A video posted yesterday on YouTube details more about a wolf-deer study going on in North-central Washington which we reported on in the August 2013 issue of Northwest Sportsman.
Last winter University of Washington researchers attached cameras to the throats of 20 whitetail and 18 mule deer does in Okanogan and Ferry Counties to “determine how deer behave when they know wolves are around compared to when they’re not.”
That’s what PhD. candidate Justin Dellinger, who is co-conducting the ongoing study, told our reporter Leroy Ledoboer, continuing, “Are they more vigilant, constantly looking around, more alert to predation danger, thus spending less time foraging? And if so, what impact is this having?”
Three wolves in the Nc’icn and Strawberry Packs were GPS collared to track their movements as well, he said.
The new video, entitled “The Ecology of Fear” and produced by Quest Science, shows Dellinger and UW assistant professor Aaron Wirsing driving and walking around the woods, presumably searching for the camera collars after they’ve dropped off the deer, and looking at footage the devices have compiled during filming three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening for two to three weeks.
In a sit-down interview, Dellinger remarks how “individual” deer can be, “like people,” from “high-strung” to “mellow,” observations somewhat anthropomorphic but ones that I’d generally agree with based on what I’ve seen in the woods (the buck I’m currently gnawing on I’d say was “daydreaming” about water, forage or does elsewhere.)
Wirsing, who previously studied sharks off Australia and found that their presence led to more seagrass, shares some preliminary thoughts on Washington’s deer and their relationship with wolves:
“Our deployments so far are beginning to paint the picture that if you’re a deer and you are in a landscape that is being hunted by wolves, you need to spend a lot of time with your ears perked up and your eyes peeled looking around for these animals because of course you don’t want to let wolves to get too close,” he says.
Continuing, Wirsing says, “We’re learning that probably the majority of the impact that predators have on prey species in ecosystems is by being what we would call ‘an agent of intimidation,’ or in other words, a threat. By merely being a threat, predators can affect entire prey populations, inducing many different individuals to play it safe. And when the entire prey population plays it safe, that’s an entire population of deer that aren’t eating as many plants, and that can have huge benefits for plant communities.”
The argument scientists overall are making is that with top predators, whether they sharks or wolves, there’s just more to the landscape — it’s richer, it’s healthier, it’s, basically, more Yellowstoney.
I can’t argue with richer, healthier habitat, which works out for the critters we really like too, but sometimes scientists can be so GD maddening — so what about the health and body condition of deer in a wolfish environment? Doesn’t that matter too?!?!
(A just-out, livestock-industry-funded study from Oregon State University suggests that cattle can experience PTSD from wolf attacks on their herd.)
Maybe it’s just the audience the video was likely made for, but it doesn’t address that. It’s about more understanding of wolf behavior and argues for wolf protections.
In his interview with Ledoboer, Dellinger did note this:
“As we capture more deer in coming winters, we’ll get real data on whether or not the ones in the wolf zones have put on less weight during the good weather, thus going into winter with less fat reserves, and are they having lower pregnancy rates? Everyone understands that wolves do kill deer in their territories, but now we also want to know what their overall impact is. Does just having wolves around decrease a deer’s chances of survival or a doe’s chances of successfully rearing a fawn?”
That will make their work much more relatable for sportsmen as a whole — and will expand on Arthur Middleton’s work with Yellowstone elk fitness.