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UAM students, AGFC personnel bolster deer research

From the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

-- ARKANSAS CITY – An efficient team of wildlife biologists with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and graduate students from the University of Arkansas at Monticello is compiling needed data on white-tailed deer and their movements. The research is part of the agency’s recently adopted deer management plan.

Their arena is Choctaw Island Wildlife Management Area, a major addition to Arkansas public lands in 2001. It is the only public area inside the main levees of the Mississippi River. The management area is just east of Arkansas City in Desha County.

The project began early in 2008 with eight deer tapped and fitted with the Global Positioning System (GPS) collars. Last spring when the Mississippi River was in flood stage, one interesting result of the monitoring of the collared deer was that the does stayed on high ground at Choctaw Island but the bucks crossed the big levee to high ground a few miles away.

This year, more deer have been trapped and fitted with the GPS collars. Brad Miller, AGFC’s deer program coordinator, said, “We initiated trapping for this year on Jan. 1 and have so far outfitted 18 deer with GPS collars, due primarily to the work of the UAM researchers.  We intend to capture a total of 30 adult deer.  Most the deer captured to date have been bucks, and we are hoping to pick up more does to balance out the samples.”

Trapping of the Choctaw Island deer is quite a challenge. Cory Gray, AGFC assistant deer program coordinator, works closely with Blair Smythe, UAM graduate student, works under the guidance of Dr. Don White, wildlife ecology professor at UAM.

Smythe and his crew, with AGFC personnel pitching in, set up nets 60 feet by 60 feet and mounted on poles. The nets are rigged with ropes and raised about five feet off the ground, with a center pole to hold them without excessive sagging. Bait is spread under the nets, then two or more of the crew hides in a nearby blind with a rope attached to the ropes at the net poles. When a deer comes under the net to eat, the rope at the blind is pulled, and the net collapses around the deer.

The ambushers rush to the deer, with the first one sprawling on top of the deer to hold it in place. A sedative, not a tranquilizer, is injected into the deer. The other worker tattoos a number on one ear of the deer, fits a tag into the other ear, then they carefully work the GPS collar under the net and into place around the deer’s neck. The deer is released.

It sounds fairly simple in words. In the field, it is quite a bit more complex, more uncertain. The trapping is mainly at night, and a number of nights find the workers going home empty handed. At first, they used electronic controls on the net ropes instead of pulling a trigger rope. But the deer were sharper. The electronic rig made a soft click before the net fell, and the deer were able to run out from under it.

The pull rope is more reliable, but it has shortcomings too. The rope has to be run through a piece of conduit so animals of all sorts won’t become tangled in it. But in cold rainy weather, ice forms inside the conduit, rendering the rope useless.

It is a pricey operation, with each GPS collar costing about $5,000. The collars are programmed with ending dates. At a preset time, the collars unlock and fall from the deer’s neck to the ground, where they can be tracked and retrieved by the researchers.

The goal of the Choctaw Island project is to provide more information, especially on the movements of the deer, so AGFC biologists can make adjustments and additions to the state’s management of its deer.

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