I asked Dr. Karl Miller, one of North Americas leading whitetail researchers, to participate in this interview so that hunters could get a glimpse into what it’s like to be a wildlife researcher. University scientists like Dr. Miller fulfill dual roles by equipping the next generation of whitetail researchers and managers and by providing new information that forms the basis for scientific deer management.
Wade: How deep and how far back does your passion for the whitetail woods reach?
Dr. Miller: I grew up in a big woods country of Pennsylvania. As you know, many of the kids in that area grew up living and breathing deer hunting. My entire family hunted – brothers, cousins, uncles, grandparents. Like many in the area, we had our deer camp and we lived 51 weeks for that one precious week of deer season. Whitetails were just part of our life.
As a youth, my life revolved around spending time in the woods, whether it was hunting, trout fishing, running a trapline, or just poking around to see what I could see. I was blessed with having a lot of country where I could stretch my legs and explore. There were literally miles and miles of open country waiting out my back door. I remember spending many winter days just following a set of deer tracks in the snow to see where it went and what it did. Unfortunately, so few kids get to grow up with those opportunities today.
Wade: At what point did you decide that you wanted to focus on wildlife science and white-tailed deer?
Dr. Miller: That desire came at an early age. I remember reading magazines like Fur-Fish-Game and seeing ads for correspondence courses to work in game management. I even enrolled in one of these courses while early in high school.
Unfortunately I listened to guidance counselors at school who advised that jobs in wildlife were few. So, I obtained my Bachelor Degree at Penn State in a related field. But I always knew my heart.
I was working on my master’s degree at Ohio State when I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Larry Marchinton from the University of Georgia. Larry and I hit it off quickly and he agreed to take me on for my doctorate here at University Georgia. From that point, we worked together for many years until his retirement. I could not have asked for a better scientific mentor. He provided me the foundation for what I’ve been able to accomplish through my career.
Wade:Where do you work now and what kind of a platform has that position offered you to research deer?
Dr. Miller: I am currently a professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Georgia. My appointment is 60% research, 40% teaching so I spend a little bit more time actually directed toward research. However, in reality, perhaps a quarter of my time is consumed by the administrative burden of today’s university environment. Nevertheless, the blend of the research appointment with a strong teaching component is the perfect faculty assignment.
Wade:How much has whitetail research changed in the last twenty years?
Dr. Miller: Some professionals argue that wildlife students now spend more time behind the computer and less time in the field than they used to. While that may occur in some programs, my students still spend a lot of time in the field. However, what has changed is that technological advances have greatly increased the efficiency and precision of data acquisition. For example, tracking radio-collared animals at one time consisted of obtaining multiple bearings on each individual to generate a location. This was very time consuming and limited the number of locations that could be generated or the number of animals that could be monitored. With the advent of GPS technology, we can obtain very accurate locations at almost any acquisition frequency necessary to answer a particular research question. And, because personnel time is not an issue, we can monitor a much larger sample of animals.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes is in the analytical techniques we use to work through the data generated. GPS technology allows the generation of large data sets that require a significant amount of statistical savvy. But, this data now allows us to answer questions that we only dreamed about answering a few short years ago.
Wade:What have GPS collars brought to wildlife research?
Dr. Miller: With radio telemetry, we were lucky to get a location every day or every couple of days. Moreover, the precision and accuracy of the data was very coarse. With today’s GPS collars we can get highly accurate locations every few minutes if necessary. This accuracy, and the ability to generate frequent locations has greatly expanded our understanding of deer movement ecology and fine-scale habitat use. So far, I believe that we have only scratched the surface of the new information that will become available based on GPS technology.
Wade:Does the student need to be in the field with a laptop to gather data?
Dr. Miller: No, there are a variety of GPS collars available on the market. Some collars are simply ‘store-on-board’ meaning that the location data is maintained in the collar memory. Therefore the collar must be retrieved by the researcher to access the data. However, most of collars we use today allow for 2-way communication with the collar to retrieve data on demand or to reprogram the collar while it is still on the animal. In that way, we can essentially generate real-time locations of the study animals. Additionally, most collars can be equipped with remote release mechanisms that allow us to retrieve the collar at the end of the study for refurbishing and re-deployment.
Wade:How else does this new technology help your efficiency?
Dr. Miller: It has allowed us to increase our sample size – both in terms of the number of locations generated per animal, as well as the number of animals that can be monitored. So, instead of spending hours and hours of time generating a few locations, students can spend their time collaring more animals. Sample size is always an issue when studying deer movement and habitat use. Now we are only limited by financial resources, not personnel time.
Actually, the new technology has not pulled the student out of the field. It has only changed what they’re doing in the field. However, the analysis side of the research is much more involved because they have so much more data. Today’s wildlife biologists must be number crunchers as well as outdoorsmen and women. A collar may be programmed to record a location every hour or even every ten minutes. Across two years, (the average life of batteries) your study will register thousands of points that have to be analyzed. But, these massive amounts of data are allowing us to answer so many more questions that we could not answer with the old technology.
Wade:I see that you are using some of this technology to investigate the impacts of coyotes on deer populations. Do coyotes eat fawns?
Dr. Miller: Of course coyotes eat fawns! However, the important question is “what affect is this fawn predation having on deer populations?” And, if coyotes are having an impact, “how do we address this from a management perspective?” Certainly coyotes are an important issue in many areas of the eastern United States. This is amazing, because coyote predation was not even on our radar screen as a potential issue only a couple of decades ago. Thankfully, there is a host of research projects underway in a number of states across the East designed to address these questions.
Wade:Karl, I attend the Southeast Deer Study Group meetings and I’ve noticed that a lot of new research is further defining such old topics as home range, core areas, seasonal deer movement and dispersal, why is that?
Dr. Miller: Interesting that you bring that up. Many of the original studies on deer movements investigated basic concepts such as what is the average home range size of deer in a particular area, or how much does the average buck (or doe) move on a daily basis?
However, such complex behaviors of animals cannot be pigeon-holed into averages and norms. Rather, the more interesting questions now are focusing on the variability in behaviors among individuals. For example, we can now look at more detailed questions such as how do different age classes of bucks, or even different individuals, employ different breeding strategies? And how successful are these strategies? Or as another example, we can use GPS technology to investigate how deer movements can be influenced by hunting pressure.
Tomorrow: Interview with Dr. Karl V. Miller: Part 2