Moose, Deer, Wolves interactions monitored through various studies
As I was twisting my way through Minnesota’s northwoods a couple of weeks ago on a winding stretch of highway near Ely, I noticed a large body with four legs silhouetted in the woods. We were filming for Northland Outdoors Television so I skidded to a stop and told our cameraman that we might have spotted the elusive moose that is disappearing from the state. I was somewhat disappointed to find out that it was just a whitetail deer.
I guess it wasn’t just a whitetail deer, as deer in the northeast part of the state have had their well-documented struggles too in recent years, so any sighting was welcome. But more importantly, something about this deer looked out of place.
I snapped as many photos as I could while the doe stood in deep snow, framed between two pines. After the staring contest between the animal and my camera ended, she walked off and joined a group of six or seven of her friends.
I frantically worked the shutter on the group a few times before getting back on the road. We arrived at our destination and I scanned through the photos, zooming in on the animal’s neck to investigate.
The doe was outfitted with what looked to be a radio collar. Being in the industry that pays attention to this sort of thing, I struggled to remember hearing about a research project in Minnesota that collared deer as part of the process.
I was preparing to interview the new Big Game Program Leader, Adam Murkowski and asked him in an email about it.
“Great question regarding the collared deer,” Murkowski said. “As you may or may not know there are currently deer collared in MN for more than one research project/effort.”
One such project involved the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The purpose of this study is to gain more insight to how deer and moose interact in the northeast.
“Deer in our study are collared to characterize habitat use within moose range,” according to Amanda McGraw, a graduate student who is working on a dissertation at the Natural Resources Research Institute. “With the goal of assessing where and when interactions that could lead to disease transmission from deer to moose might be occurring.”
A number of factors have been decimating the moose population, including brainworm. While deer can carry brainworm and other parasites with few negative effects, moose on the other hand, cannot. This has put a recent spotlight on how deer and moose coexist.
“Historically deer and moose did not overlap in terms of their range,” Murkowski said during an interview on Northland Outdoors Radio February 13th. “It wasn’t until the early 1930s that we started to see moose come down with brainworm.”
Brainworm was something that moose never had to deal with before and didn’t have the immunity built up to handle it. Now the question is: How do you manage resources, hunting seasons and public expectations in regards to deer and moose?
“Going forward you’ll see us have some conversations with hunters about how we can better balance those two species because both of them are critically important,” said Murkowski. “The Minnesota DNR is committed to making sure that moose are an important part of the ecological landscape of the northeast. That’s going to involve a lot of conversations with different people and there are some positive solutions to be had there.”
The current study by UMD involves 40 deer, mostly does, that were fitted with radio collars starting in 2014. The collars gather information about deer locations and transmit the info back to researchers daily.
“We hope that results from the study of moose and deer habitat use will help inform management decisions for moose,” McGraw added.
If we can determine that there are some slight differences between moose and deer habitat, maybe forests can be managed to keep a slight separation between the two animals and slowly stop the spread of diseases that are fatal to the moose.
“While we don’t have conclusive results yet to know whether we can manage for partitioning of resources between moose and deer, that is the ultimate goal of the project,” McGraw explained.
The radio-collared deer were legal to harvest in Minnesota, though only one such deer was taken. The collars are scheduled to drop off this winter via a timed release mechanism.
“We set an internal timer that triggers a pin to pop out at a certain date and time, which separates the drop-off, and thus the ends of the collar, letting it fall off the deer,” McGraw continued. “This is so the deer doesn’t have to wear the collar for longer than necessary, and also so that we can recover the collar to retrieve any information that might be stored onboard.”
They hope to have results of this study later this year with the goal of helping moose management in Minnesota.
Another study is part of an ongoing research project called the Superior National Forest Wolf – Deer project. It was started by renowned wolf biologist Dr. L. David Mech, founder of the International Wolf Center in Ely. He is also a Senior Scientist with the Biological Resources Division, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, and Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota.
“The primary objective of the SNF study is to understand the changes in the wolf and deer populations,” according to Shannon Barber-Meyer a USGS Wildlife Biologist. “(And) how changes in populations of each affect the other, and how other conditions such as weather affect both.”
If people think that more wolves equal less deer, and deep snow can make things easier for the wolves, this project should offer the evidence.
While this study has gone on for more than 50 years and more than 700 deer have been collared as part of the study, the number of deer that are a part of the research at the current time is smaller than the UMD study, as only 15 does are involved, with new deer tracked every three to four years.
“We keep learning new things while researching wolves and deer,” Barber-Meyer responded when asked about the length of the study. “The answer to one question often sprouts another question. And as new advances in wildlife field technology occur (such as GPS collars that communicate via satellites to send us every-four-hour animal locations on our laptops) — we are able to apply these tools to answer questions previously impossible or near impossible (logistically) to answer.”
Since it’s an ongoing project, there is no set “end date”, but results come out every so often.
“We publish the results as timely as possible as soon as we have answered a particular research question,” said Barber-Meyer.
Much of the research from the USGS project works it’s way onto this website here: http://www.wolf.org/wolf-info/basic-wolf-info/in-depth-resources/scientific-publications/
Studies like these will help determine how to manage the big game in Minnesota—something that is on the minds of most sportsmen and women in the Northland. Sometimes it’s tough to wade through the scientific terminology when results are published, but standing face to face with a research subject in the northwoods is a language I can understand.
To listen to more of Murkowski’s interview on the deer herd, elk management plan and moose/deer interactions, click here.