Bath County Study Seeks Answers To Decline In Deer Population
Blacksburg, VA – In Bath County, a study is underway to see what might be contributing to the decline of the deer population in the county and the surrounding areas. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has been getting complaints about the drop in the deer population and the Department has enlisted the help of Virginia Tech researchers to look at the issue and if coyotes and bears might have something to do with it. Researchers will find out where coyotes and bears are, approximately how many of them there are and what they are eating. Marcella Kelly, an Associate Professor in the Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Department at Virginia Tech [Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University], is working on the study.
“One of the main things that we’re doing is a survey now for scat samples from coyotes and bears” says Kelly. “We have placed a grid across the landscape and then we systematically search these grid cells for coyote scat. And then those get analyzed in a DNA lab that we’re going to use at the University of Idaho.”
“With these new techniques you can go all the way down to individual animal from the DNA you can get from the scat samples. So we can actually estimate coyote densities from the scat samples. Since we’ll have all these scat samples, we can do diet analysis of the scat to determine proportions of deer in the scat samples and proportions of deer in beer scat samples versus coyote scat samples; also we’re trapping coyotes and putting GPS collars, satellite collars to track movement to get an idea of home range size and movement patterns.”
To get the GPS collars on coyotes, first they are trapped in a padded foot hold trap. Researchers then use a catch pole to restrain the coyote and then put a sheet over it, which calms it down. Then the coyote is muzzled and Kelly says that at that point it doesn’t really move and can be easily handled. Then the GPS collar is put around its neck.
In this study, researchers want to figure out if coyotes are eating animals based on their availability or if coyotes are specifically choosing an animal, such as deer, that has a lower population density. This study may show that changes in the forest in Bath may also be contributing to the decline in deer. Over time the area has developed thicker forests, because of fire suppression and less prescribed burning.
“One of the interesting aspects of this study is that it might be thought that deer are existing kind of in marginal habitat already in those counties, because deer don’t do particularly well in heavily forested environments” says Kelly. “They prefer environments that have more openings. So if you have a habitat that’s kind of marginal already and then you have a new predator that’s coming into the system, it may indeed be too much for deer. We hope we can figure out is that really truly the case or are deer really just not doing well in this type of habitat and they’re never going to do very well in this type of habitat.”
Data collection for this coyote study will finish up at the end of 2012 but analysis will take another year to complete.
“We are working with the Nature Conservancy as well and the US Forest Service, because both of them are doing prescribed burns in some of the National Forest area” says Kelly. “Addressing this idea of whether or not we need to open up some of the landscape a little bit into what was thought to be a more natural state.”
When data analysis from the study is complete, results and recommendations will be presented to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.