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AEDC whitetail deer under “surveillance”
University of Tennessee graduate student Peyton Seth Basinger displays a male deer that has been fitted with a special tracking collar after being tranquilized. (Photo provided)
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AEDC whitetail deer under “surveillance”

Posted 8/20/2010   Updated 8/20/2010 Email story   Print story


by Shawn Jacobs

8/20/2010 - ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn.  -- The whitetail deer that motorists see dart across Wattendorf Highway, and sometimes collide with their vehicles, are a natural part of the ecosystem around Arnold Engineering Development Center.

As such, the deer require monitoring and attention just like many other animal and plant species on the base.

In fact, some of the deer are part of a sophisticated tracking and monitoring technique, according to Richard McWhite, natural resource manager at Arnold Air Force Base. The project is under the direction of Dr. Craig Harper, a professor at the University of Tennessee, who is being assisted by three graduate students.

"It involves tracking whitetail deer movements," McWhite said. "We've tagged and collared 20 deer - 10 females and 10 males - along Wattendorf Highway and other major travel corridors into the base. We've had deer/vehicle strikes over the years, and we're trying to understand more about deer movement.

"In association with that, we also compared different deer census techniques to see which would be the most cost effective way of tracking deer density. Obviously we don't have wolves anymore, so hunters are the only tool we have actually to control deer because we don't want vehicles controlling the deer population."

The deer are fitted with large collars that do not hamper their movement but send information to a global positioning satellite (GPS).

"We are requesting that hunters avoid shooting those [collared deer] if at all possible because we get more months of movement study out of that," McWhite said. "It's a signal about every minute to a satellite GPS. We can tell from the signal things like if they are
moving or still. There's even a mortality signal that tells us if the collar does fall off the animal or if the animal gets hit by a vehicle and runs off and dies, then we can tell that from the signal from the collar."

He said the collar is programmed for about one and one-half years. It then is designed to automatically fall off and can be recovered and reused. The data, however, are automatically sent to a satellite, so researchers are not dependent on recovering the collar. The collars are expensive, so officials hope hunters or anyone else finding a collar or deceased deer with a collar would call the AEDC Operations Center at 454-7752 or The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) at 931-967-6101.

McWhite said the base is also working with the TWRA to allow appropriate hunting to harvest enough animals to prevent overpopulation both for the ecosystem and vehicle strikes.

Vehicle collisions with deer are actually on the decline, according to McWhite.

"Back when we think the [deer] population was at its peak we were getting around 70 vehicle strikes per year," he said. Now we're in the 20s, so our trend has been down and we think our population is about half of what it used to be."

The reduction in vehicle strikes could also be the result of driver education publicity released over the years. That information reminds motorists that the peak times for deer movement are October through February, especially during daylight and dusk hours. That activity especially increases during November due to the coinciding of hunting and breeding seasons, according to McWhite.

Reducing vehicle collisions with deer is not the only reason for keeping a check on the animals' population. Again, it has to do with the entire ecosystem.

"One of our jobs is to maintain rare and sensitive plants that are listed by the state of Tennessee or the federal government, and we're trying to keep the deer population at a level where they're not interested in eating those," McWhite said. "At an overpopulation level they'll eat about anything they can reach, so by keeping the deer herd at a decent balance you can have your rare and sensitive species not affected."

McWhite is assisted by a staff of conservation personnel who help with endangered and threatened species and work with base natural resources plans as well as the TWRA to try to keep deer numbers balanced.

He said AEDC also tracks how many hunter hours are needed to keep the harvest where they want it by having hunters sign in and sign out, basically just gathering as much information as possible to make sure the deer herd is under control.

"It's very challenging to keep the population down," McWhite said. "Right now our deer population is at an acceptable level everywhere except inside the AEDC fenced area. The population inside this area is almost twice as high as desired, so that means that every year it's very critical that we harvest enough female deer because those are the deer that really control the population."

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