The North Dakota Game and Fish Department and South Dakota’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks are partnering on a two-year study to monitor 150 whitetail does with radio collars in southwest North Dakota and northwest South Dakota.

According to Bill Jensen, big game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, a New Zealand helicopter crew recently captured and collared 50 does each in Grant and Dunn counties of southwest North Dakota and Perkins County in northwest South Dakota.

The study, which aims to shed light on whitetail habitat use, survival rates and production trends, is modeled after a recently completed study in Walsh County of northeast North Dakota and an earlier project in the Wing and Tuttle areas of central North Dakota.

Two graduate students from South Dakota State University will be coordinating the fieldwork and monitoring the collared deer, Jensen said.

“The questions that we’re asking are all management-oriented,” he said. “It’s not ‘gee-whiz’ biology that doesn’t pertain to daily management.”

Besides different habitat than the previous sites, this study differs from the other two because it involves a neighboring state, Jensen said.

“It’s not unheard of, but it’s not common, either, to have studies that go across state lines like this,” Jensen said. “Sometimes, states are pretty provincial about what they do. It’s not like we don’t talk to each other, but each state has different budget cycles and different protocols for the funding mechanisms to get projects off the ground.”

CWD, oil

According to Jensen, part of the North Dakota study area is in deer hunting Unit 3F2, where chronic wasting disease has been documented. The brain disease, which affects deer and elk, is fatal.

“Hopefully we’ll get some information on how those deer move around,” he said.

The Dunn County area is similar to Grant County, with a mix of river systems, cattle and small grain agriculture, Jensen said, but there’s more energy development in Dunn County.

“We’ll get some information on how that might be affecting deer,” Jensen said. “And then Perkins County (in South Dakota), they don’t have chronic wasting disease and they don’t have oil, but they share a lot of the same agricultural components and land use patterns.”

Andy Lindbloom, senior big game biologist for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks in Fort Pierre, S.D., said this is the first time he can remember the states partnering on a deer study. Like southwest North Dakota, the South Dakota study area has suffered deer die-offs from a disease called epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD, Lindbloom said.

“It’s really nice to be able to combine our funds and our resources,” Lindbloom said. “It increases our sample sizes and our inference base and, for the purposes of this study, South Dakota can act as a control in evaluating some of the energy development in North Dakota.

“We tried to pick a site that had similar habitat and deer populations, but obviously wanted a site that didn’t have any energy development.”

Jensen of Game and Fish said the study areas in the cooperative project also have mule deer, which weren’t present in the two previous studies near Wing-Tuttle and in Walsh County.

Results from those two studies showed that deer in the Wing-Tuttle area relied almost exclusively on grassland habitat for fawning sites, while whitetails in Walsh County produced most of their fawns in tree rows.

“It’s where they’re not disturbed,” Jensen said. “In the Red River Valley, about the only place that isn’t cultivated are the tree rows. They don’t do well having fawns just in plowed fields. They need the cover for protection.”

Deer still on air

While the Walsh County study has concluded, Jensen said 40 to 50 does still have radio-collars. He said Game and Fish will collect and examine any dead collared doe that’s found, but the deer won’t be monitored on a regular basis. Department staff collected a dead deer in Walsh County last month that’s in a freezer awaiting necropsy, the wildlife version of an autopsy, he said.

“We’ll look at that and see what the cause of the mortality was, and there will be some periodic flights to see who’s on-air and who’s dead,” Jensen said. “And if we find a dead one, we’ll pick it up.”

Jensen said North Dakota’s portion of the southwest deer study will run “a little north of $400,000,” with the bulk of the cost funded by federal grants made possible through taxes on guns and ammunition.

The hope, Jensen said, is to continue doing similar studies across North Dakota in the coming years.

“You always learn something new on projects like this,” he said. “If we knew it all, we could just sit in the office.”