The Michigan Predator-Prey Story

From White-tailed Deer Research to Landscape Level Ecosystem Management: How SCI Foundation Led the Way in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

By SCI Foundation – Conservation

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Up in the backwoods of the Wolverine state, the outdoors is a way of life. With everything from moose to muskie, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.) has some of the best hunting and fishing around. But in these Great North Woods, the white-tailed buck is king.

The white-tailed deer is an extremely important species both recreationally and ecologically. Yoopers, as U.P. residents are known, and other Michigan deer hunters contribute over one billion dollars to the state’s economy every year. Deer also serve as the main herbivore and large prey species in this forest ecosystem.

The U.P. hosts a diverse suite of predators including black bear, bobcat, coyote, and wolves, and has the potential to receive up to 300 inches of snow in any given winter. These predators, combined with deep snow and polar vortex colds can be devastating to deer survival.

“The Upper Peninsula is the most difficult place in the United States to manage deer, bar none,” says local wildlife biologist and SCI Foundation Conservation Committee Vice-Chair Jim Hammill. “You can do all the planning you want…about what you think this deer herd is going to do, but one winter can set you back years.”

Back-to-back severe winters in the mid-1990s, and again in 2013-2014, were catastrophic to the U.P. herd. The deer population didn’t recover, and growing predator populations were increasingly blamed for the steep decline. In 2008, SCI Foundation brought together regional stakeholders, including the extensive Michigan SCI chapter network, to undertake a predator-prey study with the common goal of improving long-term deer survival.

In its heyday, the U.P. was home to an abundance of game. Severe winters, growing predator populations and the removal of critical winter cover have resulted in greatly reduced capacity of the region’s ecosystem to support deer overwinter. This is the story of how an effort to save the U.P.’s deer herd ended up transforming the region’s landscape, launching a statewide conservation movement.

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How many fawns does a wolf kill during a summer? What kind of habitat does the U.P. deer herd need to recover? These are the big questions that a team of researchers with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Mississippi State University’s (MSU) Carnivore Ecology Laboratory are answering.

“It’s time to get out of the way,” yells graduate student Todd Kautz as he’s nearly run over by a white-tailed doe. After capturing a pregnant female, conducting a series of tests and collaring her with a VHF transmitter, the sedative begins to wear off and the deer bounds away through the snow. “Oh, great release!”

This doe capture will provide vital data on the U.P.’s deer population as part of SCI Foundation’s ongoing Michigan Predator-Prey Project. “Any time I see a doe take off from a work up looking good to go and completely mobile, it’s a good day,” says Kautz. “If they run me over a little on the way out, I’m ok with that.”

To study predator-prey interactions and the impact of winter severity on the U.P. whitetail herd, researchers start by capturing does. A transmitter fitted to a female deer will alert the scientists when and where a fawn is born. Armed with that information, the team of biologists can locate fawns shortly after birth and fit them with their own radio collars. Data from these newborn fawns is critical to the research project.

Fawn survival is a key indicator of population trend. By tracking fawn survival and cause-specific mortality, the researchers are beginning to understand the predator-prey dynamics in the U.P. ecosystem.

“We’re coming at this from two angles,” says Dr. Dean Beyer of the Michigan DNR, “from the perspective of the deer and the perspective of the predator.”

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The research team, led by Dr. Jerry Belant of MSU and Dr. Beyer, is studying the predator populations and examining prey kill sites to determine the influence of bears, bobcats, coyotes, and wolves on the deer herd. This new information on predator-prey dynamics has directly influenced recommendations for predator management and hunter harvest in the U.P.

The Michigan Predator-Prey Project has conducted an incredible amount of research. Estimating bobcat abundance using DNA samples from hair snares is just one example of the depth of this research, which has resulted in dozens of peer-reviewed publications, technical reports, theses and dissertations. The contribution to science from this project is an achievement in itself.

The local SCI chapter network has supported this project from its onset, through SCI Foundation’s matching grant program and direct contributions. Conservation-minded hunters fund numerous wildlife research projects through the SCI Michigan Involvement Committee and continue to be some of the most active and involved SCI chapters in the country.

The Michigan Predator-Prey Project, and the statewide conservation initiative it has created, has been SCI Foundation’s flagship North American project for nearly a decade. Since the very first grant was issued in 2008, SCI Foundation has contributed close to $400,000 to this research.

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Now in the project’s ninth year, the state is applying what’s been learned to on the ground management. Contrary to public perception on the role of wolves and other predators, the most important research finding suggests that winter severity is actually the most limiting factor for whitetail recovery.

The harsh U.P. winters can have a serious impact on deer. Heavy snowfall forces the herd to migrate to wintering yards with quality cover under the dense canopy of conifer trees. “One hundred percent of the deer are concentrated on only 17% of the landscape during the winter,” says Jim Hammill. When winter habitat is inadequate, deer are exposed to the elements, weakened and left more vulnerable to predation.

As a response, the Michigan Natural Resources Commission reestablished the Upper Peninsula Habitat Workgroup (UPHWG) in 2014 to create forest management plans for deer wintering complexes. The workgroup is a collection of natural resource professionals and sportsmen, all interested in improving habitat for deer.

“White pines, white cedar, and Eastern hemlock provide a tree canopy that gives deer protection from winter weather conditions like deep snow and cold temperatures,” says Hammill. The combination of good thermal cover near open forested food sources is exactly the habitat conditions that the group is looking to increase across the landscape.

The UPHWG is now engaging both private landowners and the timber industry in this movement to improve habitat management. Through a cost-sharing program, landowners have an incentive to participate, and many are volunteering to maintain winter deer yards on private property. The workgroup has already mapped out and begun activity managing 50 deer wintering complexes across the U.P.

The Superior state’s powerful timber industry is also “logging with deer in mind.”  Now, selective cutting leaves important thermal cover standing with young growth nearby. Loggers say it’s the right thing to do and a win-win for the industry and the deer.

Today, the U.P.’s landscape is changing with the attitudes of the people as sustainable logging and private land management work together to conserve habitat.

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One thing that hasn’t changed is the tradition of deer hunting in the Upper Peninsula, and every fall yoopers head into the woods to put venison on the table.

Sparked by hunters concerned with the health of their deer herd and habitat management in the U.P., a collection of Michigan’s residents—sportsmen, private landowners and loggers—have rallied around this project. SCI Foundation and its partners started a movement to improve habitat in one of the most difficult places to manage whitetails, and in the process launched an initiative that will transform the landscape of the U.P.

The UPHWG, an outcome of the Michigan Predator-Prey Project, is a model of conservation that can be applied to other northern states and different habitat types around the country. We now know a lot more about the U.P. deer herd, its complex predator-prey dynamics, and sustainably managing the ecosystem as a result of this research. We have also learned to collaborate among a diverse group of stakeholders to conserve wildlife habitat and preserve a rich hunting culture. This story is something that all SCI members and every deer hunter should know.

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SCI Foundation was officially commended by the Michigan Natural Resources Commission in 2015 for supporting years of research and playing an integral part in launching the UPHWG. From grant funding and staff expertise to volunteer hours and stakeholder engagement, this movement wouldn’t have happened without the help of SCI Foundation.

Thank you to all of our partners on the Michigan Predator-Prey Project, most notably the Michigan DNR, Dr. Jerry Belant and the Mississippi State University Carnivore Ecology Laboratory, the SCI Michigan Involvement Committee and all Michigan SCI chapters. Thanks to all the deer hunters that also support our mission.

To commemorate this success and celebrate the upcoming 2016 deer hunting season, SCI Foundation will be promoting videos from the Michigan Predator-Prey Project throughout the fall. Stay in touch with SCI Foundation communications by following our First for Wildlife blog, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

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Safari Club International Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that funds and directs worldwide programs dedicated to wildlife conservation and outdoor education. Any contribution may be tax deductible under Internal Revenue Code section 170(c) as a charitable contribution to the extent permitted by law. Tax deductible amount of gift is reduced by the “Fair market Value” of any goods, services, or advantages that a sponsor receives for the donation. EIN #86-0292099.

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