Flying Mule Deer

Flying Mule Deer: Helicopter Crew Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Helicopter Crew
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer

Mule Deer Incoming Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer Mule Deer Incoming
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer

Mule Deer Incoming Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer Mule Deer Incoming
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer

Helicopter Carrying Mule Deer Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer Helicopter Carrying Mule Deer
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer

Mule Deer Health Check Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer Mule Deer Health Check
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer

For the mule deer at Hardware Ranch, last Nov 30 was anything but ho-hum.

In the early morning light, the Division of Wildlife Resources was gathering in the parking lot at the Ranch. The plan for the day was to capture eight mule deer for a quick medical checkup on the overall health of the herd.

For this, they needed the help of come helicopter cowboys.

Right on cue, we heard the thunk, thunk, thunk of an incoming helicopter. A team of three men hopped out. After a quick parley, they were off

A bit like calf ropers at a rodeo, the helicopter cowboys would stop a running deer in its tracks by shooting a tangle net over it. Hopping off the helicopter, one cowboy (also known as “the mugger”) would wrestle the deer onto its side and tie its feet together. The mugger then slid the deer onto a sling, and to keep it calm, kindly secured a cover over its eyes.

The helicopter then lifted the sling, flew the deer through the air, and set it down gently in front of the waiting crew at the ranch.

The crew sprang into action. Four men raced over to the deer, slid it onto a rope stretcher, and carried it to a hanging scale.

“76 pounds’” the researcher called out. A graduate student with a clipboard wrote it down.

Next stop: a white folding table. The crew surrounded the deer, brandishing some familiar tools. They took the deer’s temperature, a blood sample, a hair sample. One man whipped out a yellow measuring tape that looked exactly like the one in my grandmother’s sewing basket.

Then they looked into the deer’s mouth.

“Three years,” the researcher said with absolute certainty.

“How did you know that?” I couldn’t help asking.

“Easy,” he said. But he admitted that after five years, you can only be sure of a deer’s age if you look at the tooth under a microscope and count the rings, just like counting rings on a tree.

Then I spotted something I’d never seen before- a black box that measured the depth of fat on the deer’s rump A very well fed deer will head into winter with 1 inch (25 mm) of fat reserves. A deer with less that 9mm will probably not make it through a hard winter. This herd was coming off a very dry summer, a genuine cause for worry. But today it was all good news. The fall rains had greened up the hillsides in time for the deer to plump up.

And then it was done. The deer was carried to the perimeter of the parking lot and released. As it bounced up the hillside to rejoin the herd, I was reminded of the time when I was coming down the slopes off the Wellsville ridgeline, and had sat down to rest. Suddenly three does poked their heads through the dense undergrowth. We took a long curious look at each other.

I remember thinking how beautiful they were, with their long, elegant ears. But they also looked vulnerable. Coyotes, cougars and cars will continue to take a heavy toll on mule deer. New challenges will crop up. But this day last November, it was all good news for the health of the herd at Hardware Ranch. And all cheers for the Division of Wildlife Resources for a job well done.

This is Mary Heers and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
Featured Audio: Courtesy & Copyright © Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio upr.org
Text: Mary Heers, https://cca.usu.edu/files/awards/art-and-mary-heers-citation.pdf
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading

Wild About Utah, Mary Heers’ Wild About Utah Postings

Why the DWR captures deer, other big game animals with helicopters each winter, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, State of Utah, February 21, 2020, https://wildlife.utah.gov/news/utah-wildlife-news/864-why-dwr-captures-deer-big-game-animals-helicopters.html

Episode 8: Flying deer, Wild Podcast, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, State of Utah, May 19, 2020, https://wildlife.utah.gov/wild-podcast/927-flying-deer.html


Securing Utah’s Moose Population

Moose with radio collar Courtesy & Copyright Sam Robertson, Photographer
Moose with radio collar
Alces alces
Courtesy & Copyright Sam Robertson, Photographer
Historically, the settlers and hunters of Utah didn’t find moose when they were exploring the state.
It wasn’t’ until 1906-07 when the first recorded moose sighting occurred in Utah.

Ironically, at this same time the population of Shiras moose also known as Wyoming moose (the subspecies found in Utah today) was dangerously close to extinction due to overhunting.

Settlers in nearby states had preferred hunting moose because the large animal was easy to catch, and was an efficient way to obtain a few hundred pounds of sweet venison.

To prevent their extinction, western states discontinued moose hunting for a time. Until 1950, hunters agreed to hunt other deer species to provide time for the moose population to replenish.
Searching for moose became a challenging spectators sport.

Moose are active during the day and loners most of the year (except mothers with their young) and since they prefer habitat where they can easily hide – finding one was a rare occasion.

By 1957, Utah’s moose had a resident herd in the Uinta mountains and the population continued to grow.
Dan MacNulty, associate professor in the Department of Wildland Resources in the Quinney College of Natural Resource at USU has been studying the state’s moose. He explains, “Utah’s moose population reached an estimated high of over 3,500 in 2005. The population subsequently declined to a current estimate of 2,600 moose. The reasons for this drop were unclear.”

To determine the factors causing the fluctuation in the moose population, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) joined with MacNulty’s research lab to investigate the drivers of moose population growth. MacNulty says, “The first priority of the research was to determine the current status of the moose population. Is it increasing, decreasing or stable?”

Moose Cow & Calf with radio collars Courtesy & Copyright Sam Robertson, Photographer
Moose Cow & Calf with radio collars
Courtesy & Copyright Sam Robertson, Photographer
To do this, the researchers collared 120 female adult moose in two established herds – 60 in the Wasatch Mountains and another 60 in the North Slope of the Uinta Range.

Female moose are the best indicators of the health of the herd. The females provide the data to determine the health of both the adults and calves. By tracking them, the research team can see the number of females that calve, the number of calves who survive their first winter to join the population, and the survival rate of the adults during the four-year project.

When the first year of data was gathered they found in both herds, 80-90 percent of the collared females survived. Kent Hersey, Big Game Project Leader for DWR adds, “Compared to other moose herds, Utah moose tend to have average or below average survival rates.”

Joel S. Ruprecht, USU graduate student in MacNulty’s lab discovered one reason this may be occurring. He found the maternal fat stores of the female directly impact the reproductive and survival success in Shiras moose.
When midwinter fat stores of the expecting moose were measured Ruprecht found it predicted whether the female moose would successfully give birth to her young and also whether her young would live long enough to become a healthy long-term member of the herd.

If a solution for the population drop could be to increase nutrition levels of the mothers, then DWR may be able to improve habitat conditions for adult moose and increase their health, which would in turn increase calving rates.
DWR plans to use these research findings to help stabilize Utah’s moose population.
The results may have come at an ideal time since the state’s 7-year Statewide Moose Management Plan expires later this year.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah

Credits:
Photos: All photos copyright and courtesy of Sam Robinson.
Text: Shauna Leavitt, Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Additional Reading

Moose, Alces apces, compiled by Anthony Bell, Vertebrate Zoology Collections Assistant, Utah Museum of Natural History, https://nhmu.utah.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/Alces%20alces.pdf

Moose entering water, Jeff Rice, Western Soundscape Archive; University of Utah, https://collections.lib.utah.edu/details?id=1117822

Moose in Utah, Jason Pietrzak, Wild About Utah, Bridgerland Audubon Society/Utah Public Radio, 30 Sept 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/moose-in-utah/

Moose, Wild Aware Utah, Hogle Zoo & Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://www.wildawareutah.org/utah-wildlife-information/moose/

Utah Moose Statewide Management Program, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/hunting/biggame/pdf/moose_plan.pdf