In my interview with Dr Karl Miller, Part 1, we learned about Karl’s background and what drove him to become one of Americas top whitetail educators and researchers. In Part 2, Dr. Miller discusses some of the new and expanding horizons in whitetail research including GPS technology and how it is changing the face of whitetail research. We will also learn what kind of student it takes to keep up with today’s techno-research and what the future holds.
Wade: Sounds like GPS technology is opening a new chapter in whitetail biology.
Dr. Miller: No question! We’ve learned a great deal over the past decade, and I’m excited about what we’re going to learn over the next. Let me give one example. You have probably heard this idea that mature bucks will undertake excursions outside of their normal range during the breeding season. These findings would have been almost impossible to identify prior to the advent of GPS technology. We’ve also recently found that bucks may undertake these excursions in the spring as well. We monitored a sample of mature bucks at research sites in Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Georgia. Many of these bucks left their home ranges briefly during the spring, traveling up to several miles, before returning within one to two days.
Certainly GPS technology is allowing us to investigate aspects of deer behavior that we could never research before. Deer movements as related to hunter pressure, is particularly interesting to hunters and biologists alike.
Wade: Yes, I was in the audience when that paper was given. It’s the kind of information guides and outfitters don’t want their clients to know or understand.
Dr. Miller: The paper I think you are referring to was presented at the Southeastern Deer Study Group Meeting and basically confirmed what some hunters already knew. The study by the Auburn University research group revealed that adult bucks were on average located further from hunting blinds on the last day of the season vs the first. They also found that bucks were four times more likely to come to a food plot in daylight hours on opening day as later in the season. The bottom line – pressure matters.
Wade:I always talk to people about this very observation. A hunter spends $3,000 to go on a whitetail hunt, and then some guide sits him in a tree stand that someone else has been sitting in for three weeks. No wonder he has an unsuccessful hunt. Deer aren’t stupid. They are masters at avoiding predators.
Dr. Miller: Exactly right. Recently, one of my graduate students, Jim Stickles, did a similar analysis with data from some of his GPS-collared deer, and he found basically the same results. Clearly, it is possible to over-hunt a stand. Minimize your scent footprint, watch the wind, move around to multiple sites, and you’re better off.
Wade: What obstacles and challenges do wildlife researchers and educators face when doing your job?
Dr. Miller: One challenge, particularly with many students who come from metropolitan backgrounds, is that they come with little traditional outdoors experience. Yet some of these same students have very good analytical and technological backgrounds. Understandably, in some cases, their field skills are underdeveloped because they have had little opportunity to spend time in the field.
Wade:Can you teach them the outdoor skills?
Dr. Miller: Certainly, that’s part of our job to help students develop specific field skills. However, as you can imagine, if a student has not spent time growing up in the woods, they often have a steep learning curve. However, once the data is gathered, those same students may be gifted in technology and excel in data analysis and interpretation. When you find a student that can merge both of those you’ve really got something.
Wade:Are there enough good students to get the job done?
Dr. Miller: Oh yeah, I have been so blessed with my students. Year after year, I get the opportunity to work with a genuinely quality group of wildlife graduate students. They are as different as the seasons but the important aspect is that they have passion. Not only are they adept at getting the data and analyzing the data, but they can also interpret well too. I am proud of the accomplishments of every graduate student who has passed through the University of Georgia Deer Lab. Most have gone on to make their own significant mark in the wildlife profession. Seeing their accomplishments is what makes my job so rewarding.
Wade:My personal passion for wildlife had its roots in my childhood when I spent all of my time in the woods around the Youghiogheny River in South Western Pennsylvania. It would be hard to replace that experience with classroom time. How do you bridge that challenge?
Dr. Miller: You and I grew up developing the woodsmanship skills that underpin our passion for, and understanding of, the outdoors.
I tell all my students that they can learn a lot from books, taking classes, reading journal articles, watching videos, even working on a research paper. However, the best teacher is experience in the field. That cannot be replaced. Therefore, even in the classes I teach we spend at least one day each week in the field.
Wade:What is the least favorite part, yet a challenging component of your job as a wildlife educator?
Dr. Miller: I love the teaching and the research, as well as the interacting with undergraduate and graduate students. However, in today’s academic climate, the amount of paperwork, committee work, compliance issues, and budgeting sure can be a major time drain. Additionally, the type of work we do today is getting pretty expensive and funding is always a challenge. Like many researchers I do spend a lot of time and effort generating funding and administering budgets.
Wade:Has that been the least favorite part of your career?
Dr. Miller: At first thought I might say yes, but throughout my career I’ve been blessed with being able to generate sufficient funding to pursue my research interests. The University of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources have always enjoyed a close working relationship. Numerous other agencies, organizations, and corporate and private entities have been very generous in their support of the UGA Deer Lab. So, I guess I’d have to say that the administrative burden is the least favorite part of my job.
Wade:Do you have to work through government red tape?
Dr. Miller: Federal, state, and university red tape – there’s plenty to go around! At the University all of our research on animals must be approved by our Animal Care and Use Committee. That’s a federal mandate. We also must secure appropriate permits from the DNR in each state where we work, and federal permits if it involves federal landholdings. State and federal permits are also required to use specific immobilizing agents to capture deer. These are just a few examples. It has become a different world than it was when I started my career.
Wade:I can see when you’re listing all those things that’s its not easy. The casual observing thinks, “Wow, we’re going to go out and dart a deer, and put a collar on him, and watch the computer screen!” It’s a lot deeper, isn’t it?
Dr. Miller: No question about it. The science is only part of the equation. Gearing up for a project takes a lot of time and effort. In addition, the technology is growing fast. Just keeping up with the changes in the technology and the methods to analyze the data is a challenge on its own. That’s where I rely on the capabilities of the next generation of researchers. Their minds are much younger than mine. Technology is their world.
Wade:I’m thinking about the reader, he’s probably a hunter. How important is that hunter’s role in wildlife management?
Dr. Miller: The hunter-conservation is the driving force behind wildlife conservation in the United States. They are the tool used by state agencies to manage deer populations. On private lands, the hunter is the one manipulating the habitat. However, perhaps most importantly, the hunter is the financial driver who provides much of the funding for wildlife management through license fees, federal taxes through the Pittman-Robertson Act, contributions to non-profit wildlife organizations and so on.
Wade:What is your perspective on the future of whitetail hunting? Can you offer an encouraging word for whitetail hunters?
Dr. Miller: Certainly, the white-tailed deer and whitetail hunting face a number of challenges. We’re all aware of issues such as urban/suburban deer overpopulation, disease outbreaks, predation issues, hunter access issues, declining hunter recruitment, and so on. But be sure to keep these things in perspective. 100 years ago, whitetails were scarce over much of their former range and the issue was how are we going to bring them back. Even 50 years ago in many parts of the South deer were scarce.
Deer populations are incredibly different than they were just 3 generations ago. Many of the issues we face now are related to the success we achieved during the restoration of the species. This is not to downplay the importance of the current issues. However, given the widespread interest in deer and deer hunting, and the emerging young agency biologists, managers and scientists ready to tackle these issues, I am very optimistic about the future of the whitetail resource.
Wade:Is today’s hunter more whitetail savvy than his grandpa was?
Dr. Miller: I think it’s pretty clear that the American hunter is much more knowledgeable than previous generations. All forms of media have contributed: magazines, TV, seminars, DVD’s and the internet have all channeled good information to hunters. Many state agencies have excellent hunter education programs. Several non-profit organizations, such as the Quality Deer Management Association, serve as conduits of educational materials to the hunting public.
Wade:What new management issues are we facing?
Dr. Miller: Fifty to 100 years ago, we had the challenge of restoration. Next, we had the challenge of maintaining deer populations within ecological balance. Now we’re looking at the challenges of the future. Some of the challenges pertain to specific diseases such as CWD and EHD. Other challenges are more social in nature and reflect a diverse society’s opinion on how to properly manage deer populations.
Wade:Karl, I talk to dozens of young students who say they want to go to school to become a wildlife researcher. What advice do you offer them?
Dr. Miller: IF it is your passion, and IF you cannot picture yourself doing anything else as a career, and IF you are willing to work outside the 40 hour work week, then a career in wildlife research may work for you. However, you certainly don’t have to go through 10-11 years of college and obtain a PhD to do research. There is nothing that precludes anybody from doing research. All you need to do is ask the correct questions and collect the right data.
Research can be as simple as collecting hunter observation data from the deer stand. Cameras are affordable, there is nothing stopping anyone from doing camera surveys. It’s all research. And the information you can learn on your hunting areas is probably just as valuable to a hunter, if not more valuable than scientific research. I know several hunters and landowners who have amassed some impressive datasets driven purely by their passion to learn more about the deer on their property.
Wade:Do you have a final thought for today’s whitetail hunter?
Dr. Miller: No other country on earth has the publically accessible wildlife we have here in North America. Be sure to slow down and take the time to enjoy the blessing that we have been given. Remember Job 12: 7-9.
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