February 15, 2016

BRI, TPWD, ECLCC PROJECT SEEKS TO BOOST MULE DEER POPULATION

Story and Photos by Steve Lang, Sul Ross News and Publications

mdcaptureA number of mule deer does found themselves in new territory this week as part of a research project through Sul Ross State University’s Borderlands Research Institute (BRI).

A collaborative effort by the BRI, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), El Carmen Land & Conservation Co. (ECLCC-CEMEX) and several other sponsoring organizations seeks to invigorate mule deer population at Black Gap Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and adjacent ECLCC-CEMEX property in southeastern Brewster County. A total of 75 mule deer does were net-gunned by helicopter from two private ranches and Elephant Mountain WMA from Tuesday-Thursday (Feb. 9-11). Following capture, the deer were hobbled, blindfolded, and then transported by slinging via animal bags and cable to the staging areas.

After veterinarians and biologists took blood, fecal and DNA samples, inoculations were administered, ages were recorded, the deer were fitted with VHF (Very High Frequency) or GPS (Global Positioning System) collars, transported to Black Gap WMA and ECLCC-CEMEX, and released. Thirty-five of the does were released into a 500-acre enclosed area. After two weeks, they will be freed to roam the rest of Black Gap’s 100,000-acre domain, as well as the adjacent ECLCC-CEMEX property.

In addition to Elephant Mountain, does were captured on two private ranches, located south of Marathon. Other project contributors are the Mule Deer Foundation, Houston Safari Club and USDA Wildlife Services.

Sul Ross graduate student John Clayton “Kiddo” Campbell, Castroville, will monitor the deer movements, dietary habits, survival rates and other relevant data. Comparisons will be made between deer released into the enclosure (soft release) and those liberated without the use of an enclosure (hard release).

Campbell is also monitoring 40 does released in Black Gap WMA and ECLCC-CEMEX in 2015. “I hope to get out weekly for ground telemetry, and have occasional flyovers when needed,” he said. He noted that GPS collars last about 15 months before dropping off the animal, and send out location signals or “points” every three hours. If there is no movement by a collared animal, a mortality signal will be received after four hours. VHF collars can last up to five years, but require visual sighting for data recording.

Campbell noted that mule deer movement can be extensive. “Four deer went to Mexico and stayed there,” he said. “Three other deer had moved north 35 miles and returned, and a majority of the deer from ECLCC-CEMEX went into the national park and then scattered. A couple of deer from Black Gap WMA made it into the national park and also stayed there.”

Shawn Gray, TPWD Mule Deer and Pronghorn Project Leader, said relocation projects have been fairly common in restoring mule deer populations to healthy levels. Collaring the deer provides valuable data on determining travel distances and corridors, establishment of home range, and habitat utilization as well as mortality.

“This (monitoring) will help us learn why and how mortalities occurred, how they use their new home, and what can we do to better manage conditions,” Gray said. He added that preliminary data indicated last year’s “soft release” does “appeared to be staying closer to the release area, as opposed to the deer that were hard released.”

Chris Basse, owner of Maravillas Gap-Basse Ranch, said he was happy to participate in the relocation project. “Our doe population is very strong, and we felt comfortable donating. The ranch is like a nursery; the place is covered with does and fawns.”

Basse credited ample water as a key to the ranch’s mule deer population. In addition to a consistently-flowing creek, nine new wells have been drilled. With the exception of high fences bordering each side of the ranch’s airstrip, “we’re all natural out here (in terms of habitat).”

To learn more about BRI's mule deer research, please visit the Mule Deer Research Program Page.