Life & Times of the Whitetail Biologist
What line of work are you in?
By J.T. Fleegle
It's pretty common when I meet new people to be asked this question. When I answer, "wildlife biologist," I'm met with looks of curiosity, envy or fascination. My mother still shows me off like a circus oddity. Most of my colleagues are also wildlife biologists, making it the norm in my world.
This profession seems to capture the imagination; I am still fascinated by it. Not everybody has the opportunity to wrestle deer, radio-collar elk calves, visit a sow and her cubs in the den, fly over mountains and valleys chasing bats, or be an integral part of a species management program.
But being a wildlife biologist isn't all Jeff Corwin and Animal Planet. TV frequently covers only the "fun" stuff, which is edited neatly into an hour, often omitting equipment failures, weather issues and uncooperative wildlife. Reality isn't always so exciting; there are endless reports to write, mountains of paperwork to complete, and barrels of smelly deer heads to collect data from.
In an attempt to show you "real world" biology and biologists, The Life and Times of the Whitetail Biologist will follow the scientists who follow this graceful ungulate. For the next year, you will have a front row seat to all the mundane and exciting things biologists of the Game Commission's Deer & Elk Section do.
The work of a biologist changes seasonally and involves what some might consider unique tasks. From being a slave to the computer, to not remembering what your office looks like because you haven't seen it in weeks. And let's not forget the most dreaded aspect of every job – the meetings. Yes, biologists must endure them, too. And while the "job" of wildlife biologist isn't quite what I expected, I can't imagine doing anything else – except maybe winning the lottery and doing fun field work (Animal Planet-type stuff) the rest of my life.
So let's explore the adventures of the wildlife biologist. Perhaps it won't be what you expected, either!
People, people and more people
By J.T. Fleegle
I don't like people, so, I'm going into wildlife biology." To any wildlife biologist, this is the punch line of a bad joke. In every wildlife management class, students are told wildlife management is ten percent animal management and ninety percent people management. As a student, I heard these words and I understood them, but I'm not sure I truly believed them. Even through graduate school, students are relatively insulated from the social side of wildlife management. I'm not sure anything could have prepared me for the public tsunami that, at times, seems to drown out anything that has to do with wildlife.
Many on the outside think biologists live in the wilds, keeping the company of animals, worlds away from humanity. Being part of a state deer management program is more like living in a fish bowl. And everyone is tapping on the glass, watching us swim around.
In February, our fish bowl gets really sloshed around. After hunting season is over, 'tis the season of sports shows and open houses. This is when I question if I have the right degree on the wall. It says wildlife biology. But after a day at the Eastern Sports & Outdoors Show, a degree in sociology, psychology or communications might seem more useful. Our job is not only to gather and analyze data and make management recommendations, but also to help people understand why the recommendations are made. Most people don't see the hundreds of hours of data collection, analysis and deliberation that go into forming recommendations. Deer management is a complicated business and people have questions. When you flip the light switch at your house and the light goes on, do you think about the coal that is being burned, the complex inner workings of the power plant that changes that heat into electricity, the power lines and transformers that transport that energy to your electric meter, the wiring from your meter through your walls, finally connecting to your light switch? Imagine having to explain that process to someone in a few minutes . . . imagine explaining it to every person you speak with . . . all day. Welcome to the fish bowl!
Harvest Hype & Allocation Anticipation
By J.T. Fleegle
It seems like economic meltdowns, foreign wars, pandemic viruses and the like all take a back seat in Pennsylvania when the deer harvest figures are released.
It's like the plot of a great movie: It was the first day of deer season last fall. Throngs of eager hunters descended upon the woods; and by the time the sun set on the last day of deer season, hunters had started to figure out what this year's harvest might be.
But this is a suspense thriller. The last day of hunting season isn't until the end of January. And more than a hundred thousand report cards must be entered into the database. As biologists, we are the detectives in this show, gathering data, examining evidence, and formulating answers. With age, sex and kill data in hand and the harvest report card database, we can crack the case. But, analyzing and verifying these data take time and it isn't until March, when the much-awaited annual deer harvest is finally released, that the mystery concludes.
Though the release of harvest figures is climactic, it actually sets the stage for the next act. A year of data must be analyzed and integrated to paint a picture of the deer population in each wildlife management unit (WMU). From these data, we will recommend the antlerless allocation for each WMU. Harvest, age and sex composition, reproductive data, forest data, population trends, and citizen input are all considered individually and jointly. But, the clock is ticking. Our recommendations must be presented to the executive director before the season-setting April Commission meeting.
Maybe it's not a fantastic flick, but, it is the most nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat-sitting part of being a deer biologist. It's much easier to watch the movie than to be part of the real-life drama.
Deer Wrestling Wrap-up
By J.T. Fleegle
Okay, so we do get to do a little Animal Planet stuff after all. We catch deer. Every year from February through April, we gear up and head out to catch our quarry. The deer we catch are fitted with various paraphernalia: ear tags, radio collars, GPS collars and reward tags. The fittings a deer receives depend on the research project and its objectives. At minimum, a deer that has encountered a capture crew will sport a new set of ear tags.
It's not easy to catch a deer. First and foremost, deer are wild animals. Not even the deer that come into your yard to eat your roses like people. Deer move in silence, under the cover of darkness. They have a nose that can detect the slightest scent and a set of bionic ears that seem to hear the grass grow. Any hunter will tell you they are a formidable opponent. To catch one of these stealthy animals takes planning, patience and nerve.
We use three common methods to catch deer: drop nets, rock nets and Clover traps. Drop nets and rocket nets work as you would expect. Drop nets are suspended from poles and dropped on deer; rocket nets are attached to rockets and shot over deer. Clover traps have nothing to do with clover, however. In 1954, a box trap with a pipe frame covered by netting was designed by Melvin Clover, hence, the Clover trap. Trap set-up requires strength and strategy. The traps are heavy and awkward and require staking. In frozen, rocky ground this is a challenge. Careful consideration of deer movement, landscape, wind direction and weather are critical to selecting a successful trap site.
Vehicle repairs, landowner contacts, pre-baiting, trail camera monitoring, endless equipment maintenance, injuries, and ridiculously long hours are also required for deer trapping. Every year, we hire young, hardworking, fearless, technicians to help with this effort.
Hours go into the capture of each deer, but actual handling time is only minutes. There are many nights when the net is never dropped, the rockets never shot, nor the trapdoor ever sprung. But all those hours are worth it (personally and professionally) the minute you're confronted with a kicking, bawling 100-plus pound firecracker called a white-tailed deer.
Reports & More
By J.T. Fleegle
Remember back in October when I said, "It would be great if I could just do the fun and fabulous parts of my job . . . "? Well, this is the time of year I wish that were true. Deer biologists are responsible for producing no fewer than 11 Game News articles (one of which you are reading now), 8 annual reports, 2 issues of the "Deer Chronicle" newsletter, and a slew of brochures, scripts and handouts on deer related topics each year. It is definitely not the fun and fabulous part of the job, but, nonetheless, necessary.
White-tailed deer are the state animal and the Commonwealth's most beloved and most popular big game species. They demand a lot of the Game Commission's time. Deer are the only species that has two full-time biologists and a supervising biologist that spends more than half his time on deer-related tasks.
Annual reports cover the technical aspects of our work — research projects, annual harvest estimates, population trends, program updates, surveys, etc. Our reports must be submitted for review and eventual web posting by June 30 each year. These reports share the nuts and bolts of the deer program with those who are willing to delve into the scientific writing. Tables, figures, t-tests, chi-squared tests, the Lincoln-Peterson estimator and Mann-Kendall test — this is the language of our annual reports; many find it cumbersome and confusing.
Pieces that can be read without referring to a techniques manual are also available. These Game News tidbits, the "Deer Chronicle" newsletter, brochures and handouts serve a different purpose. They relay important information on a variety of topics in a form that is more understandable to most people. Not everyone has the time or patience to comb through an annual report, but that doesn't mean they are uninterested in deer or the deer program.
What good is all the work we do as biologists if we don't share it with others? And if you want the best, most up-to-date information, you should be able to get it from the source. So we spend a lot of time at our computers in the spring. They may be warm, but they definitely don't have big, brown eyes.
Deer jaw déjà vu
By J.T. Fleegle
June is a great time of year. Winter memories are starting to fade, the days are long, the birds are singing, and tiny deer with creamy white spots pepper the landscape.
While life is bursting around us, my colleagues and I are poring over the remains of those that did not look both ways before crossing the road. To monitor deer health — one of the goals of the deer management plan — female roadkilled deer are examined each spring to see if they were pregnant and how many fawns they would have had.
With more than 120,000 miles of roads in Pennsylvania, we enlist the help of many agency personnel. May 31 marks the end of the fetus collection period.
Eventually, the annual report reads something like "at target – 1.5 embryos/doe." Clean and nice. It does not say "had to deflate doe before cutting into abdomen then poked around ruptured intestines to find the uterus . . . "
The link between age and reproduction is an indicator of deer health. So, after finding the uterus, counting and sexing the fetuses and recording the information, the lower jaw bone of the doe is cut out, placed in an envelope and sent to us.
Unlike firearms deer season, when we go to the deer jaws, in the spring, the jaws come to us. In June, we handle every blood-smeared, bug-nibbled jaw envelope to age hundreds of deer jaws. Spring jaws are trickier to age; they are collected over a period of four months — a jaw collected in May has been grinding up deer food three months longer than one collected in February. But, experience and a keen eye can determine the appropriate age. Then the information gets logged into a database with the fetus surveys from each year prior to build a picture of deer health in Pennsylvania.
So as you settle into your summer routine, we are experiencing a bit of winter déjà vu.
Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer
By J.T. Fleegle
Summer is officially in full swing and concentrating on work seems challenging for anyone with a window view. For biologists, most of whom are in the field because of their love for wildlife and the outdoors, it is especially taxing. With deer, most field work occurs in the winter. So, when the weather is the nicest, we are often imprisoned in the office, shackled to our computers, finishing or preparing projects that have been lingering. There is also lots of organizational planning to do. Preparing for CACs and deer aging activities takes months. The deer program is also very data dependent. Though the data has been collected, it must be analyzed.
Add to our To Do List that the deer program was recently called into court, then subject of an external audit, and you'll see we entertain many hazy and crazy days of summer, but very few lazy ones, between interrogatories, depositions, documentation requests, confirmatory factor analysis, news releases and email requests, minimum convex polygon home range analyses, aging team assignments, equipment inventories and orders . . .
Some of this is not the type of work I expected to be doing as a biologist. The possibility of being deposed as part of a lawsuit certainly never crossed my mind as a graduate student. Being a biologist certainly has been an eye-opening experience.
Other aspects of this summertime toiling may not be the type of work you expected a biologist to do. If you were asked to list my job duties I doubt that reconciling Visa purchases would make the list. In reality, preparation for a deer research project includes the likes of vehicle repairs, website maintenance, personnel scheduling and more.
But, without these dog days of summer, there would be no December deer aging, no winter deer wrestling, and nothing to write about in those pesky springtime annual reports. So we peer out the window watching the wildlife world from the confines of our cage; plotting our escape with every click of the send button, reshuffle of team members, and request fulfillment.
On Tour for a limited engagement
By J.T. Fleegle
The summer concert series usually brings lots of variety to the stage. Something for everyone — country, pop, alternative, and "biofunk." I guess that's how you'd categorize our "sound." For the past several years, biologists in the Deer & Elk Section have been touring Game Commission offices, carrying the white-tailed tune. The deer program has changed tremendously during the past 10 years and, although those of us in the Deer & Elk Section are intimately familiar with the changes, personnel with other expertise are not. But, no matter what your job is, if you work for the Game Commission, people expect you to know about deer.
The deer program is so high profile that it has its own PR team. The team develops tour themes, ad campaigns, and schedules. Since the team began "managing the image" of our state animal, brochures have covered everything from deer food to harvest estimates, DVDs have been produced, and annual open house tours help get the information out to the public. But of all these communication innovations, the summer employee training tour is the most important.
We schlep all over the state, setting up equipment and prepping audiences. We talk to every employee of every office and field crew. It is our job to convey the details of the deer program so they may have a better understanding of the deer program and be able to answer questions posed by the public. Topics include program goals and how they are measured, harvest estimates, antler restrictions, antlerless allocations, and answers to common questions. It's a lot to take in.
I don't see biofunk breaking into the big time. It will likely retain a small cult following outside the walls of the agency. But within the confines of the PGC, it is mandatory listening.
After the third show, I begin to feel like a broken record. But the beat goes on. The tour is intense but short lived. After their brief time with us, agency personnel scatter back to all corners of the state, singing, we hope, a tune they've just heard on our exclusive deer program tour.
Packing for 80 on a 7-day trip
By J.T. Fleegle
Ever wonder what your mother felt like, packing for the family vacation?
Remembering the essential clothing items for three children, herself and her husband; the toiletries, must-have toys, allergy medications, snacks, first aid supplies; the list goes on. She must pack the car, bearing in mind that those three children, herself and her husband need to fit in there as well. What does this have to do with a deer biologist? Well, during deer season, we pack for more than 30 "families" heading out on a 7-day trip.
Our "families" are deer aging teams, and they're not headed to a vacation destination. After Thanksgiving, they set out to visit deer processors statewide and collect vital data for the deer program. But they are not set adrift in the "ocean" of deer heads on a "raft without paddles," as each team is outfitted with equipment needed to complete the task.
As Deer and Elk Section biologists, we have taken this trip before and, subsequently, we set the itinerary. Trip preparation starts with ordering supplies: 1,263 PGC calendars, 288 packs of AA batteries, 62 boxes of nitrile gloves, 77 containers of disinfecting wipes, 3,967 data sheets, 4,975 medium plastic bags, 705 large plastic bags, 385 Zip- lock bags, 870 zip ties and 705 manila tags. Teams with women need size M gloves; Teams 2, 2A, 7, 17, 19 and 27 need new knives; Teams 2A, 5, 7, 9, 19, 22, 23 and 28A need knife sharpeners. And let's not forget the "vehicle." It takes a month just to gather the more than 60 boxes necessary to deliver these items.
Then there is the packing. Like Mom, when we get going, you better stay out of our way. There are more than 30 deer aging teams, so that means those 4,975 plastic bags need to be divided among them. And don't think it's an even distribution. Like members of a family, each team has unique needs. Team 5 will receive 250 bags, while Team 15 gets only 175. Packing for annual deer aging activities is another one of those behind-the-scenes duties of a biologist. Funny, I've never seen anybody packing equipment on the Animal Planet channel.
Calm before the storm
By J.T. Fleegle
There is an eerie calm that settles over the Bureau of Wildlife Management in November. We can see the storm on the horizon and we have done our best to prepare for it. Now, we wait for the squall. I am referring to the November and December big game seasons. As a biologist in the Deer & Elk Section, I am immersed in the hunting seasons of both of these species. But because there are few biologists statewide, I am involved in bear season as well.
Data are collected for bear and elk at check stations. Due to their short seasons and relatively small harvests, this is the most efficient way to collect the data needed for management. With hundreds of thousands of deer harvested over a 2- week period, on the other hand, it is more efficient for us to go to the deer. Every year deer aging teams charge across the state to gather data on harvested deer. Preparation for these activities takes months. Inventorying, ordering, packing and distributing supplies, updating computer databases, arranging work locations, and tying off any of the other million loose ends need to occur before the first shot is fired.
By the time November rolls around, the "pre-season" activities are completed. So, we wait, like firemen. Except we know when the alarm will sound. The bell rings with the first day of elk season. But, it's a fire for our elk biologist and technician to subdue at the week-long elk check station. The rest of us float in to give assistance and moral support. The 4-Alarm fire strikes statewide three days before Thanksgiving, with the opening day of bear season. While most folks are preparing to baste turkeys and watch football, every biologist in the state is sequestered at a bear check station for three long days. The fire rages on through the three weeks following Thanksgiving, which are devoted to collecting data at deer processor shops. Beware of the biologist you meet in December. With the holidays fast approaching, long days in the field collecting data, and everyday tasks needing tending, scrooge may be an understatement.
For now, though, all is quiet. We try to get as much done as possible before the alarm goes off. It won't be long before we are hustling to battle the blaze.
Deer Season from the other end of the gun
By J.T. Fleegle
It has taken 350 days, but deer season is finally here. If you are one of Pennsylvania's deer hunters, the excitement and anticipation on the weekend after Thanksgiving is almost tangible. If you are a Game Commission biologist or any other person assigned to a deer aging team, those aren't exactly the words you'd use.
For us, seven of the next 15 days will be spent aging hundreds of deer heads. It takes a small army to collect deer harvest data. Deer & Elk Section biologists coordinate the effort, and are accompanied by more than 10 percent of agency staffers. Together we charge the hill . . . of deer heads.
Meat processors across the commonwealth save mountains of heads, and soldiers in our biological army record age, sex and license information for thousands of these deer each year. These data are used to estimate harvests and monitor population trends. Annual reports detail how many males and females were checked, how they were dispersed among age classes, how many were checked and how many were reported harvested.
But, the annual reports lack the true experience. Although the deer-aging army is well-trained for battle—having passed a deer aging exam with a 95 percent or higher, having become familiar with datasheets and equipment, and being stocked with supplies —little can prepare a person for the sights, sounds and smells of deer aging—think Dirty Jobs, not Animal Planet
The sights: 50-gallon drums overflowing with deer heads, brain matter, bulging eyeballs, blood clots, and an indescribable soupy red mix at the bottom of the barrel. The sounds: the telltale thud of 10-pound deer head hitting the ground, the wicking of the knife as it slices through the cheek to reveal the lower jaw, the pop of the jaw with the twist of the jaw spreader. The smells: let's just say a strong stomach is a requirement. Although green is a term used to describe someone with little real-world experience, it is also the color of some novice deer agers. That's the sight picture from the biologist's end of the gun.