BEMIDJI, Minn. — If you live in a wooded area of Bemidji, chances are you have seen a handful of SUVs driving slowly with spotlights beaming out the back windows.
What you may not have known was that the vehicle's occupants were Bemidji State students out braving the chilly temps to participate in the annual deer counting surveys.
Conducted every fall ahead of hunting season, the results of the deer surveys are given to the city to help with the number of licenses given out for the archery hunt to help control the deer population. It also allows students to get experience working in the field.
Bundled up in coats, hats and gloves, participants on a recent night — 10 of BSU biology professors Jacob Haus and Brian Hiller’s students — were broken up into three teams. Each had a driver, a data recorder and navigator and two spotters.
“Each time we spot a deer we’re going to put a time down, take a reading of the distance of how far they are from the road in yards with the rangefinder, a GPS way-point of where it was spotted, the habitat type where it was found, note whether it was a single deer or a group, and whether it’s a doe, buck or fawn,” Haus told the students.
There were three survey zones to tackle.
Haus explained that during the surveys the students were to turn the vehicle's hazard lights on and go nice and slow, around 10 mph. He also gave instructions on how to handle the spotlights, such as pointing them down when cars are passing and being careful to not shine them in people’s houses and windows.
The professors also noted that even though the surveys have been going on for more than a decade, they still make sure to send out press releases to make the public aware the surveys are happening.
They also notify the Bemidji Police Department each night they begin a survey, as sometimes people will call the police when they see the surveys being conducted, not knowing if it’s something illegal or shady going down.
Once the students were fully prepped for their evening outing, each group split off to their respective vehicles around 6:30 p.m.
The team for Ward 5, the northeast Lake Bemidji area, was made up of four students in the wildlife biology program: senior Trevor Loberg as the driver, senior Megan Danielson on navigation and data recording, and first-year grad student Jamie Horton and junior Elise Jordahl as spotters.
Of the four, Loberg was the only one who had been part of a survey before and he said that time he was on a team of five working the rangefinder.
The students said participation in the survey was voluntary, as it wasn’t a requirement for any of their classes.
“It’s an activity we are doing as part of the BSU Wildlife Society,” Danielson said.
“It is also helpful to a lot of the people in the club because we can put it on our resumes,” Jordahl added. “It can be put on a resume as an experience because it’s a wildlife skill that is valuable to have completed and be able to talk about in a job interview.”
Horton said she has enjoyed the opportunities she’s had in her time at BSU since transferring from the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.
“I feel like here they have a lot more opportunities to do things like this and get experience. There are more chances to gain a variety of skills, which is super helpful when looking for jobs,” she said. “In the Twin Cities they are really focused on research, which is good, but there is also a benefit of getting the actual hardcore experience. The hands-on part of it all is really valuable.”
It was 6:54 p.m. before the crew spotted their first deer, three were discovered grazing in a field along Brinkman Drive Northeast.
And it was 7:12 p.m. before the next deer were found, and in the meantime, there were a lot of comedic attempts to call in the deer with yips and jeers — none of which worked.
As each deer was discovered the rangefinder would be passed over to the respective spotter, the number of yards would be determined and Danielson would jot it down on the list, along with the other required information.
Loberg would set off once again and chatter would pick up until the next shout of “Deer, deer, deer,” was called out, followed by “Is it a doe or a buck,” or “Are there three or four?”
After the appropriate data was collected the students would give a round of “good spot team” or “good work,” happy with their latest discovery.
The students said along with the surveys pairing well with what they have learned in their wildlife courses, the added benefits for the city also motivates them to participate.
“Seeing how far the deer are from the road when they are spotted has to do with deer/vehicle collisions,” Jordahl said. “I’m in principles of wildlife management with Dr. Hiller and we’ve talked a lot about how when the deer population goes up there’s also an increase in vehicle strikes.”
“The reason we do this for the city is because they base the archery hunts off of this,” Loberg said. “They use this data to see how many deer can be shot within city limits and to do bag limits and things like that. If there’s a lot of deer there might not be any bag limits, or if there’s less deer then they might be like ‘OK you can shoot one deer here this season.’
“It’s also really good for the airport because they can get over the fences there and it’s helpful for them to know how many deer are in that area.”
The city archery hunts are held in Ward 5, Ward 4 and by the Bemidji Regional Airport. The hunts in Ward 4 and Ward 5 follow the regular Minnesota deer archery season, which runs through Dec. 31. The hunting season for the Bemidji Regional Airport runs through Nov. 30. More information can be found on the city’s website.
The data is also being used by BSU for a large research grant proposal. According to Haus, the research focuses on tracking deer within city limits to study their movement and survival in response to the city’s special archery hunt. Haus said the Minnesota Legislature hasn’t officially adopted the funding recommendations yet so the grant is technically still pending approval.
By the end of the night, 48 deer were spotted during the Ward 5 survey, with only one being definitively identifiable as a buck. The crew was positive of this because it got spooked when it was caught by the spotlight and it promptly ran across the road right in front of the vehicle, giving the students a good look at its eight-point rack.
“I’m surprised we only saw one buck, but with how skittish he was it made sense with how Dr. Hiller was saying before we left that people are sometimes out spotlighting illegally. So it makes me wonder if the bucks are more skittish now because of that,” Jordahl said.
The survey drew to a close at about 9:45 p.m. and the students made their way from the east side of the lake back to the school.
“What a success. We had a little bit of everything,” Danielson said as the group recounted the evening’s offerings. “We saw some cats, we had some people yell at us, we saw a pig, a giant skeleton, some dogs.”
Though the “pig” in actuality was a large stump that merely resembled a pig.
“Yeah I for sure thought a German shepherd was a deer,” Horton added with a laugh. “We saw it all, we got the full experience.”
“I thought this was fun,” Jordahl said. “If I can, I want to sign up to go out again next week.”