Researchers studying the effects of wildfires on mule deers are asking backcountry enthusiasts to be mindful of the declining and stressed deer population in Skeetchestn territory.
As access restrictions are lifted throughout Skeetchestn Territory two years after the Sparks Lake and Tremont Creek wildfires, researchers are raising concerns over the effects the public may have on the already vulnerable population of deer.
Shaun Freeman, senior wildfire and habitat biologist at Skeetchestn Natural Resources Corporation, said researchers have been analyzing deer droppings to study the effects of the wildfires, which burned 30 per cent of Skeetchestn territory and about half of the area's key deer winter range.
“It's the concentration of that fecal cortisol in the animal's poop that allows you to make some interpretation and say, ‘Yeah they were stressed’ or, ‘No they were baseline,’” Freeman said.
“We are being assisted by the Toronto Zoo. They are doing our analysis. So we send them a few coolers of poop every few months.”
Freeman said researchers were able to gather droppings immediately following the wildfires to measure stress levels before continuing collection throughout 2022 and into 2023, where they established a baseline.
“During that catastrophic event, right under the fire, that the stresses as identified from fecal cortisol was two to three times higher than baseline, and it was statistically significant, too,” he said.
Aside from a loss of vegetation from the wildfires, Freeman said the effects of the stress can also have physiological impacts on the declining dear population in the area.
“It's the same as humans or any other animal — if you're stressed you might not be spending the same time that you should be feeding, you're spending more energy because you're nervous, it reduces fecundity,” he said.
Freeman said the reduction of the mule deer’s winter range can also reduce their chance of survival during the severe winters following the wildfires, and the deer population is still recovering from the effects of the wildfire.
“So if you can avoid doing your activities, whether they be recreational or whatnot, in these key areas, please do,” he said.
Sarah Dickson-Hoyle, a researcher at UBC, said she’s been involved in habitat monitoring, looking at plant growth and identifying components of the mule deer’s diet.
“They've been eating things like juniper and poison ivy, or these plants that are not normally a key component of mule deer forage,” she said.
“That really points to the fact that they are stressed — they are limited in their typical food sources.”
Dickson-Hoyle said this means the deer won’t be getting the same micronutrients needed, and it can impact their health and fertility.
“If we all care about stewardship and sustainability of this ecosystem and of these populations, we need to be really mindful of how we're treading on this really sensitive landscape,” said Dickson-Hoyle.
Dickson-Hoyle is an intern with Mitacs, a national organization that has partnered with the Secwepemcúl’ecw Restoration and Stewardship Society to support wildlife management and wildfire recovery work.
“My role is really about supporting the work that's being led by communities, they are setting the goals and priorities based on their values and I'm just providing some additional expertise,” she said.
She said the initiative highlights the importance of government to government processes for making joint decisions on how to manage ecological recovery.