Cook County: A Quick Update

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This spring semester is kicking my butt. My classes are a blast, but very time consuming. It’s been difficult to find time to write here because it always seems like I’m writing essays or proposals. But, the last few weeks have been pretty awesome, so I figured I’d update ya.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to the Cook County Forest Preserves around Chicago with the Purdue Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society. The research team there monitors a variety of different topics within those urban forest environments, and we had the opportunity to help them collect data relating to their disease ecology and predator-prey relationships studies.

The first night, we set up a drop net system and a rocket net system in the hopes of catching one or more reproductively active does. This rocket net trap is attractive for wildlife managers in this area because it’s a portable option for trapping the deer. This is especially important in Cook County because they have to deal with vandals constantly. The down-side to this method is that it’s difficult to get the deer in range. This winter has been extremely mild, so food has been fairly abundant. These deer aren’t enticed by the bait piles that just so happen to be placed in front of this new contraption near their travel corridors. It isn’t impossible to catch deer with these rocket nets, it just becomes especially difficult during mild winters. We sat for two hours and watched as seventeen deer walked right outside the range of the net while they contemplated whether or not they should take the bait before ultimately deciding to go around and leave the area. The drop net method, on the other hand, is a fixture that can be assembled and left for months at a time. This allows for long-term baiting and much more success in mild winters. After maybe thirty minutes of monitoring the drop net site, four deer ran right under the net, and we were able to safely constrain them for processing.

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The Drop Net system we used. The biologist had been baiting the deer under the net for about two months to condition them to run underneath the net.

At the time, the bucks on this property had already shed their antlers, and each of the deer we caught were bucks (2 yearlings and 2 3.5 year olds). Even though we were looking for does, we still sedated each of them, ear-tagged them, drew blood, and radio-collared them. Afterwards, we were able to release them safely and reassemble the trap.

The next morning, we were up early checking the snare traps for coyotes. We were lucky enough to catch a young male and an older female for data collection. After sedating them both, we took size and weight measurements, blood and fecal samples, and inserted microchips. All of the samples we collected were processed and stored in a collection dating back to the 1980s and will be used to monitor the health and relationships of the deer and coyote populations.

Later on, we were also given the opportunity to learn how to do a full-body necropsy of a white-tailed deer. Basically, we cut it up to inspect for disease and measure body condition based on the fat reserves. The subject of our necropsy was a reproductive doe that was in perfect health and condition, and we discovered that she was pregnant with a doe and a buck. Now, you might ask why would you want to kill a doe at this time of the year? And I get it. Back home we kind of had this unspoken rule not to shoot does past a certain point in the season in the hopes they’d produce more bucks. However, in Cook County, their deer densities exceed 300 deer per square mile because of their suburban environment. It’s becoming a serious management problem, and deer reduction, either for research or meat donation (Forest Preserves of Cook County does both), is one of the few strategies to mitigate this.

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The buck fetus we found during the necropsy.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This was an amazing opportunity. I loved being able to get some hands-on experience that I can’t get in the classroom, but I quickly learned that I already have this experience. Growing up as a hunter and living on a farm, I learned all these skills and more. I’ve given intramuscular and subcutaneous shots. I’ve drawn blood and collected fecal samples. I’ve ear-tagged more than my fair share of animals. And I’ve cut up plenty in my day too. I’ve come to realize that despite the fact that I attend a school that focuses its wildlife programs on North American indigenous wildlife, not everyone has the understanding of these animals and their ecosystems that I was able to gain growing up in the woods. Most of these kids have an extreme passion for wildlife, which is awesome. They just didn’t have the opportunities to immerse themselves in this way of life at a younger age. I think in these last few weeks, I’ve really come to realize that my experiences aren’t as common as I thought they were growing up.

Because of this, my passion for introducing others to the outdoors has been strengthened. I grew up learning skills that will be extremely valuable in my field, and I want to be able to provide those same opportunities for those who don’t have them. I was extremely blessed to be exposed to hunting, fishing, and living off the land. It sparked my desire to work for conservation, research, and education efforts, and I think it is my duty as a hunter to provide others with the same opportunities. As world perspectives on hunting continue to shift, it’s going to become increasingly important for outdoor enthusiasts of all ages to promote this way of life and continue with sportsmen-driven conservation programs. Are you up for the challenge?

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