SHIOCTON, Wis. — From 50 yards, it appeared as a reddish lump at the gray base of a mature ash tree.
At 20, several rows of spots were visible on the tawny shape.
Animal or plant?
If you’ve spent any time searching the Wisconsin landscape for a specific type of the former, you know the latter — especially peeling bark — is more likely.
But as we approached to within a few paces, a shaft of sunlight penetrated the canopy and highlighted the forest floor.
A black nose glistened, a pair of ears stood alert.
Now there was no doubt. The object of our quest was at hand.
I joined a crew of researchers and volunteers near Shiocton last week working on the latest phase of the state’s multiyear white-tailed deer study.
The work, conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and University of Wisconsin with assistance from volunteers, will attempt to improve the state’s deer population estimates and learn more about fawn survival and sources of mortality.
The experimental design calls for 40 fawns to be fitted with radio collars in both the northern (near Winter) and eastern (Shiocton) study areas.
So early on a windy, cool morning in late May, a gang of 19 fawn searchers formed a gantlet and slogged through a 500-acre stand of mixed hardwoods in Outagamie County.
At the sight of the deer, whispers of “fawn” passed down the line as researchers and volunteers attempted to quietly circle the living cache.
In the boot-sucking mud of a flooded hardwood stand, that’s no easy task. Water splashed and sticks shattered.
The tiny whitetail grew more nervous, lifting its head to inspect the army of two-legged visitors.
It was likely the first time it had seen humans. It will almost certainly not be the last.
The fawn’s first instinct was to remain still and camouflaged. It’s second was to flee. The deer rose from its bed and attempted to bolt on gangly legs.
Though less than a week old, the deer was surprisingly fast and agile. But it ran toward crew leader Camille Warbington, who reached out with gloved hands and collected the bounding fawn.
The fawn issued a startling “blaaat” as Warbington carried it back to its bed.
Chris Jacques, DNR research scientist based in Madison, Wis., slipped a blindfold over the animal’s eyes to help calm it.
The rest of the crew hired for the project — including Nate Bieber, Gretchen Oleson, Brittany Peterson and Mike Preisler — quickly gathered to begin processing the deer.
Wisconsin’s deer population is a major ecological and economical force.
Estimated at 1.16 million deer after the 2010 hunting seasons, the large herd damages agricultural crops and native plants.
The state’s annual deer hunting seasons have an estimated $1 billion economic impact, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
And wildlife watchers outnumber the state’s 700,000 hunters.
Though its deer management program has been acclaimed by independent experts, the DNR’s deer population estimates have long been criticized as inaccurate by some in the hunting community.
And with an increasing population of black bears and gray wolves in recent years, new questions have arisen about the role predators might play in controlling or even suppressing deer numbers in northern Wisconsin.
Former DNR Secretary Matt Frank and top wildlife managers decided last year to make the largest investment in the agency’s history in research to improve deer population estimates and overall deer management.
The field work began in earnest in January as deer were trapped and radio-collared. Pregnant does were implanted with transmitters to help crews find fawns within days of birth.
Wisconsin’s deer population roughly doubles each spring with the new crop of fawns. Does are “dropping” single fawns, twins and even triplets across the state.
But as in virtually all wildlife populations, mortality rates are high on the newborns . Less than half of the fawns will live a year.
The causes of fawn mortality are no secret, including p redators, vehicle collisions and weather, to name a few.
But the work under way in Wisconsin will attempt to quantify fawn survival and causes of mortality in each study area.
The first step is finding the fawns and fitting them with radio collars.
“Can be like a needle in a haystack,” said Jacques, the DNR researcher, a veteran of projects on deer and pronghorn antelope in South Dakota before his work in Wisconsin. “Deer are good at what they do.”
For a fawn, that’s hide and eat .
Jacques, Warbington and crew quickly executed a list of tasks on the captured fawn. The researchers and volunteers wore latex gloves to prevent transferring human scent to the deer.
The animal was weighed (12 pounds), sexed (female) and aged (about five days). Age is determined by measuring a growth ridge on the animal’s hoof.
Oleson then slipped an expandable radio collar on the fawn’s neck . Peterson verified that the signal was picked up on a receiver.
Bieber then administered a black tattoo to the deer’s ear. And Jacques clamped on a pair of ear tags.
Dozens of volunteers helped with the project last week. Today five are on hand: August Beier of Oshkosh, Jodi Brazee of Neenah, Mike DeMaster of Sheboygan, Mike Olm of Shawano and Jennifer Stenglein of Madison.
Most of the volunteers are avid hunters. All are thrilled to have the opportunity to assist with the deer research.
Brazee has two weeks of vacation each year from her job as a graphic artist; she is using half of her 2011 allotment to search for fawns.
“I was so excited to have this chance,” Brazee said. “When I hunt, I actually spend most of my time in the tree stand observing nature and taking photos. It always recharges my batteries. Being able to help with this project is very rewarding, too.”
Jacques said the project will allow the volunteers to continue with “citizen science” after the five years of primary study.
“There will be aspects of this work, including trapping and collaring deer, that we plan to continue into the future,” Jacques said. “Volunteers and landowners will continue to be critical to our deer work.”
For the first few days of life, fawns can’t keep up with does and remain hidden on the ground. Does return every few hours to nurse the fawns.
The rich milk allows the fawns to gain about a half-pound a day, Jacques said.
As they gain size and strength, fawns spend more time moving with does. After about three weeks of age, they will be constantly with does.
The fawn found at the base of the ash tree was spotted on a “blind” search, a technique that requires lots of “boots on the ground.” In good deer country and at the right time of year, it can be productive — our crew found five fawns in four hours Tuesday morning near Shiocton.
Other fawns are located by following transmitters implanted in pregnant does. One member of the crew checks the transmitters each day. Through Wednesday, three fawns were located in this manner near Shiocton.
Still other fawns were found last week by observing post-partum behavior in does. After giving birth, does are typically protective of the fawns and will stomp their feet and circle nervously if a human approaches.
And yet other deer were collared last week after local residents called the researchers with sightings of fawns. Such calls are gifts to the crews, which work from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. most days.
Through Friday evening, the Shicoton crew had radio-collared 32 fawns, 80 percent of its goal.
After five minutes, the fawn was ready to be released with a new identity — frequency 157.990, ear tags L1672 and R1673 and tattoo E006.
The crew stowed gear in backpacks and moved away from the tree. Jacques remained with the fawn and, as he removed the blindfold, lightly placed ferns and other vegetation over the deer’s head.
The fawn stayed still as Jacques and the rest of the crew walked away, already searching for the next deer. It was determined later that day, via radio telemetry, that the fawn had reunited with its doe.
The researchers will continue to keep tabs on the fawn each day as the animal grows or dies, part of the most closely studied generation of deer in Wisconsin history.
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