DNR predator-prey study nears completion

Garrett Neese/ Daily Mining Gazette Ashley Lutto, left, a research associate with Mississippi State University, takes bear cubs from Joseph Goergen, acting director of conservation of the Safari Club International Foundation, after a bear den check Wednesday. Goergen was keeping the cubs warm with a device in his coat while researchers collected samples and took measurements of their mother.

KENTON — Researchers at the Department of Natural Resources and Mississippi State University are nearing the end of a 12-year study of whitetail deer and their predators in the Upper Peninsula.

The study includes three three-year phases of low, medium and high snowfall zones, separated by transitional years. This is the second year of the high-snowfall phase, which covers 1,550 square kilometers in Baraga, Houghton and Ontonagon counties.

The premise stays the same, but the snowfall and predator mix change with location. They include bears, whose dens researchers checked Wednesday, as well as coyotes, bobcats and wolves.

“The relationships between winter weather habitat and predation in relation to whitetail deer is actually quite complicated, and we need to cover the range of conditions that we see in the U.P. to better understand what mechanisms are driving whitetail deer populations,” said Jerrold Belant, professor of wildlife biology and management at Mississippi State.

The researchers will check 12 dens this winter — four in December and eight this week. The earlier checks are for males, who won’t have cubs with them.

“We wait until this time of year, usually the third, fourth week of February, to do those females who may have cubs, because we want them old enough that they can be safely handled,” Belant said.

One bear tracked by researchers since the summer was found to have three cubs with her. They were still too young for their bodies to regulate their temperature in the cold. So a sound resembling a leaky balloon periodically emanated from the jacket of Joseph Goergen, who kept the cubs warm during the check.

“It was the first bear den check for me, and it was obviously an awesome experience having those cubs clinging to my chest,” said Goergen, acting director of conservation of the Safari Club International Foundation, which funds the study along with the Federal Wildlife Restoration Act and the SCI Foundations’ Michigan chapter.