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Spring Game Counts Beginning

Seeley Swan Pathfinder
April 1, 1999

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Pathfinder Game Range Column


I knew I was having a good day when I spotted the deer's eyes peering at us through juniper limbs at the top of the brushy draw. But, it must have been my imagination that allowed me to see them reflecting the image of our helicopter, growing ever larger as it labored its way upward, like some horribly primitive UFO. The deer held its position until the last second, then bolted from only a few feet below us. It was an adult, an old doe I think, and I'm sure this was not her first close encounter of the whirlybird kind.

Springtime in the Rockies means different things to different people. Robins pelted with snow. The buzz of the varied thrush, the robin's forest-dwelling relative. The first croaks of sandhill cranes returning home to the Game Range and the Blackfoot Valley from New Mexico"whisky warblers," as Hank Goetz calls them.

To Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) biologists, spring has sprung when the sun rises through a helicopter bubble or an airplane windshield. For me, spring officially arrived last Sunday, when I began surveying mule deer populations north and west of Drummond, from Helmville to Bearmouth. And, I can't help believing that spring arrived at the same time for the old doe we visited. "I'm still here!" she probably bellered after us, wishing she had a fist to shake.

Little does she know we're planning to mess with her mind this year. We'll be back to see her on two more days before the week is out. It's part of FWP's effort to upgrade its surveys of mule deer populations statewide, and if our old friend is tending toward senility, we're apt to make her lose track of her seasons and years.

We mean no harm. In fact, the mule deer of the West Garnet Range have been selected as one of only a few populations across Montana to serve as a bellwether for survey precision statewide. In the West Garnets, we will no longer blindly assume that the first count is a good count. Instead, we'll be testing that assumption with repeated counts to verify whether trends in deer counts reflect trends in populations, or merely different surveying circumstances.

On Sunday, the circumstances seemed ideal. Mule deer were concentrated in groups of 20-80 in open grasslands at low elevations. It's just what we had hoped for when FWP designed its spring surveys to take advantage of early spring greenup. After a long winter of chewing sagebrush and dried grasses, who wouldn't expect deer to flock around the first few sprigs of green grass? Now, with the chance to follow up this initial flight with two more, it will be interesting and important to learn if our results are consistent and serve their intended purpose.

It's not that we're lacking for flight time. FWP biologists log plenty of frequent flier hours every spring, with sunrise elk surveys from airplanes on a seven-days-a-week schedule from late-March til mid-May. The only interruptions are out of respect for adverse weather conditions or priority helicopter surveys of deer and bighorn sheep populations across Region 2. It's funny, though, that I can't seem to attract any sympathy from the volunteer observers who occasionally assist with helicopter surveys.

On Sunday, pilot Ron Gipe and I were joined by Rich DeSimone, who appreciated the opportunity to obtain a unique view of his study area for mountain lion research. He was no slouch either. Ron and I thought we had him licked when we identified a sharp-tailed grouse that flushed in front of us near Helmville. But, Rich recovered nicely with an observation of a smaller Townsend's solitaire from a distance of several hundred feet. I was impressed.

"I couldn't identify Townsend's solitaire if it was in my hand," I confessed, without embarrassment. Townsend's solitaire is a very nondescript, feathered creature. "How did you know it was a solitaire?" I inquired, trying to sound open-minded.

"It was by itself," Rich replied. "Five mule deer coming up!" And, we were back at work before I could pursue the solitaire issue any further.

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