“Incoming! Incoming!” It’s like a scene out of M.A.S.H. As the helicopter nears, people rush out to meet its landing and the medics ready themselves by the tables with swabs and syringes. The ‘copter lays down three bodies in a row in the tall brown grass, then flies off to gather more.
Only these are the bodies of wild mule deer, not humans.
Every five years or so, Utah’s Department of Wildlife Resources assesses the health of the mule deer herds on Antelope Island by capturing 50 animals—about 10 percent of the island’s population, drawing blood, assessing body mass and fat and weighing them. “Mother Nature is real good at taking care of itself,” says Eric Anderson, district wildlife biologist over Utah’s northern region. “But we’re the stewards of wildlife for the people of Utah.” The goal is to ensure the deer are healthy and the herd is at the right size for its environment.
It’s a crazy sight: On another part of the island a helicopter flies low over a group of running deer. A net drops over one of the animals and a technician runs to administer a mild sedative, blindfold the deer and bind its front and hind legs together to prevent panic and injury, then hooks the orange sling to a line. The helicopter rises and the deer swings wide in the air as the aircraft banks in a turn, looking for its next capture. Three is the maximum number of animals taken in each hunt before returning to the biologists’ work station.
There the animal is measured and weighed—the average weight for does is 95-200 pounds, for bucks, it’s 120-300—before transferring it to a table. There, the scene, again, is like an emergency room: Five people hover around the barely conscious deer. They monitor its temperature, normally 104 degrees, but tending to rise under stress. If it starts to approach 106 degrees, a blanket soaked in ice water is tucked around the deer’s torso. The animal is still hobbled and blindfolded, but the sedative doesn’t last long, so the vets work fast, drawing blood, using a sonograph to measure the body fat in its loins to determine its fitness for winter, tagging its ear for identification and fitting it with a radio collar to track herd movements. Where do the deer graze in the winter? How much do they move around the island? These days, water in the Salt Lake being so low, biologists wonder, do the deer ever leave the island?
Finally, just as the deer starts bleating and barely struggling, a team of six quick-walks the “gurney” out to the field of grass so tall they’re lost from sight almost immediately. There they take off the restraints and hobbles, remove the deer’s blindfold and stand back.
The animal struggles to its feet and takes a few hesitant steps before bounding away.
It takes a lot of human attention to keep wild things wild in the 21st Century.