No doubt: Deer patterns change in wolf country
September 1, 2010 by
If you hunt the north woods, you've certainly heard this and maybe even said it yourself: Now that wolves are running rampant across the landscape, the deer are gone. But if you do the math, you'll quickly figure out that that's not really possible. For example, there are something like 300,000 deer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and fewer than 600 wolves. Even if there were twice that many wolves, which there aren't, and each one ate 50 deer per year, which it likely doesn't, that would account for 60,000 deer, about 20 percent.
But studies show that most wolves eat about half that many deer, so it's reasonable to think the U.P. wolves eat more like 15,000-20,000 whitetails a year. That leaves plenty of deer roaming the U.P., but reports from hunters are nothing if not consistent: As wolf numbers increase they see fewer deer, and no one is suggesting otherwise.
"They are definitely impacting the deer herd, regardless of what Fish & Wildlife say," said Dan Kirschner, a hunting guide in Menominee County who actually saw a wolf run down a fawn while he was jogging a rural road last year. "If you back up to 5-7 years ago you'd have a couple (wolf) sightings a year. Now I pretty much see them monthly. I've seen nine since the first of July."
Wolf numbers across the Upper Great Lakes have risen dramatically enough that wolves will likely come off the federal Endangered Species List as soon as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service enacts a technicality-free, lawsuit-proof management plan.
Biologists estimate that Michigan and Wisconsin, from which wolves were extirpated by the 1960s, each have about 600 wolves. Minnesota, which has always had a wolf population, has around 3,000 wolves.
That may not be enough wolves to wipe out a deer herd, but it's certainly enough to change the way deer behave. Add in a harsh winter like 2008's that can take out as many as 100,000 deer, and it's no surprise that a hunter may see fewer deer than he's used to seeing.
One of the biggest differences in deer behavior can be seen around a bait pile, according to wolf experts. Since bait piles concentrate deer, they also concentrate deer scent, which in turn attracts predators. It didn't take long for deer to figure out that standing around in large numbers isn't exactly a wise strategy in wolf country.
"Deer are less likely to concentrate in areas," said Adrian Wydeven, a Wisconsin wolf biologist. "They tend to be more spread out on the landscape, so baiting and things that concentrate deer aren't as effective."
The good news for deer hunters is that wolves don't tend to lurk in one spot waiting for prey. They're constantly on the move, covering ground and looking for their next meal. So even if they run the deer out of a specific area, the deer don't range far, and it won't be long before the wolves move on.
"Whether (deer) get more skittish or move at different hours might be true," said Craig Albright, a biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources who conducts an annual survey of U.P. hunting camps. "We know that deer don't abandon their home range when predators show up. They might shift their distribution. Also we know that predators aren't the type of animal that will camp out on someone's bait site. Wolves may travel up to 20 miles and that's not unusual for predators that are trying to capture large animals. Nonetheless we do get reports from people who hunt in areas with wolves that they notice behavior where deer will be less viewable to them."
A hunter who scouts thoroughly and knows where deer go when they're pressured won't have to wait, according to Brian Roell, Michigan's top wolf biologist.
"You kind of want to start hunting again, not just sitting in a shack over a pile of cabbage or whatever it is, waiting for the deer to come to you," Roell said. "The guy that really wants to get out there and really hunt probably enjoys having wolves there because they're moving the deer around. Heck, if I had a 40 and there were wolves there I'd probably want to move too. But pretty soon those wolves will be gone and the deer will come back. Too often if people aren't seeing them at the bait site they just assume they aren't there."
A long-term study is under way in the south-central Upper Peninsula to determine the effects of predation and harsh winters on whitetail deer populations. Professor Jerrold Belant of Mississippi State University is working with the Michigan DNRE to determine the effects gray wolves, coyotes, bobcats and black bears have on deer populations in the Upper Peninsula.
The study is being funded by the Safari Club International and the SCI Michigan Involvement Committee.
"We have a situation where deer seem to be declining overall, but we also have these predator populations increasing," Belant said. "(The data) are certainly suggesting that there is relationship."
The study began in 2008 and includes putting radio collars on the aforementioned species as well as adult deer and fawns. In the first fawning season researchers collared 49 fawns, 28 of which died through September. Of those, 18 were attributed to predation: seven by coyotes, five by bobcats, two by black bears, one by a bald eagle, one by an unknown canid (wolf or coyote) and three by unknown predators.
By tracking survival of does and fawns and determining how abundant each species is and how much home range they use, Belant and his research team hope to better understand the relationships of deer, predators and habitat. But so far there's only a year's worth of data, a mere blip from a scientific standpoint.
"We're just scratching the surface," Belant said. "We hope to shed some scientific light on these relationships."