on when you’re not looking? Or after dark? Maybe a pair of bucks has locked antlers in the rut, or an elusive bobcat has taken up residence under an outcropping. Turkeys and their poults, otters, coyotes, elk, bear and a bevy of other wildlife move across our Wisconsin landscape, often just beyond where the eye can see.

A DNR program called Snapshot Wisconsin is working to make this hidden wildlife visible to researchers and landowners by using trail cameras to monitor wildlife year-round. The cameras stand sentry for us in the woods, taking close-up, candid photographs to document our wildlife. With more than 600 volunteer landowners and 650 cameras on the landscape, the program has already captured more than 11 million photos of Wisconsin’s wildlife.

Photo Credit: Snapshot Wisconsin

Snapshot Wisconsin has been open to residents of Iowa County since 2016, and this summer it expanded its territory to include Grant and Dane Counties. As the Southwest WI CWD, Deer and Predator Study finishes its first year of field work, we’re partnering with Snapshot Wisconsin to expand our deer and predator monitoring. Trail cameras help DNR researchers better understand the wildlife populations and patterns within the study area. The deer and predators we aren’t able to trap, we may still be able to capture on camera. To do this, though, we need the help of landowners inside the study area.

Photo Credit: Snapshot Wisconsin

How it works

Volunteer landowners accepted to the Snapshot Wisconsin program receive free trail cameras and training on how to use them. Every three months or so, landowners need to check camera batteries and memory cards. A software program automatically removes all pictures of people, and landowners have a chance to go through all their pictures before sending them to Snapshot Wisconsin.

Photo Credit: Snapshot Wisconsin

Snapshot Wisconsin cameras take encrypted photos to protect the privacy of any people that may cross a trail cam’s path. Once the photos come to us, we remove all identifying information except the county name and load them into an online database called Zooniverse. Landowners and public volunteers from around the world log in to categorize the species they see in each photo.

While Wisconsin volunteers collect photos on the ground, NASA satellites take daily photos of the Wisconsin landscape as they pass overhead. Researchers use this micro-level data – the local, on-the-ground photographs – with the macro-level landscape images to better understand the health and distribution of our plant and animal wildlife.

How it helps

Our collaring goals for deer and predators are ambitious, but still we can only collar a small percentage of the population. Trail cameras are motion-activated to capture any animal that walks by, whether it has a collar or not. With a grid of trail cameras on the landscape, DNR researchers can use Snapshot Wisconsin data to help estimate the abundance and distribution of deer, bobcats and coyotes.

Photo Credit: Snapshot Wisconsin

How to apply

Snapshot Wisconsin is currently accepting applications from residents throughout Grant, Iowa and Dane Counties as well as many other locations across the state. Those within the CWD, Deer and Predator Study’s study boundary are especially encouraged to apply.

To begin the process, fill out the enrollment application. Susan Frett can answer your questions about the program, and you can sign up to receive Snapshot Wisconsin updates here.

Last revised: Thursday May 16 2019