OUT: Gunnison deer tagged December 17, 2008

DOW launches unique deer study near Gunnison

Don’t be surprised to see deer in the Gunnison Basin wearing smart new collars this spring.

The collared deer are part of a multi-year survival study being conducted by the Division of Wildlife.

While the DOW has been conducting deer research around the state since at least the 1930s, this study is the first of its kind in the Gunnison Basin.

In most cases, studies done in one area are used as the model for deer herds in similar environments elsewhere.

For example, studies in Middle Park, which has a high-country environment similar to the Gunnison Basin, were considered representative of what was happening around Gunnison.

However, last winter showed biologists that not all deer herds were equally affected.

“We thought the Gunnison herds would operate similar to Middle Park but obviously all those areas operate differently,” said Rick Kahn, DOW state terrestrial manager.

The study will be “very helpful in the Gunnison Basin,” said Bruce Watkins, the DOW’s state
big-game coordinator. “If we’d had a few radio collars out there last year we’d have a better idea of the impact the winter had.”

Also, deer survival studies are expensive, costing around $120,000 each, not including personnel time. Presently there are five such studies going on. Gunnison will be the sixth.

In those studies, biologists put radio collars on 60 does and 60 fawns and their survival is tracked for at least a year.

“This is very, very strong information but it’s also very expensive,” said Kahn. “That’s why we don’t have it everywhere.”

A radio collar used to monitor a deer’s survival costs around $250.

In some cases, the collars also have Global Positioning System units to track the deer’s movements.

These GPS collars start around $3,000 to $4,500.

Biologists this winter also will be watching how much feed is available on the winter range.

Much of the range last winter had so much snow it went untouched, although the areas where deer were concentrated were eaten almost down to the ground.

When the heavy snows hit, elk “ball up,” as biologists call it, into large herds that can bull through deep snow in search of feed.

Deer, however, tend to stay in small groups, which means while they might have less impact on the range, they often find themselves isolated and unable to move through deep snow.

“In a bad winter, it would be best if deer would get together,” Kahn said. “In the long run, it’s better (they would herd together rather) than be scattered across the landscape.”

One theory is last winter helped the range conditions by keeping the deer off most of it.

“We’re hoping (range conditions) are better” this winter, said J Wenum, DOW area wildlife manager in Gunnison. “Concentrating the animals provided a level of relief to quite a bit of the winter range and the vegetation gets a year off.”

Additionally, the heavy snows added quite a bit of moisture to a soil depleted by several years of drought.

“We saw a great resurgence in terms of vegetation,” Wenum said. “That contributed to making hunting more difficult this fall because there was feed and water everywhere throughout the range, so the animals were so much more dispersed than in recent years.”


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