Are Whitetails Strange or What?

Sponsored by: Nikon Sports Optics & Wildlife Research Center


By: Bob Robb

Whitetail archery season is set to open in your state soon (if it hasn’t already), which made me go through some old research projects that show us some of the things that deer, and deer hunters, do that are a bit off the wall.  How about this one? Dr. Kim Tolson and Benjamin Oubre at the University of Louisiana at Monroe found three deer at the Fort Polk military base with lead bullets in their stomach.  Deer eating bullets?   Yes, in fact one 6 ½-year-old doe had 35 whole bullets in her stomach.  The stomach of a 1 ½-year-old buck had 15 bullets and 6 lead fragments, and a 5 ½-year-old buck had 14 bullets. What’s up with that? Could this be a new baiting technique? You know, lay some old ammo on the ground with a sign that says, “Eat lead, sucka!”

Now, since lead isn’t recommended for human consumption, if deer had lead bullets in their stomach they just might have some residues in muscle. So the researchers biopsied 84 more deer and found that six had elevated levels of lead in the liver, but their muscles were fine.

You ask, why would deer eat lead bullets?  The researchers believe that bullets within the military base, left there after years of military maneuvers, oxidized and this caused sodium build up on the bullets, and the sodium is probably what caused the deer to eat them.  I guess we’d call them mini-bullet-salt blocks.  I doubt that this is any cause for concern in the wild as spent bullets would not be found in high numbers except on a military base.

You think that’s strange?  The Westvaco Ecosystem Research Forest is and 8000-acre West Virginia area owned and maintained for wildlife research by Meadwestvaco Corporation.  University of Georgia researchers recently concluded a study on deer movements at the forest and in the course of that study they observed some unusual behavior.  They had a number of does radio collared from April to September, 2004 and noted that quite a few of those deer were leaving their home ranges for short periods of time.  Deer seldom leave their home ranges, but these does were traveling two miles, then returning on the same day.  Even more unusual was the fact that all of these deer were going to the same location.

This caused the researchers to check out that location and they found a gas well.  Now gas wells are rather common in that region of West Virginia, but at this one they found the reason for the unusual deer movement.  When you drill for gas, you often get a salty brine liquid; at this well that brine was found to have very high concentrations of sodium.  That is why the deer went to this well over the many others in the area.

We know that deer go to natural salt licks, especially in May and June. Visitation to this “salt lick” was no different. The highest visitation rates were found in May, when does are near birth and bucks are starting to grow antlers.

We all are aware that one of the reasons the non-hunting public tolerates us is that hunters help control high deer numbers as part of local of wildlife management. But one Pennsylvania study gives reason for concern. This 113,048-acre research area was a 113,048-acre public forest in central Pennsylvanian that is very rugged, with steep hills up to 61 degrees in slope. Paved road access was monitored, and hunters were stopped and asked to volunteer in the study.  The hunters were told that they’d need to carry GPS units during the day and then stop for a post-hunt interview as they headed for home.

Over 250 hunters agreed.  When they left the area, they were interviewed and asked to show researchers map locations where they walked.  Hard to fib to the interviewers when you have a GPS unit that has recorded where you have been, right? The results showed that most people have no idea how far they traveled.

In this study hunters walked an average of 3.4 miles per day, and 87 percent hunted within 0.3 miles of a road! Remember, these guys were not road hunting, but they didn’t get very far from the road when they hunted.  And get this — the hunters thought they were one mile from a road.! In fact, hunter density was predictable based on distance from roads and steepness of the habitat.  For every 550 yards from a road, hunters were three times less likely to hunt.  For every five degrees of slope the area was 1.5 times less likely to be hunted.  Want to find a place in that 113,000 acre public land where you wouldn’t be bothered by hunters?  Simply walk a little farther and find some steep ravine with thick cover and you’d probably find deer and no hunters.

There’s more.  Many Pennsylvania hunters have been complaining for years that recent management strategies have excessively lowered deer numbers. Complaints of not seeing enough deer, nor any deer at all, have been common.  The Game Commission has taken major flack because of increased doe harvests as many hunters feel deer numbers are too low.  But the Commission is concerned about forest ecology and overbrowsing, and in some areas forest habitat is in terrible shape.

Maybe deer numbers are too low in some locations — but on this research area, it appears that hunters just aren’t hunting hard enough to control deer. That can be said since hunters harvested only seven percent of radio-collared adult does in the area.  Because hunter success was so low and the fact that hunters just didn’t get off the roads, the researchers concluded that “hunting may not be an effective tool for controlling deer on large tracts of public land in Pennsylvania with steep terrain.”  If you are concerned about the future of hunting and our acceptance by the non-hunting public, then this conclusion is a bit scary.

Let’s end with this one. Remember when the thinking was that by putting wildlife warning reflectors mounted on posts along roads that supposedly deter deer from crossing roads by reflecting car headlights into the area along the road edge and scaring deer from crossing? Do/did they ever work?

University of Georgia researchers used infrared technology to determine exactly where deer were as researchers drove down the road beside the reflectors.  This technology allowed the researchers to see exactly where deer were from the heat radiated from their bodies. They knew where the deer were before their headlights hit the wildlife-warning reflectors.

Their conclusion? Wildlife-warning reflectors do not reduce deer-vehicle collisions.  Instead, it appears that the deer reflections actually increased the chances for a deer to get hit.  With no reflectors the deer walking toward a road would pause to let the car pass.  But with the reflectors in place, they didn’t pause as often and continued to walk into the road.

Have a safe and fun deer season!



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