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'Scoping deer — Lab looking to boost public awareness

MDWFP biologist David Graves and MSU Deer Lab students remove the antlers of a deer for research.

MDWFP biologist David Graves and MSU Deer Lab students remove the antlers of a deer for research.

For decades now, the Deer Ecology and Management Lab at Mississippi State University has been conducting cutting-edge research into the understanding of whitetail deer and what they require to grow and prosper. The work is well-known among biologists and researchers, but outside of academia the lab’s work is generally unknown.

However, the Deer Lab’s tag as one of Mississippi State’s best-kept secrets is under siege.

The lab, a unit of Mississippi State’s Forest and Wildlife Research Center, has recently launched a new website (www.msudeerlab.com) in an attempt by those who have deer under the microscope to feed information to those who routinely see deer through a rifle scope.

“We just launched the new website,” said Dr. Bronson Strickland, an associate Mississippi State University Extension Service professor and researcher in the university’s Forest and Wildlife Research Center. “What we are attempting to do is get information out of the lab and into people’s hands so they can use it to formulate good deer-management practices and decisions.”

The deer research program at Mississippi State University began with the arrival of Dr. Dave Guynn and Dr. Harry Jacobson in the mid-1970s. The synergism between these two young research biologists spawned many unique projects that generated national attention. Guynn would eventually leave the lab, but Jacobson expanded the breadth of deer research projects over a 20-year career.

Dr. Steve Demarais, who earned his doctoral degree with Harry and subsequently worked as a deer specialist in Texas, replaced Jacobson. Today, he is the Dale H. Arner professor of wildlife ecology in the Forest and Wildlife Research Center.

After training at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in Texas, Strickland contributed to the deer research program as a research associate for six years and joined the faculty of the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture in 2006.

Dr. Jerry Belant, a carnivore and deer specialist with extensive experience in northern regions, joined the department in 2008.

Currently, 13 MSU graduate students flush out the staff of the Deer Lab.

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks is one of the lab’s chief collaborators. Lann Wilf, leader of the department’s Deer Program and whose area of responsibility includes nearly half of the state’s counties, said, “The work they are doing there at the Deer Lab is absolutely instrumental and the work we are doing in the field,” adding that the lab’s researchers deserve a large part of the credit for Mississippi’s deer-management efforts being consistently ranked among the top in the United States.

Work at the lab includes such areas such as reproduction, selective harvesting, predation, among others.

As example, to meet land owners’ and managers’ concerns the lab conducted a study on coyote’s impact on deer numbers. The common perception was that increasing coyote numbers was having a drastic effect on deer numbers due to fawn predation.

“Landowners would see one coyote and immediately get out their guns and traps and look to thin them out,” Strickland said.

However, lab scientists, who looked at sites across Mississippi and into Alabama found no correlation between coyote numbers and deer herd size. Instead, they found habitat was the key, not less coyotes.

The most recent study into the body and antler size of whitetails has garnered national attention. Lab scientists spent approximately six months gathering harvested deer information from across the country to determine where trophy deer were more likely to be found and why.

Research conducted by Mississippi State University Deer Lab scientists has determined northern deer may have bigger bodies but they don’t necessarily have bigger antlers.

The discovery showed that antler size depends more on diet than latitude.

“In white-tailed deer, large antlers are generally found on deer with large bodies. However, the largest antler measurements were found in the Midwestern states and not the far North, as commonly believed,” said Strickland.

Strickland, a Georgia native who had a childhood fascination with wildlife biology that landed him at Mississippi State, said he is just as proud of the lab’s work in generation the next generation of deer biologists as he is the research they are conducting.

“It’s very rewarding — to be a part of educating young students is truly an honor,” he said.

“We’re doing great work here. Now, we just want more people to know about it.”



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