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Science on Tap look at animals ‘From Beaver to Bear’

January 24, 2020 by Beckie Gaskill

Recently Department of Natural Resources wildlife research team leader Dave McFarland gave a Science on Tap presentation entitled, “From Beaver to Bear — Wisconsin DNR’s Wildlife Research Program in the Northwoods. He spoke about a variety of research programs the DNR is currently undertaking and the strength of having an organization the size of the DNR to complete those projects.

Many of the project McFarland talked about, he said, would not be possible for a scientist not involved in an agency like the DNR. Having a large group and more resources to study various species allows scientists to undertake projects they otherwise would not.

McFarland works in the Office of Applied Science at the DNR, with about 30-35 people in the program he leads. 

“I like to say we’re in the information business,” he told the group. His program provides scientific information to the department on a variety of species of game species and sport fish. Decisions regarding the various species under study are difficult and complex, he said. While some say, “just look at the science,” he said there is much more to it, including the social context, what various user groups want, economics and other things to keep in mind as decisions are made.

MacFarland said his team is not a policy-making team and they do not make the decisions on harvest quotas or those things, but they provide the best information possible, from the scientific end, to those who make those decisions. He shared his favorite Einstein quote in line with how he saw his portion of the department:

“Science is the study of what is, not what should be, and outside of its domain, value judgements fo all kinds remain necessary.”

From there McFarland went into several research projects the department has currently underway. Projects include prairie chickens, bear, wolves, otters, and many others.

“Name an animal. We’re probably woking on it,” he said.


Beaver, as the name of McFarland’s presentation implies, is one of the species under some study, and specifically their relationship with trout. Some research from 30 or 40 years ago, McFarland said, pointed to beaver activity as a detriment to trout in trout streams. One of the beaver project underway is taking a better look at that. In a few streams where beavers where historically removed, that removal has stopped. Conversely, in a few streams where beaver have been allowed to remain, they are being removed. From there, effects on trout will be studied. 


Another study involves partnerships across agencies and even country boundaries, with the target species being a bit more elusive and difficult to reach in general. That study involved ring-necked ducks. Northern Wisconsin, McFarland said, is at the southern end of the breeding range of these ducks. What makes them difficult to count and study is their propensity to roost on edges of floating bogs and in areas that make it more difficult for researchers. Ducks, of course, fly great distances as well, compounding the problem of study. 

The department now has a drone with an infrared camera, he said. That camera can be set to detect everything it flies over that is about the temperature of a duck. While not every return is actually a duck, it makes finding those species and learning more about them easier. The study, which involves the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the Canadian Government, is looking at things such as nest success and brood survival.

Snapshot Wisconsin

Another popular program, indeed the most popular citizen science program in the state, is Snapshot Wisconsin. Over 1,700 volunteers are involved in the program. Each volunteer hosts a trail cam, placed to DNR specs, which takes photographs of every animal that happens to walk in front of it. From there, the photos are uploaded to the Snapshot Wisconsin website. These can be used not only for population modeling, but also to discover the range of many different species in the state.

MacFarland said the elk program also uses trail cameras, the same as Snapshot Wisconsin. At this point, elk are tracked in a more in-person way, but the hope is, because the number of elk are known right now, that data, coupled with the trail cam data, can be used to create a model to help with population modeling of other species.


No discussion of wildlife research in the state would be complete without a discussion of deer and CWD, of course, and McFarland spoke also about the study in Southwestern Wisconsin where deer, fawns, and predators have been collared. To date, 548 deer and 323 fawns had been collared. Because predators are involved in the study as well, 32 bobcats and 69 coyotes have also been collared and are being monitored. Over 350 landowners are involved in helping with the study, he said. 

When deer are collared, they are tested for CWD. Those that are positive at first capture are monitored in one group, those negative in another. From there mortality rates are tracked as well as how quickly the disease is spreading. The study looks to see if deer originally found to be negative would be recaptured, or found dead, and to then be subsequently found positive. The study is in its last year, McFarland said, and right now the evidence shows a deer originally found to be positive would have a survival rate about half of a negative deer.

Prions are also being studied in some research. Prions are the misinformed protein responsible for CWD. Scientists are looking for a better way to detect prions and also how prions sustain in different soils. Another study is looking at composting CWD-positive animals, as research has shown there may be some benefits to that method of disposal.


McFarland touched briefly on bobcat study that is happening, mostly in the Rhinelander and Minocqua areas. Trappers are involved in that study, giving a great sample size of 75 animals so far. The study looks at survivorship of cats, which looks to be about 75% at this point.

The state, he said, has always had a conservative approach to harvest, as there were many questions surrounding the species. There has been a long wait for tags, which is frustrating for those looking to harvest an animal. During the study, the state doubled the number of animals it would allow to be harvested, and found survivorship to stay relatively stable. The cats’ populations were still sustainable, it was found.


The last research McFarland spoke about was bears, his personal favorite and the subject of his PhD. Wisconsin, he said, has the highest density of bears on the continent, making them a very important species. Another thing that makes the species important is hunting. While nationwide, all forms of hunting is in a decline, interest in bear hunting in Wisconsin increases every year. Over 120,000 bear permit applications come in to the department every year, and approximately 13,000 tags are given out. Bear harvest, he said, averages 4,000 to 4,500 animals per year, which is the highest harvest in the country.

The research being used this year involves genetic testing, the cost of which has come down drastically in recent years, he said. The department was able to erect 844 hair snares across bear territory for this study. This consisted of a three-sided barbed wire with a slurry of peanut butter and cooking oil hurried within the structure. This would attract bear, but would not be so attractive, he said, as to have a bear come back repeatedly, as something like a stack of doughnuts would. 

Researchers took 7,000 hair samples from the snares and sent them in for genetic testing. When the results come back, researchers will learn how many different bears visited each snare, how often and if they came back to the same location, and if they also visited other locations. 

All of this research, he said, would go toward helping the department make informed decisions, with various stakeholder groups input in mind, regarding many different species in the state.

Beckie Gaskill may be reached via email at [email protected].

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