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I defended my Master's research this month and moved to Hinton Alberta to start a position as research assistant with the Foothills Research Institute's Caribou Program.
Here I'll be helping with important research for caribou conservation in Alberta including working to collect data on their apparent competitors - white-tailed deer - the subject of my Master's research.
For then next 8 months I'll be working on two main projects 1) Developing Resource Selection Functions (habitat models) for woodland caribou in response to mountain pine beetle infestation and 2) Assisting with the capturing and collaring of white-tailed deer using baited traps. I'll be taking an Avalanche Safety course this month and a Chemical Immobilization course in the new year to learn how to safely handle drugs to sedate wildlife.
With Jasper only 25 minutes away I'm pretty excited to live in this small northern Alberta town (population ~ 10,000) despite promises of days well below -30 in the winter. Winter field work will be something new for me and I've come prepared with Muck Arctic Sport boots rated to -40 and several layers of down. Bring on the frigid temps!
In my spare time I'll be checking out the Beaver Boardwalk and Jasper National Park for owls and large mammals. I might have to take up cross country skiing to access some of the sites when the snow starts getting deep! It's probably a good thing that I'm taking avalanche safety training this month.
Update Dec 23rd 2018
It's been nearly two months since I moved to Hinton and I've already seen some new species and learned new approaches to habitat modeling and field techniques.
Last month I set up camera traps as part of a new deer and cutblock study which monitor deer activity in cutblocks of different age classes around west central Alberta to help us understand how to better manage cutblocks to reduce deer presence and apparent competition with caribou. Similar to my study in the northeast of Alberta, we are interested in uncovering how deer select habitat within caribou ranges.
This month, we're gearing up for deer trapping in the new year which means a LOT of preparation. I spent 5 days driving back roads within the Little Smoky (LSM) and Red Rock Prairie Creek (RPC) ranges looking for deer sign (tracks, trails, actual deer...etc.) in the hope of determining some sites to pre-bait with oats and hay.
I was lucky enough to see the Willmore Wilderness Area while I was in Grande Cache which spans over one million acres and is home to elusive species like the wolverine, caribou, cougars and many other wildlife. It is also a key study region for the Mountain Legacy Project.
While in the nearby RPC range I saw all kinds of wildlife tracks which tells me these mountains provide important habitat for many large mammals. Some of the tracks I could identify were snowshoe hare, Canada lynx, cougar, wolf, coyote, moose, mule & white-tailed deer, elk and caribou!
While searching for deer sign I saw first-hand the expansive industrial activity surrounding and within the boundaries of declining caribou herds. The Little Smoky herd is almost entirely surrounded by clear-cutting and linear features. We saw a few old signs of caribou tracks, but no sightings of caribou.
In January, our team will be returning to RPC and LSM ranges to deploy baited deer traps in an effort to capture and radio-collar 20 individuals. This data will help us model deer space-use within important caribou ranges and provide recommendations for better deer and cutblock management practices.
Update January 25 2019
Trapping is underway and we've had some changes to our plans so far. Trapping deer in the foothills is trickier than we anticipated. Instead of trapping in both RPC and LSM, we are focusing our efforts in Little Smoky this year.
So far we have 6 traps set up with several other bait sites on the go, each equipped with a remote camera, a pile of hay, buck jam, alphalpha cubes, corn, and salt. The pre-baiting aspect of this project has been largely trial and error - and now, we're giving it everything we've got to attract deer!
Each day a team of two (one of which is a trained wildlife vet) head out to LSM and check all of the deer traps and re-bait, check the cameras for deer, and look for tracks. Though each trap is set up with a triggered alarm in the event a deer enters, we check the traps each day in case an alarm malfunctions. This means a lot of driving, and sometimes through the night.
We've had a few traps triggered by snowshoe hares visiting our traps, resulting in us re-stringing the trip-wire so that small mammals can't set off the traps. We've also had a few unexpected visitors show up on our cameras, including coyote, martens, and a cougar!
The good news is, to-date we've caught three deer in the traps and we collared two of them! I was happy to be present for two of the captures, the first a large doe and the second a bull fawn. To sedate these deer, we have to physically restrain the deer inside of the trap before the vet can inject them with sedatives by hand.
This is much harder than it sounds, since the deer becomes frantic as we approach the trap and we're basically entering a confined space with a crazed animal (we do wear helmets though, of course). Two of us essentially enter the trap, with the first person throwing a blanket over the deer's head and grabbing the front legs from under them while the second person pushes down on the rump. Once injected, it takes about 4-6 minutes for the deer to calm down and we can remove the trap, place the deer on a carry blanket, and fit a GPS collar and take hair, blood, and fecal samples.
Once samples are collected, we clear the area move the deer away from the trap where the vet injects reversal drugs. These drugs counter-act the Butorphanol and the Medetomidine allowing the deer to wake up and walk away, resuming natural behaviours in about 10 minutes.
We did not collar the male fawn since males grow significantly more than females. Instead, we collected some hair and blood samples without sedating him and let him go.
That's all of the excitement for the time being! I wrangled my first deer, and discovered that clover traps actually do work after a lot of baiting and patience.
Update March 6th 2019
We're nearing the end of deer capture and we're up to 8 collared deer! It doesn't sound like a lot, but we've had a few captures where we couldn't collar the individual (too small or too large for a collar) and we've had two mortalities from predation.
Tracking a mortality signal was a new experience for me, and I wasn't sure what to expect. I mean, I figured I'd find a dropped collar or MAYBE a whole animal carcass, but I didn't expect it to find an active kill site with remnants left.
The collars emit a signal when no movement has occurred over a certain period of time. This tells us that either the collar has dropped off, or the animal is no longer alive or not doing well. We first had a mortality signal from our 3rd collared deer, blue and yellow. We set out with the last known GPS coordinates of the collar and an antennae and receiver in the Little Smokey range. Due to recent cougar activity at our traps, we suspected our doe might have been predated by cougars and therefore brought along our SPOT, bear spray, and a loaded rifle.
We tracked her about 800 meters from a well site road, and about 900 meters from where we originally captured her. We found cougar prints in the snow by a deer bed, and blood marks where the head likely was. Then, we saw drag marks in the snow with blood smears leading to the carcass under a tree. The cougars had buried her head in snow, and plucked her hair, scattering it all over. We collected the ear tag and collar, and recorded the kill site location, and sign of predators.
Our second mortality came a little over a week later, when the fawn of blue and yellow was predated by wolves, also near the trap line. We suspected the fawn wouldn't make it very long after her mother was predated, however we were not expecting the predator to be wolves in this area. We had already seen cougar and coyote sign in the immediate area, and wolf sign a few kilometers away. This was interesting to me given my Master's research on deer habitat in Alberta's boreal forest and how wolves will select where deer are.
In other news, all of our recent deer captures have been adult males! We captured 3 bucks in 3 days, and I was lucky enough to bring along my partner Dave to wrestle one in the trap with me. He went in the trap first, of course. We caught one of them at night and he was 218 lbs, so that was an interesting tackle. I then wrestled another buck the very next morning, we were on a roll.
Just 3 weeks left of deer trapping until the end of our season. It's been such a great learning experience and I hope to be involved in next year's capture.