Ever wonder how biologists keep tabs on Southern Utah’s deer?

NEW CASTLE — While unaccompanied by sleighbells, Santa’s reindeer aren’t the only ones flying this holiday season.

A deer is transported to the staging area via helicopter near New Castle, Utah, Dec. 19, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Crews from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Brigham Young University and Utah State University have been capturing and collaring mule deer across Utah.

The deer were captured using net guns from a helicopter, after which they were blindfolded, hobbled and transported to the staging area in bright orange bags.

Work began on Monday in the Pine Valley Wildlife Management Unit near Motoqua, said Teresa Griffin, wildlife program manager with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Over the next few days, they worked in various areas from Dammeron Valley through Enterprise, New Castle and Cedar City before returning south toward Ash Creek.

They aimed to catch 65 deer — 20 fawns, 15 yearling bucks, 15 collared does and 15 uncollared does. To catch collared deer, the helicopter crews use telemetry to determine a deer’s location using radio signals, DWR wildlife biologist Jason Nicholes told St. George News.

Crews work to gather data and conduct health assessments on a capture mule deer near New Castle, Utah, Dec. 19, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Once caught, crew members fitted them with tracking collars and completed health assessments by weighing them, drawing blood and swabbing their mouths, among other tasks. BYU professor Brock McMillan used an ultrasound machine to check the animals’ body fat condition, Griffin explained.

Additionally, crews were swapping out biologgers — implants that track the animals’ heart rates — for the U.S. Geological Survey. The biologgers were previously placed under their skin to compare their heart rates to their location.

For instance, a deer’s heart might beat faster near a busy road. Nicholes said he saw a data set for a deer that was eaten by a cougar.

“It had some pretty extreme heart rates because it was recording while it was being killed,” he said.

The DWR repeats the collaring process annually for several months in the late fall and winter, Nicholes said, adding that they also capture other big game animals, like pronghorn antelope, desert bighorn sheep and elk.

Running for the hills

Before release, the deer are given vitamin E and Banamine shots to aid in their recovery, Griffin said.

A buck charges at Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologist Curtis Roundy before running into the hills near New Castle, Utah, Dec. 19, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

While typically a smooth process, it can be stressful for the deer, creating situations where people and animals are at risk of injury. However, Nicholes said crews do their best to mitigate this possibility. For instance, a wildlife veterinarian was on site for this project — a feat that’s not always possible.

In one heart-pounding moment, a young buck charged at division biologist Curtis Roundy before running into the hills. Luckily, neither the man nor the deer appeared to have sustained any major injuries.

While Roundy had been thinking about going to the gym, he said it may no longer be necessary following the encounter.

“I got my old heart going, I’ll tell you,” he said.

While larger, elk aren’t as feisty when captured, Nicholes said.

“Once they’re hobbled and masked, they calm down pretty good,” he said. “And then if you put a little pressure on their forehead, they just take a nap.”

Tracking mule deer

Crews work to gather data and conduct health assessments on a captured mule deer near New Castle, Utah, Dec. 19, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

The data is used to inform the Utah Wildlife Migration Initiative, which works to preserve and enhance animal movement across the state. The GPS collars allow the division and its partners to track deer migrations, habitat preferences and survival rates, Griffin said.

Yearling bucks, as “teenagers,” partake in riskier behaviors. Because of this, the division is interested in comparing the survival rate of young males against that of older bucks, which are thought to survive at higher rates.

If a collar is still for too long, Nicholes said he is notified of its location so he can find the animal and determine how it died. However, sometimes, this task is easier said than done.

For instance, Nicholes said he couldn’t find a collar and began using telemetry to track it. It was about a mile away from its last known location, buried in the dirt, presumably by a coyote.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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