U npleasant temperatures, stiff winds and snow would blow into Cranbrook later, but the morning of March 1 was as balmy a late winter day as you could hope for.
In a vacant grassy lot near downtown Cranbrook, bounded by a fence on two sides, the street on another and Joseph Creek on the fourth, a herd of six deer laze about, munching on fresh hay. Another deer lies a short distance away, immobilized by the fence, while a half dozen humans cluster around it.
It’s Day 2 of the East Kootenay Urban Deer Translocation in Cranbrook, a trial project that has already taken place in Invermere and Kimberley.
Six deer were removed from Cranbrook the day before, and the project is hoping for a similar number today. Twenty deer is the total number allowed by the permit.
The immobilized deer on the ground has been knocked out by a dart fired from a dart gun. A couple of minutes after being hit, the deer gets drowsy, lies down and nods off while the rest of the herd continues to browse nonchalantly.
Members of the translocation team — biologists, veterinarians and volunteers — attach a radio collar to the recumbent ungulate, tag its ear and keep a close watch on its vital signs. Other members of the team stand in a semi-circular perimeter of some 25 metres — “border collies,” as one member puts it — to encourage the rest of the herd to stay put. But the herd remains complacent.
The process of preparing the deer takes about five minutes, At one point, a neighbour wanders from the other side of the fence, and attempts to engage in conversation, but he is shushed. Tranquility is key, the goal is to minimize stress on the animals, asleep or awake. The operation proceeds in silence.
With the data collection devices attached, the team carefully enfolds the deer in a blanket and then carry the animal hammock style to the livestock trailer parked by the street, taking care to keep its head elevated and airway open. The rest of the herd watches idly as the team slips by with their bundle.
An urban deer translocation team slips by a docile Cranbrook herd with an immobilized deer, bound for the backcountry. Transmitted data will show the deer they’re carrying will end up roaming some 20 kilometres in the 24 hours after arrival in her new country home. Barry Coulter photo
The deer are being taken — “translocated” — to pre-selected mule deer winter range areas in the Rocky Mountain Trench. In Cranbrook’s case, the members of the urban herd are going to a spot on crown land on the east side of the Koocanusa Reservoir. The radio collars and ear tags will allow biologists and Wildlife officials to keep tabs on how the urban deer are making out in their new country home, how far they range, how they endure the elements, how they herd together, how they fare against predators. After all, this is a trial project, and the data will help determine how successful it is.
In Cranbrook, one deer is already in the trailer as the team comes up with the other. The trailer can carry a half dozen animals, and the day before came off relatively smoothly.
But here’s the trick: For the same reason the unconscious deer’s head must be kept elevated, the deer must be four square on its hooves whilst being transported. Otherwise, it’s likely to regurgitate the contents of its rumen and die from asphyxiation.
So, as each deer must be first immobilized, it must then be woken up with another drug. Inside the trailer, the awakened deer, though confused, tend to be fairly docile if there are two or more of them.
But the first deer inside the trailer is made of stern stuff, and as the team opens the trailer gate and eases the second deer in, the first starts knocking and stamping about. Then, an escape! The deer bursts out of the trailer, right over the heads of the humans clustered around the back of the trailer. Full of vim, the deer, conspicuous by its new radio collar, bounds across the field back to the herd.
Such unplanned occurrences are part of working with wildlife and the crew seeks to recapture the deer to recover the radio collar. Re-darting is attempted, but the reversal drugs used to revive the deer are strong enough to counter-act any additional sedatives. Unable to safely handle the deer, a wildlife capture crew from Bighorn Helicopters volunteers its services to use a net gun to re-capture the deer. Later that afternoon, the deer was quickly restrained, had the darts and collar removed and was released after a couple minutes to continue its life in Cranbrook.
“The unfortunate escape on Tuesday was part of our learning of the translocation process,” says project biologist Ian Adams of Cranbrook based Vast Resource Solutions. “Our crew assessed steps that led to the escape and we addressed how we transfer deer into the trailer.”
A new day on Wednesday saw the improved procedures put in place and work effectively.
“We started the day by capturing a doe and her young from last year,” says Adams. “That way we start off with two deer in the trailer and they were much calmer. An added benefit is that we move the family group — mom and fawn can stay together, which has been a priority for us from the start of the project.” The rest of Wednesday’s captures went smoothly and another trip was made to the release point.
In total 12 deer are translocated from Cranbrook over the three days of capture work, within the target range of 10 to 15 individuals for each community that the project had hoped to move. All seven radio collars allotted to Cranbrook were deployed and are now gathering the valuable data that will be used to assess the success of the translocation.
Those data have already showed that the deer moved into the trailer when the first escaped on Tuesday has shown surprising movements.
“We’ve seen a wide range of initial movement by translocated deer,” notes Adams. “Some have moved very little and stayed close to their release point.”
The deer pictured being handled above and on Page 1 is not one of them. In the first night she crossed the ice-covered Koocanusa Reservoir and headed up the Gold Creek area. In the first 24 hours she moved close to 20 km but has since moved very little.
This is the information biologists and wildlife managers seek to help assess translocation as a management option for urban deer.