By John Ozoga
Without warning, the cedar limb I was perched on, 16 feet or so above a well-used deer trail, snapped with a loud crack. Deer scattered in all directions and down I went. As usual, I was working alone in Northern Michigan’s Petrel Grade deeryard.
It was January 1968, and I had undertaken a study to evaluate the aggressive behavior of white-tailed deer at winter cuttings. I already had well over 100 deer individually marked with numbered snare-type collars, but few were mature bucks. My goal was to selectively capture more bucks using a tranquilizer loaded capture gun and mark them with ear tags and individually-recognized collars. This was a fairly easy task given the heavily used deer trails leading to a plentiful supply of felled cedar browse at a logging operation.
All it took was patience: wait for the right deer to pass beneath my perch, slowly lower the gun barrel and plunk em’ in the rear end — even without aiming. Normally, they didn’t run too far and weren’t particularly hard to find and handle. In fact, it was so easy that I entertained the idea of capturing a smaller deer by hand, from a lower position, simply by dropping on it in bobcat style.
At any rate, I landed on my back, narrowly missing a stump protruding above a 3-foot deep snowpack. I lay there a while rather dazed, hurting all over, wondering if I’d done any serious damage. Luckily, I seemed to be OK — at least I could stand and walk. Then, I looked up, and there was my gun stuck on a limb near where I’d sat, requiring an agonizing trip back up the tree to retrieve it.
Actually, I never really thought much about those early days and how deer research had changed, until D&DH Editor-in-Chief Dan Schmidt asked me to reminisce a little: “How has deer research changed?” he asked. Needless to say, today the governing bureaucracy would frown upon such dangerous employee behavior, and I would be called in by the brass and severely admonished. Note: It would have been rather difficult to buy a ladder stand for hunting purposes in those days. In fact, back then, I don’t believe elevated blinds of any kind were even legal for deer hunting in Michigan.
Even the way we handled captive deer in the past would be unacceptable today. And we would not be permitted to release surplus captive deer into the wild, for fear of introducing diseases (even though such things as CWD or TB have not been found to occur locally). So many aspects of deer research, management and hunting have changed over the past five or so decades. Of course, deer and deer hunters have changed, too, often unpredictably so. Many of these associated trends have undoubtedly benefited the resource — but some have not, and I’m concerned.
Trending toward political correctness
While reviewing the recent wildlife literature, I’m finding that other wildlife professionals share some of my specific concerns. I found comments made by Dr. James E. Miller, past president of the Wildlife Society and recipient of the cherished 2007 Aldo Leopold award, particularly interesting. In his award acceptance speech, reprinted in the spring 2009 issue of The Wildlife Professional, Miller provided a historical sketch of wildlife management funding, highlighted technological advances, discussed concerns for the profession and speculated a little on the future. While his comments apply to wildlife management in general, it’s quite easy to read between the lines and see how his concerns apply to deer research and management.
“If our profession is to continue to progress and be relevant,” Miller said, “We must continue to value hunting — individually, biologically, socially and economically. We work for the public as well as for wildlife resources, and we must continue to use the best available science in decision making, remain passionate about what we do and adhere to a code of professional ethics that sustains our credibility as biologists.”
Although deer research here in Northern Michigan got its start around 1930, funding and serious research efforts started in 1937 with the passage of the Pittman-Robertson Act for Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration. This act collected a federal excise tax on hunting arms and ammunition to be returned to the state for research, land acquisition and habitat development.
As a result, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) hired full-time wildlife research biologists and housed them at research stations. The Cusino Wildlife Research Station, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP), and the Houghton Lake Wildlife Research Station, in Northern Lower Michigan, concentrated their efforts on white-tailed deer nutrition, physiology, behavior and habitat management. Today, there are no research biologists stationed at those facilities, and nearly all deer research in the state is conducted through universities.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize that fewer research dollars are now generated from traditional sources (i.e., hunters). According to Miller, most comes from directed research funding, “thus influencing the culture and results of wildlife research.”
At a research meeting, I once was asked how I felt about research involvement with universities. I replied that we had good results in some cases, but at other times we devoted considerable time and energy without learning much that could be directly applied to deer population and habitat management — and we were being criticized by management for that reason. I might add that I have the highest regard for most wildlife biologists and consider my association with Karl Miller and Steve Ditchkoff a highlight of my research career.
However, in recent years, despite considerable financial support, some university-guided deer research has produced results that merely support findings from studies conducted by Louis Verme and myself (assisted by one technician and two inmates). One such three-year, university-sponsored project acknowledged the involvement of more than 60 individuals, without once referring to the critical importance of high-quality deer wintering habitat in this Northern region.
Jim Miller suggests that research biologists are wandering off course when he provided the following warning: “Wildlife research appears in recent years to have become more directed toward addressing politically correct issues and in verifying a sponsoring industry’s or agency’s claims for its product. To remain relevant and maintain our credibility with a diverse public, of which hunters are a part, the research base must retain a strong focus on wildlife habitat and population management.” Although we serve the public, Miller warns, there is a line beyond which social and political pressures must not dictate resource management decisions.
My first research project, initiated in 1960, was a study of coyote ecology on Beaver Island, located in northern Lake Michigan. As one might expect, the islanders were convinced coyotes were decimating their deer herd. During the summer months, my wife Janice and I trapped and tagged coyotes and red fox and collected scats for later detailed analysis of seasonal food habits. Two of those coyotes eventually dispersed to the Michigan mainland. There was no high-tech radio telemetry gear available for monitoring wildlife movements in those days. During the winter months, I relied on tracking.
My typical day started (at daybreak) with finding a fresh coyote track and following it till dusk, recording such things as feeding habits, habitat use, socialization, etc. By the end of the day, I often wound up miles from my truck (if you’ve never done such a thing, try following coyote tracks for 200 miles some winter). During the course of coyote investigations, a friend of mine and I teamed up to publish a 40-page bulletin in the Michigan State Museum series covering the mammals of Beaver Island and another on the mammals of nearby Garden Island. I bring this up because it’s a good example of how an alert researcher, when engaged in field studies, will see other opportunities to expand our knowledge of a given subject.
After completing a brief study of deer wintering behavior in Northern Lower Michigan, I undertook more extensive studies of wintering white-tails at Cusino starting in 1964. My objectives were to examine, in detail, the microclimate of preferred deer wintering habitat and determine how deer use protective cover and how their survival is influenced by weather-related factors.
In those days, there were no deer trail cameras or motion-triggered activity monitors. There were also no ATVs. Snowmobiles were available, but they weren’t exceptionally reliable — mine broke down after a few weeks of use, necessitating a mile-long, snow-shoe hike just to reach the study area. I contrived a crude (Rube Goldberg-type) mechanical deer traffic counter, consisting of an alarm clock, reset counter and spring-loaded, mono-filament trip line. It certainly wasn’t the fanciest device in the world, and required frequent servicing, but when positioned on deer trails throughout the deeryard, it provided a reasonably good index of deer activity — when nothing comparable was available.
Meanwhile, back at Cusino, I used a somewhat different triggering system to tally activity of deer in research pens while measuring their daily food consumption. However, with an electric power supply available, I could wire triggering devices to an event recorder and record hourly rates of individual deer activity. That particular system led to the discovery that doe activity rises sharply just prior to estrus, making it a valuable tool when conducting reproductive studies.
In those days, biologists routinely conducted deer population surveys and necropsied vehicle-killed deer to determine their physical condition as well as reproductive potential. Today, given analog and digital computers, biologists use population modeling to assess herd composition and determine harvest rates via elaborate data storage and analysis procedures. There also is increased emphasis on ecosystem and landscape approaches to wildlife management with a corresponding de-emphasis of single-species approaches — such as white-tailed deer.
The research biologist
Technological advancements have certainly enhanced deer research performance, but not without some drawbacks, though. Nowadays, “It is too easy to become an armchair biologist,” claims Miller, “inextricably tied to, and dependent on, computers and complex mathematical models to tell us what is happening and what we need to be doing about it.” Miller also suggests there is “a significant disconnect between how some educators and universities are preparing wildlife students and these students’ understanding of the role and responsibilities of most state and federal natural resource management agencies.”
Clearly, fewer wildlife faculty members today are traditional “consumptive users” of wildlife, meaning there tends to be a reduction in emphasis on hunting and traditional wildlife management and an increased focus on conservation biology in the university classroom. Miller contends the most significant change is that student demographics have shifted markedly since the 1990s. Prior, most wildlife students came from rural backgrounds and had a grasp of a land and work ethic.
In my case, for example, a serious interest in wildlife and the outdoors probably started when I trapped my first muskrat and snared a cottontail at nine or 10 years of age. I became quite proficient at trapping coyotes, red fox, bobcats, beavers, otters, mink and weasels and hunted small game on my own at the age of 15. In fact, the local DNR office frequently directed me to farmers who were having predator problems.
Two years later, the neighbor boy and I ran a pulpwood job for an owner of considerable aspen acreage. We cut aspen by hand with buck saws (commonly referred to as bow saws — no chain saws), peeled it, used a small tractor for skidding, loaded two broken-down trucks (one with no license) by hand (no hydraulic loader), drove 10 miles to a railroad loading deck (no CDLs) and unloaded in railroad cars by hand. This early experience made it relatively easy for me to communicate with wildlife and forestry professionals and habitat relationships at a young age.
From the 1990s to the present, the majority of wildlife students come from urban backgrounds, with many having little or no understanding of hunter’s biological, economic and social relevance to wildlife conservation. In fact, one study found that hunting among college wildlife students declined by 10 to 60 percent during the past 30 years or so and students with anti-hunting attitudes increased 30 to 50 percent.
If this trend continues, it does not bode well for the future of deer research, nor for deer population and habitat management as we’ve come to know it.
Whitetail abundance has fluctuated wildly during the past 50 or 60 years. In fact, in the Upper Great Lakes region, we’ve gone full-circle, from too few deer during the 1960s and 1970s to deer overabundance during the late 1980s and early 1990s, back to low densities more recently. Meanwhile, deer have expanded their range, especially in the Southeast, and seem to be thriving in urban environments. Understandably, deer research emphasis has changed accordingly to accommodate the resultant positive and negative values deer create. Most recently, there has been increased research interest in predation, disease, human-deer conflict and deer population management to satisfy hunters’ quest for quality.
During the course of a five-year study designed to evaluate the pros and cons of supplemental deer feeding conducted in Cusino’s square-mile deer enclosure, I became especially interested in deer social behavior. With the advent of Quality Deer Management and spread of diseases such as CWD and TB, it became obvious that such knowledge was lacking and critical for scientifically-based deer population management. The Cusino enclosure served perfectly for deer social behavior studies. We were able to live-trap and handle each animal for physical measurement, X-ray does to determine pregnancy rates and estimate breeding dates, and radio-collar certain individuals for annual monitoring. This permitted me to select and study a reintroduced herd of a specific sex and age that mimicked a given deer harvest practice. This particular line of study became an obsession with me and continued until my retirement.
The deer hunter
As expected, the deer hunter has changed considerably over time, thus influencing deer research in many ways. For one thing, hunters are more educated, more dedicated and more effective than ever before. They also have higher expectations. Unfortunately, new hunters are not being recruited in sufficient numbers to replace us old guys. Not only are hunters still playing a significant role in deer population management, but more of them are also becoming involved in managing private lands to enhance deer nutrition and deer quality. In other words, they are using the information that research has provided.
Although Jim Miller acknowledged the vital role that hunters play in deer management, he offered the following criticism: “We must acknowledge that, unfortunately, more and more active hunters seem to desire instant gratification. It appears they have been misled by outdoor television shows, many of which have become ‘snuff films’ whose main motivation is to sell more gadgets, including feeders and mechanical and sensory attractants — anything that will shorten the time spent outdoors. We need to further educate the public about the real trade-offs (on both public and private lands) that will be necessary to maintain appropriate habitats and populations to ensure that wild places and wild things can be sustained for future generations. We must find incentives that encourage all or most of society to support natural resource management and sustainability, both philosophically and financially.”
Communication, at all levels, plays a critical role in deer research and management effectiveness and public acceptance of deer hunting as a management tool. Fortunately, surveys indicate 76 percent of Americans approve of hunting, and only 16 percent disapprove. Since the 1990s, Miller has noted “profound changes” in the way wildlife professionals communicate — indicating that we now regularly communicate and share information through email and computer-based tools. As a result, he voiced the following: “Some concerns stimulated by changing technologies, philosophy and culture within the profession include a decreased emphasis on the availability of printed publications and increased emphasis on electronic publications and data sources that may not adequately serve the profession.
Websites and blogs are increasingly utilized as major communication tools and appear in vogue with many newer members of the profession, yet have not precluded the need for targeted publications and critical interaction with stakeholders. Research information remains important to private landowners, managers and other users, and it must be published or made available in appropriate scientific resources.”
The latest deer bible, “Biology and Management of White-tailed Deer,” edited by David G. Hewitt, was published in 2011. The first such all-inclusive book that appeared in 1985, relied on 631 published articles concerning white-tailed deer, whereas the 2011 version accounted for 834 such articles published since then.
One measure of a researcher’s accomplishments is his publication record. Another is the frequency with which his works are referred to by others. My immediate supervisor, Louis Verme, always advised me, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth publishing.”
The book edited by Hewitt will no doubt stand as the reference for white-tailed deer for years to come. While reading the chapter on behavior, written by Karl Miller and Randy DeYoung, I noticed frequent reference to my technical as well as popular writings — at least 16 different manuscripts. When I asked Karl why he referred to so many of my papers, he said “Because you’re the only one who has done so much work.” Compliments such as that, coming from the world’s authority on white-tailed deer behavior, were more important to me than you can imagine.
Equally important is the conveying of technical information in the popular form to the public. Scientific jargon must be translated into useful and practical information available to the public in a manner that can be understood and implemented. “This must happen,” said Miller, “to maintain critical public support for wildlife research and management.”
I published my first couple of magazine articles in 1958, but then very few until 1985, when the Michigan DNR was having serious budget problems and threatened to close Cusino. While discussing the pending crisis with my wife, Janice, she replied, “You researchers spend all your time talking to yourselves; the general public, and hunters in particular, don’t have the faintest idea what you’re doing and why.” She was right. In those days it was rare to see an article in a hunting magazine written by a wildlife biologist. So began my career as an outdoor writer.
Initially, I was rather apprehensive about tackling this subject of deer research change — it’s exceedingly complex. Furthermore, I had a number of preconceived concerns and was admittedly biased in my views. In fact, I felt overly critical; just maybe I was totally wrong. After reading the “Reflections” of Dr. Jim Miller, however, I realized others much more knowledgeable about this subject than me shared my views.
As I said earlier, I have a great deal of respect (and even envy) for most biologists conducting deer-related research today, given the sophisticated techniques now at hand. Most worrisome are trends I see taking place in education, student and instructor background and research project funding. With a reduced emphasis on hunting and traditional wildlife management and an increased focus on pure conservation biology, projects are sometimes designed to yield politically correct answers.
Like it or not, the past president of the Wildlife Society has criticized all of us involved in deer and deer hunting in one way or another. I probably could have done a better job — how about you? On the bright side, remember, white-tailed deer are one of the most behaviorally-flexible mammals on the planet, quite capable of adapting to seemingly unbelievable environmental hardships — humans included. Even so, no one really knows what the future holds for deer and deer hunting.