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Mule deer research project well underway in Cache Creek area

Study is probably biggest of its kind ever undertaken in province
A mule deer tagged with a collar. (TJ Gooliaff - Fish and Wildlife Branch of FLNRORD)

If you’re out in the Bonaparte Plateau, you might see someone shooting a deer with a net from a helicopter.

It’s part of a mule deer study that’s currently in the second of its three-year course. The project looks to identify the effect of wildfire on mule deer habitat selection and population growth, and is also being conducted in the Boundary Region and West Okanagan. In the Bonaparte Plateau, where the Elephant Hill wildfire burned 192,000 hectares in 2017, the deer range from Cache Creek to Clinton and as far north as Lone Butte and Interlakes.

“We are looking at mechanisms that limit mule deer abundance in Southern British Columbia and it’s a big project, probably the biggest mule deer project to ever occur in this province,” says UBC Okanagan (UBCO) assistant professor Adam Ford.

They’re looking at where animals go, for habitat selection and migration corridors, as well as demography such as what the likelihood of survival is for an adult female and fawns. To do so, they’ve tried to collar 30 adult females in each area per year and 20 juveniles (six months old) in the winter.

Deer are often overlooked for larger, more charismatic, and threatened species, says Ford, but they’re relied on for a lot of reasons. They’re also an indicator species.

“If mule deer are doing well, it typically means that a lot of other species are thriving as well because they have the same type of habitat requirements and that’s really what we want to see here. How do we design a better habitat for mule deer? With that we’re going to see a shift in better biodiversity outcomes for British Columbia.”

They’re not just looking for survival rates but also how habitat use is impacting their survival, says PhD student Chloe Wright, who is leading the collaring work and writing her thesis on the project. “So if they’re using areas with lots of roads, are they more likely to die?”

That way they can give management recommendations to wildlife biologists and the province to help them survive better.

“As far as I’m aware no one else has really done this in B.C. at least in the last 20 years,” she says, noting there has been some previous work in the West Kootenays and on Vancouver Island.

Starting next month, they’ll also be collaring fawns, says Ford, adding he doesn’t think that’s ever been done in British Columbia. “FedEx is on the way to my house right now with new fawn collars.”

Looking at what happens from the time a youngster comes out of mom and is hidden in the grass is a key part of the puzzle, says Ford. They’re vulnerable to a lot of predators, such as black bears and coyotes, and they don’t have a good sense of their survival or their recruitment, which is when they go from a cute spotted fawn into a breeding adult.

“That whole window of time is a big knowledge gap in this province.”

To get a more complete picture, Sam Foster — a PhD student at the University of Idaho — is putting cameras out to get an idea of what else is going on in the landscape, including the relative density of predators and other competitors.

Wright says she works closely with the biologists out of the Kamloops and Penticton offices. “Without them, I personally couldn’t collar all these deer.”

Using a helicopter, which is contracted out, is great because you can catch quite a few in one day, she adds.

“They zoom around in a helicopter and basically when they find a target animal, they shoot a net at the deer,” she says. “They get tangled up and then they land the helicopter and run out and take it out of the net and then put a collar on its neck.”

Wright says she doesn’t do that, adding that it’s really wild and she’s not really into zooming around in a helicopter. It’s quite expensive and can really only be used in open areas because it’s hard to work around trees.

They do that for about half of the deer. For the other half, they use both clover traps and chemical immobilization (dart gun).

Clover traps are netted cages with bait at the back. When the deer walk in, the door will close. The traps are checked once or twice a day depending on the weather, and the collars are put on with just manual restraints. When the deer are hit in the rump with a dart, they fall asleep within five to 10 minutes.

The preliminary survival for adults in the Bonaparte Plateau/Cache Creek region is in the low 80 per cent range, according to Wright, but they haven’t done any habitat analyses yet. Survival was a bit lower in the Boundary region, with a lot of predator assemblage, and the West Okanagan was somewhere in between.

There is a lot of pressure on the landscape of B.C. with people looking to use the same patch of land for cattle grazing, forestry, hiking, offroad vehicle use, bird watching and hunting, says Ford.

“Our goal is, in part, to find the things that make mule deer tick, in terms of population, and use that information to identify priority management options that will grow mule deer. So are there prescribed fire policies that we can work with to grow more mule deer.”

Other examples would be any potential grazing schemes that work better for mule deer, or silvicultural prescriptions that will keep mills in production while also growing mule deer populations.

“It’s trying to find a way, using this science, to make sure that we can meet the needs for growing mule deer populations while also being smart about all the other values that are on the landscape as well.”

The project is looking to complete in a little over two years, and just received $95,585 in funding as part of the 2020-2021 approved project list from the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation.

It’s not just a UBCO project, says Wright, adding that they have a lot of other partners including the Okanagan Nations Alliance, the BC Wildlife Federation, the fish and wildlife branch of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, and the Forest Enhancement Society of B.C.

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Mule deer captured on a trail camera in the Bonaparte Plateau. (Submitted photo)
A mule deer tagged with a collar. (TJ Gooliaff - Fish and Wildlife Branch of FLNRORD)