DNR unveils second year program in Minnesota

Wildlife researchers with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have completed outfitting newborn fawns with GPS-tracked collars as part of a three-year study taking place in the southern Minnesota.

The study uses data from GPS collars to track deer movement, habitat preferences, causes of mortality and deer dispersal rates.

“This is the first study of fawns in southern Minnesota in more than 20 years,” said Eric Michel, farmland wildlife research scientist based out of the DNR’s Madelia wildlife research station. “It’s important because a lot has changed during that time, including predator populations and land use.” 

With the aid of a contracted drone pilot, the research team locates fawns, usually one to five days old, in their natural habitat. From there, a team of three to four people on the ground locates and captures the fawn to check length, weight and overall health while also slipping on a flexible GPS collar that expands as the young deer grows. The whole process is typically completed in about four minutes to minimize stress on the animal.

Currently in the second year of a three-year study, the team collars 80 fawns each year.

“The GPS collar can tell us more about fawn survival rates, what the primary causes of deer mortality are, and what types of habitats they prefer,” Michel said. “This study has great potential to inform wildlife managers about our wild deer populations.”

The GPS collars are designed to break away from the deer after 18 months, at which time the collar provides an exact geolocation for retrieval. While in use, the collar’s attached transmitter alerts the team when a location remains static for several consecutive hours, which can be helpful for the team to quickly locate deer and find clues in case of the animal’s death.

Flying a drone, a type of small aircraft that does not have a pilot on board, allows researchers to locate significantly more deer during the survey. Its use over DNR-managed public lands requires special authorization. The drone is extremely helpful to the research team’s efforts to capture and collar more fawns, which creates more data points for the study.

“Using a drone significantly increases efficiency in a study like this,” Michel said. “It used to take a team of 20 people or more to locate fawns in our grasslands. Now a team of five can locate a fawn, then capture and collar it, in a much shorter period of time.” 

If all goes well with the study, it could be replicated in other areas around Minnesota’s farmland region. For more information about DNR wildlife research across the state, visit the DNR website.