Collaring Mule Deer

An Idaho Fish and Game biologist sets up the nets used to catch mule deer for tracking.

It's a winter ritual in eastern Idaho: state biologists and volunteers load up sleds and equipment for a chance to capture mule deer on the run. It may not look like it at times, but it's all part of an organized attempt to radio collar the animals in a humane and inexpensive way, to help track their winter range movements.

When the Outdoor Idaho crew caught up with them in early 2011, the goal was to capture fifteen fawns and three does. "We couldn't do this without volunteers," says James Brower of IDFG. "We just don't have the funding, but we always have plenty of help to do this."

The purpose of the collaring is to monitor over-wintering survival of fawns. "We're trying to do the best we can to effectively manage this species," explains Shane Roberts, IDFG biologist, "and to get a handle on over-winter survival; and how the population comes into the next year is very important to that management."

It's a complicated process that takes hours of prep work in knee-deep snow. Crews unravel nets and strategically string them out in a funnel pattern, that will — theoretically — guide the animals into the waiting arms of the volunteers. The nets are raised with slender sticks that easily collapse when an animal hits the net.

Biologists and volunteers work to catch a mule deer.

Biologist Paul Atwood explains how it's supposed to work. “The deer are going to come down and hopefully jump in the net. They think they can go through it. They actually won’t hit it that hard. They’re going to run right up to it. Poke their head in one of those squares and jump. At that point we want the people who are closest to it to get up and quickly move to the deer and hold it down. Don’t do a belly flop on the deer, especially these little fawns because you can hurt them.”

Oh, and there's one more thing. There's a helicopter involved. "It sounds expensive," says Shane Roberts, "but when you consider the amount of deer we get in such a short amount of time, it turns out to be one of the most cost effective ways as well.”

The chopper circles around looking for deer darting through the desert. Then it deftly steers them to the nets and the crouching volunteers.

What happens next seems like pure chaos.

“Deer are very quick and agile," explains Paul Atwood. "A deer on its back is a nightmare. There are hooves flying everywhere. You wanna be on its back. You don’t want to be out front where their feet are.”

When we’re catching fawns today, fawn mule deer are going to be anywhere from 50 to 100 pounds. A 200-pound man landing on a 50-pound mule deer is not good especially if they’re caught up in the net. We can end up with broken legs and things like that.”

Biologists and volunteers measure and collar a mule deer.

It's shocking to watch, but it's relatively harmless for the deer, as long as its hooves are held in check with a mugger's hug.

“A mugger is the one that tackles and subdues the deer while usually another person processes it, puts the radio collar on and takes the measurements, explains Shane Roberts. “It seems quite abrupt when they hit the net like it would cause injury, but this process has been going on statewide for years now with thousands of deer collared and caught; and our mortality is very, very low compared to other capture methods. If you weigh the deer injuries, as opposed to the human injuries, humans probably come out on the short end of the stick on that one.”

The does and the fawns are weighed, tagged, and collared. They are released in a matter of minutes.

This process can last all day. "That was unbelievable! That was the best experience I've had in ages!" exclaims volunteer Kim Worton.

It's easy to understand why this is such a treat for some. "We are in the state of Idaho, and we have mule deer and wildlife everywhere," says James Brower. "But it’s not that often that you get that up close and personal with the animals. It’s pretty exciting to be that close to nature.”