Researchers collar a mule deer as part of a research project focused on studying mule deer habitat selection and population growth. The project is being funded thanks to the renewed partnership between FESBC and the HCTF. Photo submitted.

Partnership means important research on mule deer

The partnership is funding the research of deer populations within the Okanagan, other parts of B.C.

Thanks to the renewal of the partnership between the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund (HCTF) and Forest Enhancement Society of British Columbia (FESBC), local researchers are able to continue their work studying mule deer populations in the Okanagan.

According to a press release from the two organizations, to meet shared conservation objectives the FESBC has committed $3 million toward conservation projects to be awarded and administered by HCTF. The partnership was first established in 2016 and, as a result, has led to FESBC investing approximately $1.5 million in HCTF-administered projects across B.C. designed to address important wildlife conservation issues.

Related: Study to focus on mule deer

“We have an active grant with HCTF, they’re a big part of the partnership here to move this project forward. It’s bringing together a bunch of different groups and researchers,” said Adam Ford, Canada Research Chair in Wildlife Restoration Ecology and assistant professor in the department of biology at the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus (UBCO).

img src=”https://blackpress.newsengin.com/gps2/uploads/14378945/51922F25-71AF-4898-9710-DD358ADC039D.jpeg” style=”border-width:1px;border-style: solid;float:left;width:300px;height:auto;margin-right:10px;”>The project, which covers the Boundary region, West Okanagan and Bonaparte Plateau areas, is concerned with the effect wildfires have on mule deer habitat selection and population growth. The goal is to provide management tools and recommendations to increase the mule deer abundance.

Ford said wildfires are not necessarily bad for the mule deer species, and in fact, they can “typically see the mule deer (species) do quite well” after a bad fire year.

“When we talk about a bad fire year in B.C., such as 2018 and 2017, fire does have positive effects on wildlife over the long term,” said Ford. “So we try to think about (the fact that) those two years had the largest amount of area burned, and fire has a regenerative property to it for the landscape. For mule deer especially, the food that fire creates, opens up a canopy and brings back species that are dependent on fire.”

Ford said the species has been in decline for decades, referencing a study that was conducted in the 1960s in relation to mule deer populations in B.C. As conservationists, this project is concerned with the yearly trend of the mule deer population so their hope is to “keep common species common” and identify what may be threatening this species’ survival.

Related: Wildfires cause havoc for humans, but not mule deer

Despite increased hunting regulations that have been implemented over the years, the population is still in decline. Ford said many hunters in the area are aware of this problem.

“Most of the hunters we’ve talked to are very keen to impose regulations on themselves. They typically want to see more regulations,” said Ford. “There are not many (hunters) that see the world that way and recognize they might be part of the problem.”

Chloe Wright, a PhD student at UBCO campus and volunteer researcher with the project, explained that these regulations are typically focused on the male mule deer. She said the common perception is there are less bucks in the area, causing decreased mating and offspring, but the project’s work this past spring disproved this notion.

“We had hunters come out with us, they’re very involved in their hunting organizations that we partner with through the BC Wildlife Federation. They thought that there weren’t enough bucks to breed the females, so maybe females weren’t even getting pregnant and that was part of the problem,” said Wright. “We went out and used portable ultrasounds and found 95 per cent pregnancy rates, meaning only three of the deer that we checked were not pregnant.”

An example of the collar and tags being put on mule deer within the province. Each collar has a tracker that will send out its coordinates if it senses the animal has stopped moving and has likely died. Photo submitted.

Wright explained the project is trying to examine what is happening with the female deer population in terms of pregnancy rates and offspring numbers. All the deer they examine are tagged so they can be tracked, and their corpse can be located in a timely manner for observation should they die or be killed.

“We are trying to figure out where they die and what they die from. We have to get on the carcass right away to figure out what killed it because the scavengers will and it (can be stripped) very quickly,” said Ford. “The collars we use have a special sensor in them that detects lack of movement, so it will send out a message with the coordinates of where the animal stopped moving.”

This information speaks to the predators relying on the population as a food source, what may be threatening the population in terms of habitat loss or human encounters, and other vital information. They also will be utilizing 100 camera traps to see what other animals the mule deer may be interacting and competing with for food.

“We collared 65 adult female deer and have had six mortalities since the spring, most of this happening in the Boundary region,” said Wright. “Two of them we know for sure were cougar predations and one of them, we’re pretty sure was a grizzly bear predation. We’ve also seen one vehicle collision in the West Okanagan.”

Ford said they have to take into account the fact that this species migrates frequently throughout the province, often travelling 49 kilometres north in the summer and then that distance back again in the winter. He explained that this project also provides evidence to the various stakeholders that land that has been set aside from logging for the habitat use of this species is actually being used.

Related: Study looking at declining mule deer population

“Mule deer are reflecting what’s going on in the landscape and, unlike smaller or rare species such as plants or insects that are also vulnerable to these same sorts of changes, mule deer have a way of bringing people together in this collaboration to help create change that will be beneficial for all sorts of species,” said Ford. “This is important also for food security for hunters and members of the First Nations community so I think that’s why we’re getting so much support for this project.”

Ford explained that HCTF also approved their funding request to begin targeting research on juvenile deer, which will fill their gap in research of what is happening to this population between birth and maturity.

“This will identify if there is a barrier between being born and becoming an adult. We’ll put collars on them when they’re six to eight months old and, hopefully, watch them grow until they reach reproductive-aged females,” said Ford. “What we’re wondering is are these youngsters getting killed by something or are they starving before they can become reproductively viable.”

Ford said this project wouldn’t be possible without the collaboration between FESBC, the HCTF, the B.C. government, the local provincial offices, UBCO, the University of Idaho and the Okanagan National Alliance.

“The optimistic side of this is if we can come together and do this for mule deer, what else is possible?” asked Ford.

To report a typo, email: editor@pentictonwesternnews.com.

Jordyn Thomson | Reporter

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