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Southwest Wisconsin CWD, Deer & Predator Study Newsletter

Issue 1: May, 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.

May fawning - Volunteers needed!

Fawning season is approaching, and researchers will rely on plenty of volunteer help to collar newborn fawns. Most fawns are born between the last week of May and the first week of June, and we will depend on the contribution of volunteers to reach our goal of 100 fawns collared.

Volunteers will join DNR search teams in Grant, Iowa and Dane Counties. Each day, we will comb targeted fawning areas – on foot – for a few hours to find newborns hidden in grassy fields and wooded underbrush. Once found, fawns are fitted with expandable radio collars that will monitor their movements and survival during their first year of life. The collars are designed to expand as the deer grows and eventually drop off as the animal reaches its first birthday.

This will be the first fawn capture of the Southwest Wisconsin CWD, Deer and Predator Study. We collar fawns to help estimate recruitment rates, the proportion of fawns that survive to reproduce. Recruitment is a primary influence in deer population growth. Predators can affect fawn survival, as can malnutrition, vehicle collisions and other underlying environmental influences. Our study will look at how all these factors interact to affect recruitment and deer population health.

Fawn collaring is very laborintensive, and volunteers are critical to accomplishing our study goals. Volunteers may be as involved as they choose in the process, handling and helping project staff to weigh and collar the fawns. This is also a great opportunity to take photos and spot other wildlife in the area.

Anyone over the age of 12 may participate, though minors under 18 must have an adult accompany them. Even those who don’t join the fawn search can get involved in the study by notifying us if they see a fawn in the study area.

Want to volunteer with the fawn capture? Sign up online or by calling (608) 935-1940.

Deer collaring CWD results available as first capture season closes

Photo Credit: Robert Rolley

From early January through the first week of April, field technicians have been checking traps daily and, weather permitting, sitting drop nets every night to collar white-tailed deer across portions of Grant, Iowa and Dane Counties. They’ve been working to gather data that will help the DNR better understand how chronic wasting disease, predators and environmental factors interact to affect deer health.

The Southwest Wisconsin CWD, Deer and Predator Study’s first field season launched in the winter of 2017 as an initiative of the Governor to research the effects of chronic wasting disease on Wisconsin’s deer. Across the country, previous studies have looked independently at the effects of either CWD or predators on deer. Some of those studies also incorporate environmental factors as well. The Southwest Wisconsin CWD, Deer and Predator Study is the first of its kind because it considers all of these major drivers of deer mortality as well as hunter harvest and car impact mortalities.

The Study Area

The research area covers private and public land in portions of Grant, Iowa and Dane Counties between the Wisconsin River and Highway 18. A buffer between Highways 80 and 130 separates the western study area from the eastern study area. The terrain and habitat is similar in both study areas. The only major difference is the prevalence of CWD. Prevalence is low in the western study area and high in the east.

By having similar study areas, “we can maximize the contrast with chronic wasting disease while minimizing the differences in terms of area and habitat,” said Dan Storm, ungulate research ecologist for the DNR.

The crew used net traps, box traps, drop nets and occasionally dart guns to capture and collar 138 deer, 89 in the east and 49 in the west.

Photo Credit: Robert Rolley

The warm weather during the winter trapping season presented a challenge for researchers. “For deer trapping, you want cold and you want snow,” said Storm. “When it’s cold, the deer want the corn bait that much more. Snow covers a lot of their food and they’re much more eager to come to bait.”

Warm weather does more than keep deer away. Storm explained, “If you have soft, muddy ground, physically getting to the trapping spot can be difficult. So during warm spells this winter, we had to shut the trap lines down. Having really warm temperatures is just an absolute deal breaker on every front.”

Rabbits and squirrels proved to be another setback for the field crew, especially in the western study area. “They’ll go in, they’ll trigger the traps,” Storm said, “and then they’ll chew their way out.”

Near the beginning of March, southwest Wisconsin felt a cold snap, and the crew’s luck changed. With a few inches of snow and freezing temperatures, deer began to come to bait. In the month of March, field technicians captured more than half of the 138 deer collared all season.

Captured deer are sedated and fitted with a GPS tracking collar. Field crew members then perform a rectal biopsy to test for CWD and extract a tooth from adults to measure their age. All of the deer are weighed, and adult does receive an ultrasound to check for fawns.

Final Winter 2017 Deer Collaring Results
Age Class East West Total
Female >2yrs 23 9 32
20mo 10 3 13
8mo 17 12 29
Male >2yrs 3 6 9
20mo 7 3 10
8mo 29 16 45
Total - 89 49 138

Click here [LINK] to read our article on predator trapping results.

CWD testing and results

The Study is using an experimental test for CWD that requires only a small tissue sample from the deer’s rectum. Researchers are able to carry out the tissue sampling in the field while the deer is under sedation. Previous live testing depended on tonsil sampling, which was much more complicated to perform and more invasive for the deer.

In the table below are the results of CWD testing in collared deer from our first trapping season. CWD test results are one piece of the puzzle in understanding CWD infection in the study areas. Researchers will be testing most of the collared deer again, either when they die or if they are recaptured in future winter trapping seasons. To make retesting possible, researchers also rely on CWD surveillance in hunter-harvested deer. Taken together, this data will provide a robust picture of CWD infection rates. There were eight deer, not included in this table, with insufficient biopsy material for testing.

Winter 2017 CWD Test Results by Age and Sex in the East and West Study Areas
Age Class Negative Positive Total
East Female >2yrs 17 3 20
20mo 11 1 12
8mo 15 0 15
Male >2yrs 3 0 3
20mo 4 3 7
8mo 26 1 27
West Female >2yrs 2 2 4
20mo 1 1 2
8mo 10 0 10
Male >2yrs 4 0 4
20mo 3 0 3
8mo 14 1 15
Total - - 110 12 122

Thank you!

The DNR wishes to thank the landowners and volunteers who shared their land and their time to make this work possible. We are also grateful to our tireless field crew for their hard work each day during trapping season.

First predator trapping season ends

This winter, the Southwest Wisconsin CWD, Deer and Predator Study crew placed 60 cable restraints, foothold live-restraining traps and cage traps in the study area thanks to nine volunteer landowners. The predator crew, landowners and other volunteers checked each trap daily in the hopes of catching a coyote or caging a bobcat.

Despite their effort, the extreme weather variability this winter degraded trapping conditions. In this first trapping season, the study crew collared seven coyotes and seven bobcats, short of the project goal of 30 animals of each species.

The animals are difficult to track without snow on the ground. Tracking isn’t the only challenge brought on by rising temperatures. Raccoons and opossums normally sleep through the winter, but they come out to forage in the balmy weather. Early in the season, the crew tried using beaver meat to bait the predators, but many mornings they set out to find raccoons and other scavengers waiting in their traps.

The crew switched to baiting with urine and liquid scents. This helped keep other animals away, but it’s not as alluring as beaver meat to a bobcat.

“Up north you get a lot more steady weather,” explained Nick Forman, the study’s predator coordinator. “It gets cold, and it stays cold. It snows, and snow stays on the ground. Whereas down here with the variability in weather, it’s difficult to trap the whole season through because the freeze-thaw cycle prevents the traps from working properly.”

The table below shows the results of the 2017 trapping season. Of the eight bobcats collared, three subsequently died from vehicle strikes. Two of the seven coyotes were harvested by local trappers.

Final Winter 2017 Predator Collaring Results
Capture Type Total
Bobcat Collared 7
Earmarked 2
Mortalities (vehicle) 3
Coyote Collared 7
Earmarked 3
Mortalities (harvest) 2

“The first year of any trapping study can be a challenge,” said Forman. Project staff work with landowners to learn the movements of bobcats and coyotes. Through skilled trial and error, the crew refines its trapping to increase their catch.

Forman felt optimistic about the first year, remembering his work on the northern bobcat study when researchers collared only seven cats in the first year of the study. “For our first year, we matched the northern study,” Forman said, “In its second year, the northern study collared 30 bobcats, followed by 18 in year three.”

Volunteer landowner profile: Gary Grunow hopes to learn how CWD affects deer on his land

On a Saturday morning in early April, a crew of friends, family and neighbors stood on a clearing of CRP grassland, hoping the sun had warmed enough moisture out of the vegetation to let it ignite. For more than an hour they worked with drip torches, trying to spark last year’s foliage, but a week of rain had left the undergrowth soggy. A few clumps of grass would steam and smoulder before burning out. Grunow consulted with his crew to decide whether it was worth staying another half hour. The crew began to talk about calling it a day as they walked back to their UTVs.

With one last effort, the fire took hold of the field. After this initial success, the crew jumped into their UTVs and hurried to the next CRP field. As the morning wore on, the grass began to catch more quickly. Volunteers brought out rubber fire mops to control the edge of the burn and prevent it from spreading out of bounds. “We’re creating the vegetation habitat and taking care of the timber and planting more CRP areas that create different buffer zones for the deer,” Grunow explained.

The Grunow property stretches out over 1,000 acres, just west of Dodgeville down Highway 18. When he bought this land 14 years ago, Grunow’s goal was to manage the land to sustain a healthy deer herd. “I wanted to grow this massive deer on my own over the years,” he said, “and see if I could get to the magical 200-inch barrier with a buck, just by taking care of the land in the very best way you could.”

Grunow practices family medicine in Dodgeville, and he takes off every Thursday so he can to work his farm. “It takes me 14 hours just to mow the field edges in the summer,” he said. That’s why he relies on the help of his friends and neighbors who volunteer their labor in exchange for hunting privileges on his land. During deer season, Grunow goes out on his farm with groups of beginner hunters, often teens and young adults, to teach them to hunt. He enjoys teaching the next generation of hunters, and he makes sure they’re mindful of the effort that goes into each deer on his land. “My passion is bow hunting,” he said, “I love getting the kids out here to show them what we do, how we take care of the deer, the land.’”

When Grunow learned about the Southwest CWD, Deer and Predator study, he knew he wanted to get involved. “I know I’ve got CWD in my area,” he said, “but I don’t know what the future of it’s going to be.”

After many years of work, Grunow had begun to see his hard work paying off. He strives to maintain an ideal habitat with a mix of woods and open grass along with food plots of corn and soy beans to keep the deer well fed. “When we first came out there was just a massive number of deer in here. We were shooting 50 and 60 does a year off the farm, and it was just a project. It was no fun,” he explained. “After a period of time we knocked the herd back. We were getting much better, older bucks on the farm. We’re getting less deer overall.”

In recent years, Grunow has noticed those large bucks become scarcer and scarcer: “We’ve shot some gigantic bucks off this farm. I mean deer I let go for five or six years, and when they start to go downhill I let my hunters shoot them.”

Now, he says, “What I’ve noticed is they’re not being replaced as rapidly as what they used to be. I see a lot of young deer in here. Lots of fawns, lots of yearlings, lots of two-year-olds. I just don’t see that three-, four-, five-, six-, seven-year-old buck coming through anymore despite the fact that we’re not shooting them.”

Grunow isn’t certain the reason for the changes he’s observed. He knows many factors can drive deer population, but he wonders to what extent CWD may play a role.

“I want something here for people in the future, for my family in the future, and I want to make something better overall,” he explained, “and I think this is a great project to learn from and to keep learning from as time goes along.”

Meet the crew: Nick Forman, predator coordinator

As a predator trapper, winter is the best time of year for Nick Forman, research scientist with the DNR and predator coordinator for the Southwest Wisconsin CWD, Deer and Predator Study. He spends the warm months deskbound, analyzing data. Once the temperatures drop low enough for trapping, though, he’s back outside.

From November to April, Forman spends most days in his blue Dodge Dakota crossing the back roads of Iowa and Grant Counties. He stops every few miles, hiking into the woods to check traps or stopping in to talk with volunteer landowners about predator activity. “We spend a lot of time on these properties following animal signs,” Forman says, “As you spend more and more days out here you start to pick up on more and more individual animals.”

Forman earned his master’s in wildlife ecology at Penn State, studying predators in the Midwest and as far away as Australia before moving to Wisconsin in 2015 when he joined the northern bobcat study out of Rhinelander. When the Governor commissioned the Southwest Wisconsin CWD, Deer and Predator Study, he joined on as the predator coordinator.

Forman enjoys the challenge of predator trapping. He and his team walk the trails and back woods, reading track marks over several days or weeks, adjusting traps until they’re set just right to bring the animal to the bait. “On one property,” says Forman, “we have a fairly large coyote. We’ve been seeing scat piles that are just gigantic and tracks on the road just below the trap.

We can get him to turn our direction but not come into any of the traps we’re setting. He’s a very wily coyote.”

Working with landowners and trappers is one of the best parts of the job for Forman. “Getting to connect with them,” Forman says, “and talk about our passions about wildlife, their passions about wildlife and getting everybody interested in learning more about what’s going on out here.”

Last revised: Thursday May 16 2019