Published March 18, 2012, 12:00 AM

WILDLIFE RESEARCH: Deer telemetry study gets underway in northeast N.D.

According to Bill Jensen, big game biologist for Game and Fish in Bismarck, a helicopter crew trapped and fitted VHF radio-collars on the 40 adult does in late February. The study area is located in deer hunting Unit 2C and covers about 500 square miles, Jensen said. Most of the research area is in Walsh County, although it also dips into Grand Forks County, he said.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

Forty whitetail does in northeast North Dakota are sporting high-tech neckwear as part of a two-year study the Game and Fish Department has launched to learn more about deer movement, mortality and habitat use in an area dominated by agriculture.

According to Bill Jensen, big game biologist for Game and Fish in Bismarck, a helicopter crew trapped and fitted VHF radio-collars on the 40 adult does in late February. The study area is located in deer hunting Unit 2C and covers about 500 square miles, Jensen said.

Most of the research area is in Walsh County, although it also dips into Grand Forks County, he said.

“I’m excited about it,” Jensen said. “This is the first opportunity we’ve had to radio-collar any deer in the Red River Valley. We’ve never monitored deer in a setting where much of the landscape is composed of sugar beet and potato fields. How do they use those areas and how does it change seasonally?”

As part of the study, Kristin Sterhagen, a graduate student at South Dakota State University living in Grafton, N.D., will be listening for the radio signals the collars emit to track the locations of the deer. Each collar has a unique signal.

Quicksilver Air Inc., a company that specializes in capturing animals by helicopter using net guns, conducted the roundup Feb. 21-22. The company, with bases in Colorado and Alaska, captured deer for Game and Fish two years ago as part of a similar study in the Wing and Tuttle, N.D., areas.

Jensen said capturing the deer by helicopter is considerably faster than trying to trap the animals on the ground.

“They have a sample of 40 deer on Wednesday, and on Thursday, she’s collecting data from 40 deer,” Jensen said. “Historically, when we’ve done it all by live trapping, that would take all winter.

“Now, she can just focus on collecting data and getting information.”

Vaginal implants

Jensen said the study also aims to learn more about fawn survival. That can be tricky, he said, because researchers don’t know where a doe will give birth, and the fawns can be difficult to find.

Once again, though, technology comes to the rescue.

According to Jensen, researchers inserted vaginal implant transmitters, or VITs, in 20 of the does. About the size of a tampon, the VITs are ejected when the fawn is born, and the resulting drop in temperature changes the frequency of the transmitters.

“Then you can tell that, ‘OK, the fawn has been born,’ and you can go in and put a radio-collar on the fawn right away,” Jensen said.

Jensen said the VITs have become standard equipment for telemetry studies, but this is the first time Game and Fish has used them.

“I wanted other studies to work out the bugs so we could learn from other people’s mistakes,” he said. “All of those bugs have mostly been worked out.”

Jensen said the VHF collars cost about $250 each.

As with the Wing-Tuttle study, the collars will last up to five years and emit a special mortality signal whenever a deer dies. There’s not an issue with hunters shooting the deer, either, Jensen said, and Game and Fish will replace the collars from any does taken during hunting season to maintain the sample size.

Red River next

Jensen said plans also are in the works to fit 20 deer directly along the Red River with the VHF collars within the next year. One reason, he said, is the area’s proximity — about 70 miles — to a part of northwest Minnesota where bovine tuberculosis was found in a free-ranging deer herd.

Learning about deer movements along the Red could be useful if TB ever is found in animals on the North Dakota side of the river, Jensen said.

“We need to have the best information available immediately if that ever occurs,” he said.

Jensen said Game and Fish plans to continue the telemetry studies elsewhere in the state when the northeastern North Dakota project is completed.

“The only way of answering big questions is to have long-term studies with repeatable methodology,” he said. “So, hopefully, we’ll be able to address some of those bigger management questions.”

Besides the Wing-Tuttle study, Game and Fish conducted a series of telemetry projects in the 1970s when the technology was in its infancy. Jensen in 2000 also did a pilot project at Dawson Wildlife Management Area in Kidder County and a study at Lonetree WMA near Harvey, N.D., a couple of years later.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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