A recent update report on the East Kootenay urban mule deer trial translocation study that began last winter shows anything but a single clear trend.
The trial involved capturing urban deer living in several East Kootenay communities last winter, including Invermere, and relocating them to backcountry areas nearby. As many of the deer as possible were fitted with GPS radio collars, and biologists have tracked their movements ever since.
Lead study biologist Ian Adams emphasized that the results so far have been incredibly variable, with some deer having moved tremendous distances, and other having not moved at all; and with some deer having chosen to stay in their new natural habitats and others having either found their way back to the municipality from which they were captured or having found a new urban community to call home.
“There’s no, ‘This is what deer do when you move them.’ You could practically write a separate story about each deer,” Mr. Adams told The Pioneer.
A total of 13 deer were relocated from Invermere to the Lavington Creek area, near Findlay Creek west of Canal Flats, during the study; seven of them fitted with radio collars. They initially stayed together as a group through spring before, for the most part, dispersing into differing high elevation areas in May, as mule deer are supposed to
Of the seven with radio collars, two have since been killed by predators (one likely by wolves in Upper Findlay Creek), three went up into the alpine near the release site and then returned to lower winter range in the Findlay Flats-Lavington area in the fall, and the other two each made separate long solo journeys that eventually brought them back to Invermere, at least for some time.
“The first deer came to Invermere quite quickly, coming up Dutch Creek, past the Hoodoos (conservation area), and up Westside. However, she only stayed in Invermere for a few days before heading up to Panorama (Mountain Resort) for the rest of the summer. She was right on the ski runs and spent a lot of time on the ridge leading to the Brewer area,” said Mr. Adams. “In November, she came back to town and has been there all winter.”
The other deer that came back did so by a much more meandering route, going all the way up Dutch Creek to its headwater and the crossing into the upper Toby valley (just south of Jumbo Valley).
“We were curious to see if, when winter came, she would retrace her steps to Lavington Creek or go down the Toby Creek and end up in Invermere. She did the later,” he said. “But it’s important to point out these deer are not right downtown. They are not Pothole (Park) deer. They are staying on the edges of Invermere — one is on the south end of town, the other is in Pineridge.
“Invermere is built on mule deer winter range, so having deer come here from the high country in November is normal. Some of the urban deer in Invermere maintain this pattern — they go to high alpine areas in summer and only come back low to winter range in the summer; it just happens that their winter range is Invermere. But other urban deer stay in Invermere year round — that is not normal. We are curious to see what these two deer do next summer. To be honest, I’ll be surprised if the Panorama deer doesn’t return to Panorama. We’ve already seen her come back to Invermere once, but she left on her own quite quickly. But the Upper Toby deer, we don’t know what she’ll do.”
A number of the deer relocated from other communities (such as Cranbrook and Kimberly) were released in the Koocanusa area, and many of theses deer roamed quite widely – several of them crossing the border and finding new homes in urban communities in Montana, one as far south as Libby. Some were aggressive enough that they had to be put down.
“We said from the outset that we didn’t want to simply move problem deer to other communities, much less export them across the border,” said Mr. Adams add that the collared deer have shown a 50 per cent survival rate, as compared with an 80 per cent survival rate for urban mule deer living in East Kootenay communities over the same time period. He also said concerns that urban deer would be predator-naïve when moved to the backcountry seem to be unfounded, as predation rates are quite similar to non-urban mule deer.
“We’re hesitant to call the study a success at this point. Capture and moving went well. Koocanusa, however, is a major release site and deer released there went on to recreate problems in other town. So it becomes an issue of where else do we release the deer?” said Mr. Adams. “We have to release them on winter range, and in this area that means on the Rocky Mountain Trench bottom. But that’s exactly where we humans tend to build our homes. There are limited release sites. The other issue is the lower survival rate for the translocated deer. Are people willing to accept that? Maybe some will say no, but maybe some will say it’s better than culling them. Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer, no easy ‘yes translocation works, let’s do it.’ But we do want to continue to collect more data.”
“It would seem that translocation is like all the other deer management tools — it’s not perfect. There is no one solution that will make everybody happy and is cost-effective,” Invermere mayor Gerry Taft told The Pioneer. “I’m open to further translocation study. It’s worth continuing.”
The study will be translocating 15 to 20 more deer in the coming weeks, but these deer will only be moved from Cranbrook and Kimberley, not Invermere, mostly for logistical reasons.