Wasatch High School CAPS students recently teamed up with the Division of Natural Resources to track the health of Utah’s deer population.
Students from the Wasatch Center for Advanced Placement Studies were recently tasked with tracking flying deer. Not from Santa’s fleet, these deer were captured and transported in a helicopter sling to a team of biologists tracking the health of Utah’s herds.
This is the first time the DNR has tracked mule deer in the Heber Valley. Matthew Zierenberg is the agricultural environment instructor for CAPS and said his students enjoyed becoming wildlife biologists for the day.
Deer capture is not an easy process. A professional helicopter crew from South Africa tracked and captured each deer using a net gun from about 50 feet above ground, which Zierenberg said is a bit different from their day jobs tracking rhinos and elephants.
“They find the animal, they shoot a net over the animal, one of the South Africans will jump out of the helicopter, put a blindfold on it and put some hobbles on its feet,” he said. “They’ll sling that back to us with the helicopter. And with the blindfold, they kind of calm down and we’re able to handle them and make sure that they’re safe and healthy and released.”
The students have also helped monitor bighorn sheep and elk. WHS Maggie Lundquist said the previous bighorn sheep captures were more stressful than working with deer and she was grateful to learn from trained professionals who ensured the animals were not harmed.
“Everything had to be right and quick because bighorn sheep can overheat and get to a certain temperature where they can have a heart attack and die,” she said. “So right when they would sling them in on the helicopter we would wrap them in ice towels to keep them cool and we’d give them an IV and pour water on them constantly to regulate their temperature. And if they reached a certain temp we would have to let them go.”
For its most recent capture, the DNR assessed about 50 deer. Wildlife biologist Aaron Sisson said they also fit them with GPS and VHF collars to track their migration and movement patterns for two years.
“We collect weight, we do body condition, we age the deer, we measure rump fat, we draw blood for disease testing and things like that,” he said. “And that all goes into our database to help us better understand the health of the herd and gather a body of information to help better manage the resource.”
The good news is the deer that survived the record-breaking snow year spent the summer feasting on the abundant vegetative growth.
“So far, the deer that we’ve been capturing have been really healthy, really fat, which is a good thing,” he said. “You want deer with lots of fat reserves going into the winter because that’s how they survive. A lot of people might complain about having deer in their yard–those deer basically slowly starve to death all winter. So they need to be as fat as they can going into the winter to be able to make it and so winter range is a critical factor in deer survival.”
And the deer aren’t the only ones benefiting from these efforts. Students get real world experience and sometimes, even find their future calling like CAPS student Kash Cummings. “To go there and actually see what kind of tests and what kind of experiments and studies they’re doing, to see if it’s something that I would like to pursue. And I’ve actually been interested in this kind of career since sixth grade. So it’s definitely awesome to go in and see what’s going on and that kind of stuff that I’ve always wanted to do.”
And thanks to his experiences through Wasatch Center for Advanced Professional Studies, he hopes to continue to do it for many years to come.