GRAFTON, N.D. — Catching deer wasn’t a problem on this bone-chilling cold January morning; four of the five cage-like “Clover traps” – named after a biologist by the name of M.R. Clover — baited with a mix of alfalfa, molasses and a cup or two of corn had deer in them.
Problem was they weren’t the right deer. The research crew working along an area of the Red River east of Grafton was trying to catch adult female whitetails and fit them with radio-collars as part of an ongoing study of deer movement and mortality in northeast North Dakota.
On this morning, though, all they caught were fawns and a young buck. Instead of high-tech trappings, the deer only received yellow ear tags before being sent on their way.
That sounds easy enough, but the deer still had to be wrestled down and subdued.
“It’s going to get kind of wild and crazy,” R.J. Gross, a game management technician for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake, told The Forum newspaper as the crew approached the first trap with a deer.
“I’m nervous – I haven’t trapped a deer in a while,” he said.
Rust didn’t seem to be a problem on this morning, and it wasn’t long before Gross and Brian Schaffer, a graduate student at South Dakota State University, had a firm grip on the bellowing deer, allowing SDSU grad student Kristin Sternhagen and Jonathan Jenks, a professor at SDSU and project adviser, to attach the ear tag.
While Sternhagen is overseeing the northeast North Dakota study, Gross and Schaffer are helping out with the trapping that began about 10 days ago. Schaffer worked on a similar study near Wing, N.D., and nearby Tuttle, N.D., and Gross helped him trap and subdue several deer as part of that project.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department is funding the projects in conjunction with SDSU.
“We’re probably around 30 or 40 (deer) between R.J. and I,” Schaffer said.
Schaffer offers a key piece of advice for subduing the deer: “Keep your face covered — that’s a big thing,” he said. “You’re going to get kicked and bumped, but protecting your face is the biggest part of it.”
STARTED LAST WINTER
The study in northeast North Dakota began last winter when a helicopter crew trapped 40 adult does, mainly in Walsh County, and fitted them with VHF radio-collars and vaginal implant transmitters — or VITs, for short.
High-tech little gizmos, the VITs react to the temperature change after being ejected when a doe gives birth, sending out a signal that alerts researchers and helps them track down the fawns for radio-collaring.
Sternhagen said the trapping effort now under way in northeast North Dakota aims to offset mortality that has occurred since last winter’s initial collaring.
“We’ve had 11 mortalities so far, so we’ll try to make up for a few of those and add 20 to the bunch,” she said. “We only want to collar does. We don’t want fawns because they’re still growing. Bucks, their necks swell during the rut, so you can’t fit them with these types of collars.”
Bill Jensen, big game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said the doe mortalities to date have included two shot during the deer gun season, one during the muzzleloader season, three that got hit by vehicles, one that died from capture-related stress and six others that died of “unknown causes.”
“We had one that was eaten by coyotes, but we don’t know whether the coyotes killed it or if it just died,” Jensen said. “Coyotes can come in and clean up an animal pretty quickly, and you don’t know if it got hit by a car and they ate it or if they actually killed it.”
Jenks, who spent a couple of days last week in northeast North Dakota to help with the trapping, said it’s easier to capture the deer during cold weather because the animals are hungrier and more likely to be lured into the traps.
“Is it cold out here? Yeah, it’s cold out here,” Jenks said. “When you’re trying to put little tiny nuts on little tiny screws to put a radio-collar on, it complicates it a little bit for the researchers, but it’s best for the animals.”
The goal ofw the project, Jenks said, is to learn more about deer movement patterns, survival and reproduction in a region largely dominated by agriculture. The Wing-Tuttle study, by comparison, was in a part of the state where grasslands comprised nearly 70 percent of the habitat.
“The movement part of (the project) is because the state is concerned about bovine tuberculosis in Minnesota and just wants to get a handle on the movements of these deer,” Jenks said.
A contagious respiratory disease, bovine TB was found in 2005 in wild deer near Skime, Minn., about 60 miles east of the Red River. Extensive testing hasn’t found any new cases in the past three years.
Sternhagen, who now has been tracking deer for about a year, said one of the highlights to date was a doe that gave birth to quadruplet fawns last spring near Minto, N.D., a rare occurrence that never had been documented in North Dakota. The doe died shortly after giving birth, and none of the fawns survived.
Sternhagen also collared 18 fawns - 10 males and eight females - from late May through mid-June last year, but only two males and two females were still alive as of December.
“Predation on fawns has been fairly substantial up there,” Jensen of Game and Fish said. “But there really isn’t much cover up there, either. I drove back roads from that Minto area to Park River, and I don’t think I was ever out of sight of a tree row that wasn’t being taken out. It seems like every mile, a tree row is coming out. That’s about the only cover there is up there, and a lot of those are just single-row tree rows, and frankly, that’s about the only hiding cover the fawns have during the spring.
“That doesn’t bode well for deer in that country, either.”
Jensen said landowners and others in the area have been “extremely helpful,” providing access that is vital to the study.
“We’ve had excellent support with this project,” Jensen said. “It really makes working on this sort of research enjoyable on many levels.
“Otherwise, you’re dead in the water. But the community up there has been very accepting and helpful, and we truly appreciate it.”
As of midweek, Jensen said the trapping effort had resulted in five additional does receiving radio-collars. The crew also had caught three bucks and 10 fawns that were fitted with ear tags. Trapping will continue through this coming week, he said, and the researchers then will decide whether to employ other techniques to capture and collar the remaining deer.
“It’s coming along, but it’s a labor-intensive operation, that’s for sure,” Jensen said. “We’ll get it done. I’m confident we’re going to get a lot of good information out of this.”
Sternhagen, whose field research will continue through December, said it’s too early to draw any conclusions from the study.
“We’ll get another year of data, and then we’ll do the analysis,” she said.
Long-term, Jensen said Game and Fish hopes to conduct similar studies across the state.
“I think the hunters and the public expect valid numbers that can be substantiated,” Jensen said. “They’re not interested in our guesses; they’re interested in what we actually know.
“We’ve got a lot to learn about deer all over the state.”