Mugging the deer: Fish and Game surveys eastern Idaho fawns

The helicopter hovered low over the hills southeast of Kelly Mountain, snow billowing up from the ground, and deer bounded down the slope to flee the noisy monster.

Idaho Fish and Game research biologist Mark Hurley spoke into his radio to a couple of dozen Idaho Department of Fish and Game employees, biologists and volunteers.

“OK, everyone down, here he comes,” he said, referring to the helicopter.

Everyone hunkered down behind bushes or laid low on the ground like infantry avoiding detection. On the slope above, four deer charged past the people hiding and headlong into a quarter-mile long net. After the deer fell to the ground, tangled in netting, people burst from their cover and grabbed the deer. Blindfolds were pulled over the animals’ heads and people held the deer still with their weight like a wrestler working for a pin.

The fawns were measured, weighed, ear-tagged and collared with a GPS satellite tracking unit and freed within minutes. Does and bucks were released without collars.

By early Wednesday evening, Fish and Game had collared 30 fawns as part of its annual winter mortality study to determine health and population of eastern Idaho’s mule deer herds. The capture will be repeated in several areas across the state, finishing up sometime in late February.

“Seeing how many fawns don’t make it through the winter, that helps us with our population study to know our success rate of how many were (added) to the population for the upcoming year,” said James Brower regional communications manager with Fish and Game.

Brower said working on the capture line is a perk for some employees and volunteers who spend most of their time working in an office.

“Normally I’m doing administrative work, so this is a treat to get outside and work with the deer,” said Melissa Abegglen, a Fish and Game employee from the Egin area. Melissa Abegglen brought along her mother, Luanne Abegglen, who gamefully pounced on a deer to hold it fast.

“This is my first time,” Luanne Abegglen said. “It’s a hoot.”

Everyone wore cold-weather garb as temperatures hovered in the single digits. Snow was ankle deep, but some drifts could be knee deep.

Brower said the helicopter used to herd deer is flown by a pilot with special low-flying certification.

“(Fish and Game biologists) know all the pilots really well,” he said. “Which is helpful because you know that you can trust them. They have to have a pretty specific skill type. Not many folks are certified to do that type of flying.”

Brower said when the chopper is in the air it costs about $1,000 an hour. Hurley said despite the cost, it is more efficient than any other method. Fish and Game population biologist Paul Atwood flew with the pilot. The pilot took directions from Atwood on different areas to herd deer while also trying to avoid the bucks if possible.

“You don’t want bucks coming into the net because they’re dangerous, basically, and that’s not what we’re after,” Brower said. “They’ll also try and spread out where they’re grabbing them from so they’re not getting them from the same spot. That gives us a better general idea of the population in an area.”

The GPS collars give biologist an idea on where the fawns are traveling and when and if they die.

“If the fawn dies, regardless of what killed it — long winter, harsh winter, nutrition, predator of some sort — as soon as that fawn tips over, if it does, we send a technician in there, we try to get there within 24 hours,” Brower said. “They’ll hike to wherever the collar is and they’ll determine the cause of death. Seeing how many fawns don’t make it through the winter, that helps us with our population to know our success rate of how many were recruited into the population for the upcoming year.”

Brower said the biologists participating in the study are able to follow the GPS signals on a computer at their desk.

People who helped with grabbing and holding the deer are called “muggers.” Some of the fawns bellowed like goats in distress as if they had been mugged, but bounded away obviously relieved when released.

The muggers, biologists and technicians appeared to be having fun.

“I think everyone was pretty happy,” Brower said the next day. “I think most of the people walked away with a smile on their face — tired but happy. It’s not something everyone gets to do every day.”

Deer mugging with Idaho Fish and Game

Members of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game spent Wednesday collaring deer. The agency uses a helicopter to herd fawns into nets. Volunteers and biologists then measure, weigh, tag, and collar them.

New group holding ‘Keep Teton Pass Open’ meeting

A new group hopes to tackle the tricky issue of winter use on Teton Pass and has invited all stakeholders to a series of meetings to find solutions.

The Teton Backcountry Alliance is inviting skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and Wyoming Department of Transportation representatives to discuss the need to balance backcountry access and stewardship.

Peggy dePasquale, a spokeswoman for the group, said skier and snowboarder-triggered avalanches have closed the pass several times since 2010 “in some instances burying vehicles and endangering commuters in the process.” These incidents have gotten the attention of WYDOT.

The Teton Backcountry Alliance is holding its first “Keep Teton Pass Open” meeting at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 9 at The Coach in Wilson, Wyo.

“The formation of the group is in response to wanting to build community around many different backcountry issues,” dePasquale said. “We just really want to be proactive and gather these users together and inform them how we can take responsibility for keeping the pass open and not trigger these avalanches that threaten the lives and safety of the commuters and other backcountry users.”

DePasquale said WYDOT’s first priority is keeping Teton Pass open and safe for commuters and the alliance wants to focus on how to help with those efforts and maintain the backcountry recreation.

“We are inviting WYDOT representatives as well as different nonprofits in our community to the event,” she said. “We’re hoping to show that we’re looking to be allies with them and support them in their efforts to keep it a safe area.”

She said because of past avalanche events, access is in jeopardy. The group hopes to help inform fellow backcountry users to police each other.

“It is our understanding that at any point WYDOT has the power to say this is no longer safe for folks on the road for people skiing this terrain and will no longer provide parking … they absolutely could shut down mostly our parking and access,” she said.

New report takes vital signs of Yellowstone National Park

Similar to a health check up, Yellowstone National Park recently took a look at its “Vital Signs.” And like a typical middle-aged American, some of the signs are OK and others are cause for concern.

The results of the study were included in a recently released report, “The State of Yellowstone Vital Signs and Select Park Resources 2017,” that summarizes a variety of key resources, ecosystem drivers, environmental quality and native and non-native animals within and around the park — a park inventory.

The report is a collaboration of several experts. The last such health check-up was done in 2013.

So doctor, give us the bad news first.

“There are concerns about diseases in the ecosystem like chronic wasting disease, the potential for white nose syndrome with bats and also aquatic invasive species and exotic plants moving in,” said Kristin Legg, who works for the park service as program manager of the Greater Yellowstone Network. “We’re getting a better idea of where we are with those and the potential for that to be a problem in the future.”

Legg said park staff can see where things are headed and make plans to prevent or reverse problems.

Legg used trumpeter swans and loons as an example. She said the birds are showing declines in “nesting success,” and park officials are closing areas where they know there are nesting loons and swans to help them “successfully get through their nesting period without human disturbance.”

“The park is taking action on a number of these different things,” she said.

Another area for concern is the mass of humanity — more than 4 million visitors each year — and its impact on the park.

“The park has social scientists on staff and they are doing a number of research and studies to look into what can they do in moving people around the park, what improvements can be made and should there be limits in the park,” Legg said. “They’re gathering information and exploring all options. Everything is on the table.”

Neal Herbert, park public relations officer, said studies include handing out iPads to visitors to track their movements in the park. Tablets are returned at the end of the visits and information is compiled.

“We’ve been doing this study one week a month from May through September,” Herbert said. “I’m sure it will take them a while to crunch their data.”

The park has seven different projects involving hired researchers, staff and volunteers to make observations and surveys concerning “visitor use management.”

“For example, a volunteer may sit in the parking lot at Mammoth Hot Springs for a period of time and record how many cars are usually in the lot, how many people come and go from that area,” Herbert said.

He said once the data is gathered and compiled from the projects, the park hopes to have an idea of specific challenges and possible solutions.

“It’s easy to make assumptions about what’s happening with visitation that don’t stand up with actual data collection,” he said.

Another negative on park health is climate change.

“There is a shift in snowpack and decreases in snowpack over time and the snowpack is shortening in season. It’s not around as long which affects stream flows and river flows,” Legg said. “We’re going to start seeing peaks in spring runoffs earlier because the snowpack is melting off earlier. We’re also going to see low flows earlier in the year. … We’re also seeing wetlands drying as well. And how having wetlands more frequently drying affects not only amphibians but other species that rely on wetlands.”

But the Vital Signs report is not all bad news. Some animals have rebounded from poor numbers or situations.

“I think the grizzly bear work is a really great example of how working together collaboratively across multiple agencies and partners is a success story of how the population of grizzly bears has grown to the point of where it’s being delisted,” Legg said.

Another positive sign mentioned in the report and in recent news headlines is the restoration efforts of native cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake and elsewhere.

“Consistent, annual monitoring programs indicate an increase in the number of juvenile cutthroat trout since 2012. Angler success for cutthroat trout has also increased, and grizzly and black bears have returned to feed on spawning cutthroat trout in some tributary streams,” according to the report.

The report lists an example of improved water quality in the park with a reclamation effort on Soda Butte Creek in the northeast corner of the park. Tailings from a old mine site outside the park turned the water “an intense orange color” but after a collaborative cleanup effort, trout have returned to the stream and the greater Lamar River watershed.

Past Vital Signs reports did not mention cultural resources — things such as Old Faithful Lodge, historic buildings at Mammoth Hot Springs and museum collections.

“One of the cool things is that the park is entering into its collections museum objects for park use and researchers,” Legg said.

She said the park catalogs documents, plants, animals and even furnishings for park staff, researchers and families who have historical ties to the park to review. Many will go on display at the park’s museum.

“Even those yellow tour buses, that’s part of the museum collection. There’s one in a garage somewhere,” Legg said. “It’s an example of the type of things parks collect.”

Legg said that overall the Vital Signs report is a useful tool for scientists, staff and researchers.

“There is value in continuing this type of work, then pulling it together into one document so that we’re able to look at the big picture.” she said.

To read the complete “Vital Signs” report, go to www.nps.gov/yell/learn/management/vitalsigns.htm.