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Satellites, Whitetail, and Forestry - A Maine/NB joint study

The University of New Brunswick and Department of Energy and Resource Development have started a large-scale project to study whitetail deer survival and habitat across New Brunswick. This four-year study is being done with collaboration with the State of Maine, the University of Maine, and JD Irving.

Researchers will attach satellite collars on 120 female deer in several sites in New Brunswick, and 100 collars will be installed on female deer in the state of Maine as well. Joe Kennedy, NB DERD deer biologist, explained that only female deer will be used in this study because a male deer’s neck expands during the mating period each fall, and could result in constriction and distress from the collars.

After back to back difficult winters, the whitetail deer harvest was near an all-time low in New Brunswick in 2015. Big game hunting is a part of the social fabric here in New Brunswick, and seeing the annual deer harvest drop from over 30,000 animals to under 5,000 has frustrated local hunters and hampered deer guide businesses.

Partly resulting from their frustration, hunters have been getting socially active in perhaps record numbers, along with other concerned citizens and presented a petition with nearly 30,000 signatures looking to halt herbicide spraying in New Brunswick Crown Forests. This is reportedly the largest petition in province history, presented through Green Party Leader David Coon in the legislature in early December of 2016.

Hunters recently have been very passionate in expressing their feelings toward the province’s dwindling deer herd, reportedly down over 70 percent since it peaked around 30 years ago. According to DERD numbers, the whitetail population declined from 270,000 in the mid 1980s to an estimate of around 55,000 animals in 2015. Researchers believe that the principal cause for whitetails to move into our province was from forestry practices in the 1800’s, and people are now questioning whether current practices have caused this serious decline.

It is often quoted that New Brunswick is at the upper edge of the whitetail deer habitat, so a single severe winter can result in a loss of up to 30% of the population. Besides winter conditions, deer populations are thought to be affected by coyote predation, hunter pressure, forestry management, and habitat changes.

The deer will be collared without the use of any tranquilizers by a team of specialists who will capture them with nets, install the collars, and then release them. Costing between $3,000 and $4,000 each, these are high-end satellite collars that will not require aerial contact (think: helicopter) in order to receive data monitor the animal behaviours. A variety of habitat areas will be targeted, including an old growth forest with no active feeding sites in Charlotte County, an area in Fredericton North, and the northwest area of the province.

The study will examine the effects of forest management on deer behaviour. Does herbicide reduce deer food? Does precommercial thinning affect deer behaviour? Do deer avoid silvicultured softwood plantations? Does land-use affect predation rates on deer?  The project will use GPS data from three winters to track the habitat usage of the collared deer, tracking where they choose to feed, winter, and live throughout the study. It will also be able to track survival rates and after a death signal, EDR staff will attempt to retrieve the deer for further study including cause of death.

The province ran a pilot program over the past year to test two different radio collar providers and monitor performance along with potential results.  They collared ten deer from each provider.  During this pilot they’ve received interesting and sometimes surprising results.  Kennedy told us that two mature (7.5 year old) does were killed by coyotes this year already, even before the first snowfall!  We all know that coyotes were voracious predators with a skill for chasing deer, but to hear that two healthy, mature deer were killed by coyotes without the aid of snow was surprising.

Funding for this $1.5 million project comes from several sources, including the province of New Brunswick, the state of Maine, and JD Irving. At a recent public meeting in Sackville, NB some skepticism was expressed because of Irving involvement, but Kennedy tried to assuage their fears by reminding them that the study is being conducted by University researchers in both jurisdictions, and they would have no reason to be swayed by corporate interests. A UNB PhD student, Phil Weibe, will be responsible for conducting the research and all documentation. Dr. Graham Forbes, a wildlife ecologist at UNB, will hold oversight and direction. 

It is hoped the project will have an interactive website where interested citizens can watch the progress of the study throughout the four years. Rather than waiting until the end of the study for results, people may be able to find out the scientists’ findings throughout the time period.

Undoubtedly the results will be closely followed by hunters and sportsmen throughout the Northeast seaboard and especially in New Brunswick.

2017-01-17 14:59:28

 

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