South Florida Deer Research Project

2016-02-02-17-08-09_B38 editThe white-tailed deer is arguably the most important game species in the state of Florida, and it also happens to be primary prey for the endangered Florida panther. Members of the public and other invested stakeholders understand the recreational benefits this species provides and recognize the importance of protecting and conserving white-tailed deer for years to come. The FWC plans to ensure the long-term welfare of deer not only for Floridians, but also for the benefit of our state animal.

White-tailed deer in South Florida have experienced many changes within the area, including changes in water levels, habitat conditions and predator communities. In most areas deer populations appear to be steady. In other areas, particularly in the southern portion of the Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, populations have declined in recent years. To better understand deer ecology in the unique South Florida environment, the state needed current data. The South Florida Deer Research Project began in July 2014, and it’s one of the largest white-tailed deer research projects ever conducted in Florida. Research sites consist of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Bear Island and North Addition Land Units of Big Cypress National Preserve.

The FWC’s Division of Hunting and Game Management and researchers from FWRI have partnered with the University of Georgia and Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center to gain a better understanding of the factors influencing white-tailed deer population trends in South Florida. Other partners involved in the project include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Conservancy of Southwest Florida and National Park Service. Preventing further declines in the South Florida white-tailed deer population is key, and through this work the FWC is developing a monitoring technique that can provide dependable estimates of deer densities in South Florida habitats for years to come.

The team captured more than 100 deer in January 2015 using net guns from helicopters, and researchers fit deer with GPS collars and marked them with numbered ear tags. This allows the team to individually monitor each deer to collect data on movements, habitat use and survival.

In addition to GPS monitoring, remote-sensing cameras (trail cameras) are another important tool used during this project. The team deployed 180 trail cameras in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Big Cypress National Preserve. Cameras were placed in systematic grids representing all major habitats, hydrological conditions and hunting levels within the study area. Data from the trail cameras provide information on how deer use different habitats between dry and wet seasons, or fawning and breeding seasons. This data will provide the basis for models that can predict the effects of changes in water levels or habitat improvements will have on deer abundance. The cameras will also provide information on other wildlife, as well as fawning period, breeding, timing of antler shedding, and activity patterns of deer relative to season, moon phase, weather events and human activity.

A study of this magnitude is the first of its kind for white-tailed deer in Florida, and the data collected will assist the FWC and other agencies and managers in making science-based population and habitat management decisions. Survey methods developed during this study will give managers a tool that uses the latest techniques available to estimate deer population densities in South Florida and throughout the state. The white-tailed deer is one of Florida’s most valuable wildlife species, and research will be key toward ensuring the long-term survival of white-tailed deer in South Florida.

This article appeared in the 2015-2016 FWRI Programs Document

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