Thursday, November 21, 2013

Whitetail Photography at Shenandoah National Park-Destroyed For Now!

"Old Rutter Before He Became H 2" in 2012: Canon 7D-300mm f2.8 L IS-ISO 400-1/1600sec f 5.0
Ever since my first visit during the autumn of 1998 I have traveled to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to observe and photograph the whitetail deer especially during summer and autumn.  As time passed I went more and more often and felt reasonably safe in assuming that regardless of what befell whitetail deer in all of my other favorite spots that the deer of Shenandoah would be there.  I must confess that having worked for the Pennsylvania Game Commission most of my adult life, and therefore being very aware of deer management issues, that a bit of concern did exist in the back of my mind that the National Park Service could also fall victim to the malaise that has effected so many agencies and pursue herd reduction strategies to an unacceptable extent.  This concern was further heightened by the increasing prevalence of  CWD (Chronic Wasting Disease), nevertheless I was shocked when the NPS, suddenly and without warning to the public, collared and/or ear tagged most of the bucks and many of the does at the prime whitetail spots such as Big Meadows and Skyland.  The collaring was an integral part of a CWD and mature whitetail buck movement study.   Public meetings were also held to determine if herd reduction would take place at the spots of major deer concentration within the park either immediately or when CWD was detected  within a certain distance of the park.  Much of this subject has been covered here before, but I will remind readers that well known Virginia wildlife photographers Larry W. Brown and Jim Fields have done an excellent job of bringing this matter to our attention and keeping us updated on it.  For those who have not read it yet I would recommend that they read CWD The Truth by Numbers  by Larry W. Brown.  This well researched article contains a wealth of information on the subject.

The buck shown in today's first photo was a large mature buck that was a favorite with the whitetail photographers at Big Meadows.  Many feared he was missing when he was not seen for a time after the collaring was done, but he was eventually photographed with  a large collar numbered H2.  I only went to SNP once during the rut of 2012 and was so disgusted that I left after only 1/2 day there.  Well known Pennsylvania photographer Billie G. Cromwell did stay for some time and was able to photograph the buck after he was collared.

"Old Rutter" 2012: Photo Courtesy of Billie G. Cromwell
I did intend to make a few day trips to the park this year to personally check the situation out, but after reading reports from Larry W. Brown that the whitetail photography was terrible at Big Meadows I did not go.  With advancing age I find that the 300+ mile round trips are not  as appealing as they used to be, especially when there is not great likelihood of getting exceptional whitetail photos.  Billie Cromwell did spend a few days in SNP last week and was gracious enough to share a few of his photos with us.  He did photograph "Old Rutter".  This once magnificent animal was now suffering from the effects of advancing age with his rack declining in size.  It is possible that the marked decline in rack size was triggered by the trauma of being tranquilized and fitted with radio collar, but as mentioned he does seem to be an old animal.

"Old Rutter" 2013: Photo Courtesy of Billie G. Cromwell

"Old Rutter" 2013: Photo Courtesy of Billie G. Cromwell
This is not the worst part of the story; however.  Many have pointed out that these collars do not fit the animals well and may cause significant hair loss and skin damage. Such is the case in this situation.  I cropped the photos above severely so that the problem areas are easier to analyze and they are shown below.  These photos were taken with a 5D MK III and 300mm f 2.8 lens, but the animal was too far away to get fine detail and sharpness at this degree of enlargement. Note the collar is out of place and in front of the ear on one side, while the hair is missing over a wide area under the collar and the skin appears to be damaged with at least some sores present.

"Old Rutter" 2013: Photo Courtesy of Billie G. Cromwell

"Old Rutter" 2013: Photo Courtesy of Billie G. Cromwell
It amazes me that is legal and acceptable for the NPS to inflict this kind of damage and distress on an animal, yet had Billie walked close enough to the buck to get detailed close-ups of the damaged area it is likely, had he been observed doing so by enforcement personnel, that we would have been warned to not approach so closely as it could cause the animal undue stress and it is even possible he would be arrested.

Billie reports that there were a 4-5 does using the meadow on a fairly regular basis and he saw a few small bucks in the woods around and going to the campground.  The situation was so bad that it did not even seem like Big Meadows.  He did encounter one buck in the woods along the drive south of Big Meadows that did not have a collar and give him a photo opportunity.

Deformed 13 Point: Photo Courtesy of Billie G. Cromwell
Whitetail viewing and photography should recover in time if the herd is not reduced, but considering the numbers of whitetails seen this fall, many are wondering if the herd reduction has not already secretly taken place.  There are very few things that can impact the visibility of park deer.  One and would be a lack of food on top of the mountain, but in years with a poor mast crop, deer are usually concentrated around the open areas such as Big Meadows and so sightings should be higher.  A heavy mast crop could keep sightings in the meadow down, but they should be seen in plenty elsewhere along the drive. As I have not been there this fall, I do not know what the mast crop is like, although it is very poor in our area. Whatever the case one cannot recommend that a serious whitetail photographer visit SNP at this time.

Again I wish to extend a special thanks to Billie Cromwell for most of today's photos and to Larry W. Brown for this efforts in educating the public as to the truth about CWD and the situation at SNP.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard C. Hill.


Lindsjö taxar said...

Hi WIll!
Thanks for an interesting post. How awful it looks on his neck. They have to do something about it. DId you report it? He suffers a lot I Think.
I Think there are better collars for this purpose.

Ruth Hiebert said...

The collars at best make for not so good pictures and at worst.look to be terribly comfortable and even hurtful.

Unknown said...

Willard, is there a any way people could band together against animal cruelty of these herds?

Bill said...

Those appear to be the most intrusive tacking devices I've ever seen. Monitoring animals for study is fine I suppose but do it in a way that isn't a burden on the animal. With the technology available today those are a little more than over-the-top and ridiculous.

Linda G. said...

The tag and radio collar do look very uncomfortable.

Alyssa Johnson said...

I feel like there must be more to this story than we, and possibly you know. I feel for the animal, of course, because I'm human. But, perhaps there would be more damage done than good to try and remedy this defunct collar. Unfortunately, many people seem to suggest "with today's technology... _________" fill in the blank. Why can't there be a smaller collar, something less obtrusive, microchip, nothing at all, etc. I would like to believe, as someone who is involved with the big game management in my state, that the managers in charge WOULD utilize something less obtrusive, if it was available. I just attended the 2013 TWS National Conference, and was able to handle and examine all kinds of remote-monitoring equipment at the trade show. You lose battery life, distance of signal transmission, type of transmission, and amount of stored data when you make the device smaller. The severity and scope of CWD, for example, is so large and potentially dangerous to our deer herds, that these measures of using hardcore collars, with big packs on them, is so necessary. Without this monitoring, "we" wouldn't be able to manage the deer herds for hunters, photographers, and other wildlife enthusiasts. I'm glad I got to see this pictures, thanks for sharing.

Larry W. Brown said...
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Larry W. Brown said...

Good to see that a select few individuals are not letting the SNP 'assault' on its deer herds last year go unnoticed. I'm sure they are banking on it all dying down eventually, but more than one year later that is not the case, thanks to people like yourself, and others such as Jim Fields.

In regards to Ms. Johnson's comment(s) above:

1. Yes there is more to this than a so-called CWD study. This is government bullshit at its very best - cover up the freakin' real truth by diverting the general public with another process, and if there's any money pot to dip the hands into (grants), hell that's even better! I'm not go into the specific details, but their real motive is to start herd reductions due to overpopulation, which many of us believe already began last Winter, hence the lower numbers of Whitetails in the area. If you really want to know the details, I have all the collected data stored in one central location: click here. The problem with a majority of modern day biologists (not all) are all the toys at their disposal - they like to exercise the title of being 'top dog in the chain'.

Some so-called nature loving biologist always thinks he can do a better job at controlling nature. When in reality all they do, is screw it up. If they want to control animals, then buy a freakin domesticated animal. For example, look at what happened when "man" intervened with the wolves in Yellowstone. Hunting, natural predators and natural circumstances has always been enough to keep wildlife populations in check. Wildlife has managed its own for millions of years without the help of "man" - nature has a way of taking care of itself, it is a far more superior process than "man" will ever be or even understand.

And keep in mind that there is something called an 'ecosystem' which is always greatly influenced when "man' forces his influence upon nature. Let mother nature handle her own, she's done a damn fine job of it since the beginning.

2. Obviously, you are not looking at the buck photos above very carefully. THERE ARE OTHER OPTIONS AVAILABLE to utilize something less obtrusive than what SNP is using. I invite you to do an image search for radio collared deer or radio collared elk - do you see any from anywhere that are as obtrusive as the ones worn by the SNP deer, Ms. Johnson? Or do you see any that are as tight during the rut? Do you see a need for the over-sized green number plates? They claim that it helps in their efforts to identify the animals at long range - what the hell is the location tracking for then? Makes no sense! And let's not forget about the danger the animals face with these large plates - does the above Buck's neck hardware look normal to you? Let me share one such issue which this Buck is bound to face also: click here.

I want to share 2 photos that clearly depict what the SNP Buck's necks look like in the dead of Winter:

Image 1

Image 2

So I must ask, how you think that feels with the bare skin exposed to the cold harsh temps in the high elevations?

Larry W. Brown said...
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Larry W. Brown said...

There are collars used by MANY wildlife researchers that are joined with a piece of surgical tubing that allow the collar to disengage when the buck's neck swells up too much or if he gets into a lock-up or other crisis. It should be mandatory. Period. A lot of animals are wasted in these studies, often because of incompetent or inexperienced researchers. Those number tags they are using on these bucks are not necessary and are much larger and unwieldy than they need to be and are obviously causing problems for the animals. But I'm assuming that since that kind of data isn't in a college book, then it isn't so.

3. CWD - 5 deer in Virginia have tested CWD positive (out of 7000) between 2009 and 2012 - and none of those 5 were inhabitants of Shenandoah National Park. Furthermore, there are many diseases that free ranging and captive whitetail deer have that are much more devastating to their populations. The number of reported deer deaths due to CWD is miniscule compared to EHD and Bluetongue, both of which are acute, often fatal, viral diseases. There seems to be quite a few *biologists* that like to make the public think that CWD "is so large and potentially dangerous to our deer herds". Have you actually interpreted the 'numbers' Ms. Johnson? Let me point you in the right direction: click here. But again I'm assuming that since that kind of data isn't in a college book, then it isn't so.

Alyssa Johnson said...

Mr. Brown, it discourages me that I left, what I believe, is a fairly non-confrontational comment on this blog entry. I'm attacking no one, just voicing perhaps some thoughts that earlier commenters may not have considered. I can only assume you are not a biologist, faced with attempting to make sound, ethical, biological decisions, only to be halted by red tape and critiqued by thousands, while working on a tight budget with not enough staff. As you sarcastically remarked, yes I'm in college. But I think I'm bright, and able to think critically about difficult situations. I'm not even going to begin to counter-comment your entire list, but I would like to say that the 'numbers' you keep referring to, while not devastating in NY or on the East Coast yet (from CWD mortality), have potential to be. We don't know enough yet about the defunct prions responsible for the disease, that we must be proactive and vigilant in our monitoring efforts of the deer herd. Unfortunately, there is loss associated with monitoring of wild animals. Of course, there are inexperienced and or unethical wildlife managers, but not all. And, I'd like to assume the good ones outnumber the bad, and we can rely on them for doing the best that they can do, given their resources.

Larry W. Brown said...

Ms. Johnson, I appreciate your response, and I never questioned your intelligence.

In all fairness, your initial comment was fairly non-confrontational, but the remark about "these measures of using hardcore collars, with big packs on them, is so necessary" was not fair IMHO. As you can see from the photos, SNP is the only agency using 1970's technology, and the huge green ID plates are a disaster waiting to happen (which already has occurred several times).

And the remark about "the severity and scope of CWD is so large and potentially dangerous to our deer herds" is so off base. What you stated in your recent comment sums it up best: "We don't know enough yet about the defunct prions responsible for the disease". Therefore all the chatter everywhere about CWD being fatal and harming deer herds is so unnecessary. There has never been one documented case of a herd (wild or farmed) being lost due to CWD. More focus should be brought to EHD and Bluetongue, both of which we know are truly acute, fatal, viral diseases within cervid populations.

As for wildlife managers, I'd also like to assume the good ones outnumber the bad, but the SNP wildlife resources management team is far from being a good one. Their main goal is to reduce numbers and their so-called CWD study is the scapegoat they need to smooth over the general public.