Bobcats and coyotes and bears, oh deer!

By Dean Bortz

Rhinelander, Wis. — Four years, up to 1,200 deer collared, tracking of bobcats and coyotes (bears and wolves if researchers can find them), chronic wasting disease assessments, GPS collars, trail camera grids, sportsmen’s involvement, and two research areas in southwestern Wisconsin.

Combine all of those elements and it doesn’t take long to figure out that this fall Wisconsin will be rolling out one of its biggest wildlife research projects ever.

The DNR is calling it the Southwest Wisconsin Deer and Predator Research Project, though the project’s scope also takes in CWD research.

Two men from the DNR’s Rhinelander office will head up the project – Dan Storm, a DNR deer research scientist, and Nathan Roberts, a DNR carnivore and furbearer research scientist.

At first glance, the new project may sound very similar to the recently-completed deer mortality research project that took place in the Winter and Shawano areas. In some ways it is, but the “southwest” project goes beyond the former.

“It’s similar to the other, but this one has a CWD component. The last study had predation rates and rates of starvation, but it didn’t try to estimate predator abundance or how much forage was available to the deer,” said Storm.

“So, now we’re not only looking at deer survival, but coyote and bobcat abundance and amount of forage available. We’re also going to try to get camera grid over both areas to gauge distribution (of deer and predators,” said Roberts.

Sportsmen, farmers and the DNR know there is a small, but most likely growing population of black bears in southern Wisconsin. Farmers and sportsmen also maintain that there are wolves in the southern counties, too, that are not being acknowledged by the agency.

Roberts and Storm said that if bears and wolves exist in the study area, they will find them and collar them.

“It could happen. We have had wolves in Iowa County before. I would assume they were disbursing and just passing through, but if a trapper catches a wolf, we will collar it,” said Storm.

Roberts said collaring a ground-covering critter like a wolf or bear is more feasible now with the availability of GPS collars for this study. No matter where the animal goes, the collar will transmit its location. With radio collars, trackers in the field or in the air had to try keeping up with the animal as it moved.

Use of GPS collars will also help researchers get on dead deer – whether killed by vehicle or predators – more quickly. And, since the predators will be collared as well, researchers can get in on kills even if the prey animal is not collared.

“If we see coyote staying in one area for a while – we’ll see a ‘cluster of activity’ from the collar – we will go in and investigate with the idea that it could potentially be a kill and maybe we do not have a collar on that particular deer,” said Storm.

“In the last study with standard radio collars, we have to have someone go out there with an antennae and triangulate the collared animals. That takes longer and it’s labor intensive,” said Roberts.

“These collars are GPS collars. We don’t need the number of personnel to track deer, coyotes or bobcats. We will get data off of a website via satellite delivery. When a collar goes motionless, it signals the animal is dead, and we get a text message and email. We should know within few hours of death and can get on the animal lot more quickly,” said Storm.

The GPS collars will deliver more data and higher quality data on habitat use and animal movement than radio collars.

With radio collars, researchers might get 50 locations on one animal in one year. Now? More like 700 locations per animal per year.

Their goal is go capture and collar 200 adult deer and 100 fawns per year over four years. Fawns won’t get the GPS collars; they will get the standard radio collar instead.

“Some deer will get shot. If hunters see a collared deer, they should ignore the collar,” said Storm. “They should kill it if they would have killed it otherwise. We don’t want them to not kill just because it has a collar,  but we don’t want them to kill it just because it has a collar on, either.”

Roberts and Storm and have a goal of trapping and collaring 30 coyotes and 30 bobcats per year. They are interested to find out how often coyotes and bobcats prey on deer.

“There are two different hunting styles – coyotes chase down deer, bobcats stalk them,” said Roberts.

They hope they can collar a bobcat and fawn or adult deer that live in the same area. Roberts is curious to see how often and how close a bobcat might come to, say, a radio-collared fawn.

Neither scientist will be surprised if a bobcat takes down an adult deer.

“Bobcats can do it. It happens, it doesn’t happen often. We had an adult buck brought in that was killed by a bobcat during up north study,” said Storm.

They are going to rely on local trappers for the bobcats and coyotes offered up for collaring. Since there is a quota on bobcats, they expect trappers will have to release a number of cats this fall. They hope trappers call them before releasing the cats.

Coyotes? With no quota and no bag limit, Storm and Roberts aren’t sure how many trappers might be willing to release a wild canine. They’re prepared to trap their own coyotes, if need be.

“We’re assuming coyotes don’t have a high survivorship in southern Wisconsin. If 30 coyotes are not enough, we’ll bump up the number,” said Roberts.

“Carnivores are just harder to catch. Our deer goals are ambitious – this will rank right up there as one of the biggest deer studies ever,” said Storm. “With deer, we’re interested in what proportion are killed by hunters, CWD, vehicles, coyotes, bobcats, and on down the line. To get those percentages, and that’s the primary goal, that’s the reason to get so many deer.”

The deer will be captured by two large field crews stationed out of Dodgeville. Volunteer help will be sought for the deer trapping, as well.

“It’s going to be awesome,” said Storm. “I think the people are going to love it, too, especially once we can start producing maps of where these animals go. It’s going to be a really cool study.

Roberts said they eventually hope to overlay the deer locations with predator locations and share that with the public.

“It will be interesting to see if that happens more often than we might expect. It will also be interesting with CWD-positive deer – we will see if bobcats and coyotes take advantage of that (diseased deer being more easily taken down).”

For those who are familiar with the DNR’s Snapshot Wisconsin program, the camera work proposed by Storm and Roberts might sound like the same thing, but there will be differences.

“It will be embedded with Snapshot Wisconsin – Iowa County’s Snapshot Wisconsin is active. Will try to get one camera per square mile in the study areas, which is more dense than Snapshot Wisconsin, but we are using the same cameras, the same IT system and the same process. It will be similar to what they are doing with the elk right now,” said Roberts.

Elk surveillance switched to trail cameras beginning last year.

Bobcat and coyote trapping begins in October. Deer trapping will begin in January. As deer are trapped and collared, the teams will collect lymph nodes from the rectums of deer for CWD testing.

The study is being paid for with Pittman-Robertson funds, money collected via an excise tax on the sale of firearms and ammunition.

“We’re really excited about working with the public on this one,” said Roberts. “We’re excited about getting the public involved. We wouldn’t be able to do this one on our own.”

Sportsmen can learn more about the project – and how to participated in the field work – during an open house set for Thursday, Sept. 29, at the Dodgeville DNR office from 6-8 p.m.

A DNR press release credited Gov. Scott Walker’s interest in reevaluating CWD in Wisconsin as the impetus for this study.

Categories: Hunting News

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