A Big Search for Little Deer – 2013 SD Conservation Digest Story

This is a piece I wrote as while working as the public relations intern at The Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls. It appeared in the Sept./Oct. 2013 issue of South Dakota Conservation Digest, and is reprinted here with the permission of  Casey Archibald, SD Game, Fish and Parks information officer and current editor of the magazine.

A Big Search For Little Deer by Matthew Stoffel, writing for South Dakota Conservation Digest
Reprint from South Dakota Conservation Digest‘s Sept./Oct. 2013 issue.

“They’ll be curled up in a ball. Look for red. Good luck,” Kevin Robling offered a group as they began to search a field in Turner County.

The night before, Robling, a big game biologist for Game, Fish and Parks (GFP), had been out with a spotlight, searching for deer. Having spotted a doe in the area, a search party was assembled to try locating her fawns.

Robling headed the statewide effort to better understand mortality and survival rates in both white-tailed and mule deer fawns. The goal: Collar 40 fawns in each of South Dakota’s four regions. The telemetric collars use radio signals to help researches monitor fawn location and alert them if a fawn might be dead.

“There’s a switch inside the collar that has to be tripped,” said Julie DeJong, a wildlife resource biologist with GFP. Failure to periodically trip the switch by changing location doubles the relay frequency, signaling the fawn may be dead and giving researchers a chance to determine the cause of death.

DeJong headed the Region 3 project, which faced an extra challenge: It is the only South Dakota region with no collared does. Other regions could monitor females to find fawns. But in DeJong’s region, teams had to scout deer based on intuition, public tips and persistence.

Robling came from Rapid City to help Region 3 begin its daunting task, even staying in a tent four nights before area flooding sent him to drier shelter.

Brennan Borah, a Region 3 wildlife game technician, said private land yielded the best results, but searching could be slow.

“It’s just a big timing game,” Borah said.

Public sightings weren’t always reason to celebrate, either. Some calls lifted hopes only to dash them. Several residents found recently-born fawns, Borah said, but had touched or moved them. No longer scentless, a handled fawn risks abandonment. The public was encouraged to defer the handling of fawns to officials.

The lack of collared does led to search parties wading through dry grass, shifting between anticipation with each dense clump and disillusionment as growth gave way to short vegetation or empty dirt.

But however monotonous raking miles of field may have been, excitement was restored whenever a few words broke the tedium.

“Hey! Over here!”

Tucked in the grass, lying still and silent as it was surrounded by the search party, was a young fawn. Surrounding it proved needless; it didn’t fight or protest as Robling and DeJong stepped in to collar it.

“You have a 15 day window when you can catch them before they are too fast,” DeJong said. South Dakota’s east side has a birth pulse from late May to mid-June, with western region mule deer roughly two weeks behind. In the days shortly after birth the fawns are docile and can be handled by gloved GFP workers. But as they grow, nets are needed to catch the fawns.

A fawn with a radio collar from South Dakota GFP, from a story written by Matthew Stoffel for South Dakota Conservation Digest called A Big Search for Little Deer
This fawn, less than three weeks old, wears a collar that will allow South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks to track survival rates.

“The older they get, the more rambunctious they get,” Borah said.

In the end, Region 3 collared 38 fawns in Lincoln, Turner and Minnehaha counties. Already, 15 collars have been recovered, with six definite and five likely cases of predation.

The collaring effort will be stronger than some previous projects as the entire state participated together. “This is good because we can actually compare [survival rates] and have one year as a basis,” DeJong said. “We need some numbers from here to tell if our populations are increasing or decreasing.”

According to DeJong, more accurate survival rate data will yield better population modeling.

This will lead to better informed decisions on how many deer tags should be available to hunters in years to come.

“We’ve really reduced the number of tags,” DeJong said. For the 2013 hunting season, Region 3’s Wildlife Management team proposed a reduction of 2,550 licenses and 2,900 tags, removing all antlerless tags in seven counties.

The 2013 reduction was caused by an outbreak of naturally occurring Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD), spread by biting midges that thrived in last year’s drought. The outbreak killed large numbers of white-tailed deer in Region 3 last summer and early fall. Though the midges were killed off by the frost of colder months, more than 1,000 dead deer sightings were reported to Region 3’s GFP in 2012 alone.

The choice to make a reduction in antlerless tags disperses the reduction amongst archery, muzzleloader and rifle hunters so cuts don’t isolate one group.

Fawn running, photo by Matthew Stoffel, taken at The Outdoor Campus
This photo of an older fawn running may be my proudest photography moment to date.
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