Here’s Poop in Your Eye: Studying Deer Scat for Science

Courtesy of Chase Voirin/ Navajo grad student Chase Voirin, in the field, enters scat data on paper and into a GPS unit.

Here’s Poop in Your Eye: Studying Deer Scat for Science

For young Navajo wildlife worker Chase Voirin, scat is where it’s at—specifically, the droppings of mule deer on his 28,000-square-mile reservation.

By studying scat, Voirin, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in conservation and wildlife management, hopes to assess the diet of two distinct populations of mule deer on the Navajo Nation. “This study will provide the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife with dietary information on their deer population and will offer wildlife managers anywhere a new method of analyzing the diet of herbivorous animals,” Voirin said. “Comparing microhistology [genetic analysis of deer droppings] with next-generation sequencing is a novel technique and represents a successful collaboration between a tribal entity and a research institution [University of Arizona]—which in the world of wildlife conservation is rare.”

The 26-year-old is being mentored by Navajo Nation Wildlife Program Manager Jeff Cole.

“We collaborated with Chase to combine his interests and our priorities and came up with mule deer,” said Cole. “We have an estimated 8,000 mules across 600,000 acres of commercial forest, and these animals are our biggest priority species—both for selling tags in our non-tribal member hunting program and for tribal members who rely on venison for sustenance.”

So far, Cole said, they have learned that deer subsist mainly on 14 seasonal plants. Voirin’s research “will help us gain knowledge about potential changes in conservation, the health of our ranges, and the impact of livestock and feral horses on forage for ungulate populations,” he added. “It’s something new to us, something we haven’t looked into before, and an innovative technology grant that will have larger context for the world of wildlife. Bottom line—we’re helping a Navajo kid get a master’s degree in something important to him and to our Nation.”

Hunting in Indian country is something that many Natives learn as children. But in order to be a successful hunter, you’ve got to have healthy game.

“My father introduced me to the outdoors at a young age,” Voirin said. “I grew up hunting and fishing and spending time in the outdoors, refining my passion for wildlife conservation. I now want to give back to my tribe through my research.”

Born in Tuba City on the reservation, like other Native youngsters Voirin grew up hunting and harvesting plenty of squirrels and prairie dogs, and chasing a lot of quail and wild turkey.

“Dad and I put in for rifle deer hunt every year as part of the tribal big game season, usually got a tag, and usually were successful,” he told ICTMN. “In many cases in rural communities, there isn’t a corner store to buy supper, so sustenance hunting is still a part of tribal life, and a deer can feed a family for a long time.”

The graduate student and his Native mentors say that his study methodology is unique and will develop a method that can be used by many agencies that work with critters that eat plants.

“The practical implications here will come from a method of looking at herbivore diets where game managers or biologists can go into the field, collect scat samples, and quickly obtain a diet estimate, information that can be extrapolated into the future as habitat alterations and climate changes continue,” the student said.

“Voirin’s research will allow wildlife managers to more easily identify the plants that are important in big game diets, and from that, identify parts of the landscape critical to their survival,” said Jim Heffelfinger, wildlife biologist for the Arizona Game & Fish Department and author of Deer of the Southwest (Texas A&M University Press, 2006). “This study will have far-reaching implications because results are applicable anywhere and, therefore, stand to benefit big game animals throughout North America.”

True to his biological beliefs, Voirin is concerned with the impact of ecological changes on wildlife.

“In all the studies I’ve seen, it all comes back to habitat preservation, and when you take all the factors into consideration—increasing numbers of feral livestock, human impacts, climate change—even the wildlife that live in currently lush and succulent areas will be facing some hard challenges,” Voirin said. “If we keep losing healthy habitat at the rate it’s disappearing, it’s going to become more difficult to practice conservation and eventually things will come to a head. If we want to conserve wildlife, there are only so many disturbances in a given area that can be tolerated to the point where the species can no longer survive there.”

Until spring 2015 and graduation day, Voirin plans to continue his research into deer dung and discovering the information it contains. “If you’re not a biologist, you don’t realize just how much data about dietary richness can be obtained in a noninvasive way.”

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