Under a new B.C. Wildlife Federation study, collared mule deer movements and health is being tracked. Photo: Contributed

Declining mule deer tracked in new study

Wildlife research collaborators join forces on research initiative

A large-scale research project involving multiple wildlife groups and universities is attempting to seek how to reverse declines in the mule deer population across the Southern Interior.

The study is drawing financial and volunteer support from a cross-section of wildlife interests, ranging from the B.C. Fish and Wildlife Branch to B.C. Wildlife Federation to the Okanagan Native Alliance and researcher professors at UBC Okanagan and the University of Idaho.

It has generated $300,000 in direct funding and more than $500,000 of in-kind support.

“Mule deer declines have been a concern in portions of the Southern Interior since the 1960s,” said Jesse Zeman, director of fish restoration for the BCWF.

“While there has been tremendous community support, the project still requires additional financial and in-kind support to fund the remaining four years of the project.”

A combination of fire suppression, timber extraction, highways, urban sprawl and other factors are blamed for the mule deer decline, says Sophia Gilbert, an assistant professor at the University of Idaho.

Related: Studying the relationship between mule deer and wildfire

“In addition to landscape change, things like increases in competitor or predator species may also be affecting mule deer, as we’ve seen other parts of western North America, and we want to identify which drivers are most important in the Southern Interior,” Gilbert said.

It is likely mule deer are moving to urban environments because of the lack of habitat in the wild, says one researcher. Photo: Carla Hunt/Contributor

Adam Ford, assistant professor and Canada research chair in wildlife restoration ecology at UBCO, said more science related data is required to assess how changing landscape and weather patterns are affecting wildlife in the province.

“These are huge projects to take on because they cover a lot of landscape and are labour intensive to carry out,” said Ford.

The research effort has already started with GPs tracking collars being placed on 64 adult female mule deer in the Kettle-Granby, Peachland/Garnet Valley and Cache Creek/Elephant hill fire areas.

There were an additional 33 adult female mule deer collared in the Kootenay study area.

The GPS collars track the deer movements every 4.25 hours and provide information on the deers’ habitat use, how they move across the landscape, which areas the avoid, when and how they die.

This fall, additional GPS collars will be placed on about 60 mule deer fawns which will also incorporate vegetation monitoring.

Along with the collars, at least 200 remote cameras will be deployed in the project areas to provide data on how other predators and people interact with mule deer.

Of the 64 deer captured in 2018, ultrasounds were used to assess pregnancy rates and general health on 56 does greater than one year of age. The project team found a 98 per cent pregnancy rate, at least 80 per cent of those does were carrying twins.

Does and their offspring (fawns) are what drive deer population change, which is why the project is focusing on them.

Ford said two PhD students will be working on collecting the research data, which should present some robust scientific intel about the mule deer by years three and four of the study.

“The province has relied on hunter harvest stats to build estimates on the mule deer population. There have been precipitous declines in the harvest numbers which is raising concerns about there being fewer animals,” Ford said.

“For sure this is the biggest coordinated mule deer research project in recent memory for B.C. so it is great to be a part of it. We are very excited by the scientific research this project is going to generate.”

Anyone wanting to make a donation can do so at the B.C. Wildlife Federation website or directly to the Okanagan Nation Alliance.

To report a typo, email: edit@kelownacapnews.com.


@BarryGerding
barry.gerding@blackpress.ca

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