PINEDALE – Unraveling the mysteries behind animal migration is vital to the field of wildlife biology. Across the Rocky Mountain West, scientists in numerous agencies are collaborating to learn more about the seasonal movements of deer, elk and pronghorn antelope.
Pinedale Middle School seventh-graders Fisher Mills and Reece Woolwine recently added to the understanding of deer migration through a project they submitted to the Wyoming State Science Fair.
“We wanted to find out the seasonality in which deer migration takes place – when exactly the peak of that migration is,” explained Woolwine. “We also wanted to see if there was a difference in the time of day that they migrated.”
Mills and Woolwine used remote photography to track deer crossing the Green River near Warren Bridge. The seventh-graders, both avid hunters and outdoorsmen, brainstormed ideas in September, said Mills. They began fieldwork to collect data in October.
“We used Google Earth to find good locations, or trails, to put the cameras up on to figure out where all the deer were migrating,” Mills said. “Then we would go out approximately every week to get the camera cards. We would use camera card readers to collect data and put it into spreadsheets.”
The scientific process involved countless hours tramping through sagebrush in rain, snow and sunshine to gather photographs and additional hours piecing together their findings.
“They did an excellent job analyzing their data, coming up with their findings and presenting,” said middle school science teacher Retta Hudlow. “It was a lot of data that they were working with, which is pretty impressive.”
The effort paid off for Mills and Woolwine when their project titled “Oh Deer!” won first place in the Animal Science category at the Wyoming State Science Fair hosted by the University of Wyoming on March 8. The pair also picked up the University of Wyoming Geology Museum Award and an internship through West EcoSystems Technology.
Mills and Woolwine scouted camera locations and then went to work mounting the cameras on poles and camouflaging them.
“If the cameras were just out in the open with this black rebar post, the deer would obviously see that, and they’d go around it,” Woolwine said. “We’d find a spot along the trail where we could set the camera up and disguise it. We’d put them in dead willows or put a bunch of sagebrush on top.”
The sagebrush backfired when a piece blew off in front of a sensor, triggering a lens.
“It took about 300 pictures within an hour,” said Mills. “We had good batteries in there – they were new batteries – and that just killed them.”
Placement also mattered.
“We had to move the cameras around a lot,” Mills added. “We got one camera card back and we looked through (the card), and it was just sun. So we had to go adjust it two times.”
Mills and Woolwine examined thousands of photos, 2,899 to be exact, said Mills. The photographs gave the date and time of day the deer passed the cameras, Woolwine explained. They divided the deer into four categories – young bucks, mature bucks, does and fawns.
Either Mills or Woolwine would go through the photos while the other entered the data into the spreadsheet.
“Sometimes, we’d have this huge group of deer, and we’d have to go back and forth through (the image) like eight times to make sure we counted every deer and didn’t double count a deer.”
Mills and Woolwine got to know some of the deer that frequented the river and canal crossing where the cameras were set up. They named a 9x8 buck Gandalf and another Sawtooth for his distinctive antler spikes.
At one point, Mills said that they had entered data from one camera, left to do something else, came back to start on a second camera, and realized that they had lost all the data from the first camera on the spreadsheet.
“That was like 50 to 100 columns and we just had a mental breakdown,” said Mills. “We were banging our heads against the wall.”
Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Alexander Graham Bell can likely commiserate.
“We found out there was a huge biodiversity out there,” Mills said. “We saw so many animals. In our results, we put down that we had seen a herd of 100 elk. We saw pronghorn antelope, coyotes, moose jackrabbits and cottontails. We saw a lot of ground squirrels.”
The pair proved their first hypothesis that does migrate before bucks.
“The peak for does was on Oct. 25 and the peak for bucks was on Nov. 11,” said Woolwine.
The second hypothesis, that different classifications of deer would migrate at different times, was left unproved, Mills explained.
“We saw all types of deer moving from 12 in the morning to 10, 11 p.m. at night,” said Woolwine. “So there was no real difference in the time of day that they were migrating.”
Mills explained that their study could change hunting seasons to better benefit deer. He also described the challenges fawns faced navigating the steep, slippery slopes and deep water in the manmade canal.
“We suggested to BLM, Game and Fish and the landowner that either they shut (the canal) off earlier or the build those overpasses like the ones over the highways,” said Mills.
Mills and Woolwine thanked their parents, Hudlow and principal Eric Makelky for support and encouragement during the project. The two had the opportunity to work closely with professional mentors in the field, and gave a shoutout to BLM wildlife biologist Juliann Orban and Game And Fish migration coordinator Jill Randall.