In the Field with Western/Northern: Mule deer tracking along the South Saskatchewan River
Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), cervids indigenous to the western part of North America and famous for the size of their ears, are a species of particular interest to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC). Together with white-tailed deer, moose and elk, mule deer represent a natural host for chronic wasting disease (CWD), the spongiform encephalopathy first observed in captive mule deer in the late 60’s. Since 2006 the CWHC Western/Northern centre has been studying CWD in wild cervids along the South Saskatchewan River valley.
When the opportunity arose for me, a recent graduate of veterinary medicine from Germany to assist CWHC staff Marnie Zimmer and Crystal Rainbow in their field work I couldn’t say no. Having never seen a mule deer in the wild, I was able to learn the technique of radio telemetry to track these charismatic animals in the gorges and rolling hills of Cabri in the southwest of Saskatchewan.
Halfway through my 4 month externship with Environment Canada and the University of Saskatchewan I learned that Saskatchewan’s landscape can abruptly change from flat prairie to colourful forests to high hills and deep valleys, such as in the area of near Cabri. After a three-hour drive from Saskatoon we stepped out of the truck and into the late summer 33°C sunshine and set ourselves up with water, sun screen, and antennas. To describe how exciting it was to hear the beeping sound of the collar when we detected a female mule deer close by that had not been found for some months would be a difficult task. Crystal and I expected the unfortunate case of finding only the collar of a deer that did not survive while we were crawling down the hills. What a fascinating moment when a healthy animal came jumping out of the bushes and effortlessly up the hill in front of us, showing its radio collar while looking back at us – my first mule deer!
The day was full of surprises like that. Climbing more hills in the midday sun with Marnie to locate another doe made sure that I will never refer to Saskatchewan as a flat province again. The view not only revealed an adult female, but also her fawn with its fluffy oversized ears stotting in typical mule deer manner like a bouncy ball out of the gorge. A handsome mule deer buck that we were able to track, dozens of majestic hawks and an antelope rounded up our field experience for this successful day before we started our drive back to Saskatoon.
Thank you for this unique field work opportunity, it has been an invaluable experience for me and I am hoping to join their fieldwork again soon – possibly with a lot of snow next time!
Submission and photos by Jessica Magenwirth