How to Catch a Deer

Several years ago, I was having a relaxing morning at my parents’ house when my little brother walked inside, apparently exhausted. He went straight for the cabinet, plucked a cup off the shelf, filled it with water, and chugged the full cup…twice. Breath caught, he looked at me. “I tried to catch a deer.”

White-tailed deer are a fairly common site near our suburban North Carolina home. They make regular early morning appearances—regular enough, in fact, that our garden is now fully fenced in an effort to keep them out. They are fun to watch from the window, coffee in hand, but they tend to make haste when we step outside. Apparently my brother took their fleeing as a challenge. He chased a group of deer through our backyard and into the neighboring woods and if you ask him, “I almost touched one.” He admittedly didn’t know what he would have done with an entire live deer, but he knew he’d figure it out in the moment. Classic.

Sometimes deer biologists need to catch deer and needless to say, my brother’s methods are not the most effective. Instead, they use clover traps, rocket nets, and dart guns to safely capture live deer and conduct research. Reasons for catching live deer include deploying GPS or radio collars to track movements and survival, collecting blood, inserting individual identification tags, and to help answer a variety of other research questions.

Clover Traps

Clover traps are rectangular, netted traps with a door that closes when a trip wire is triggered by the deer. The traps are baited with corn behind the trip wire. The trip wire is high enough that critters like squirrels, raccoons, and birds can enter and exit the trap without getting caught. Researchers check clover traps at least once daily. If there is a deer inside, they open the door, pull it out, and process the deer in whatever way is relevant to the specific project. Some clover traps are designed so that researchers can collapse the trap on the deer when they arrive, helping immobilize the deer while they remove it from the trap.

Researchers with the Missouri Deer Project remove and process a captured deer from a clover trap.

Rocket Nets

Rocket nets are used to capture a variety of wildlife, including wild turkeys, waterfowl, and deer. A rocket net set-up consists of rockets, or cylindrical tubes with a series of holes on the back end, tied to the front end of a large net. Rocket charges (black powder) inside the rockets are connected to a long wire that links all rockets in the series. The far end of the long wire connects to a detonator in a waiting researcher’s hands. Deer are attracted to a bait site in front of the net. When the rockets are deployed, they soar over the deer, pulling the net with them. Heavy anchors on the back end of the large net prevent the rockets from pulling the net completely over and beyond the deer. The tug from the anchors causes the rockets to drop and the net entraps the deer. Researchers waiting nearby race to the rocket net site and rapidly untangle and process the deer according to the project objectives.

Researchers with the Missouri Deer Project deploy a rocket net to trap a doe.

Dart Guns

Dart guns are exactly what they sound like—guns that shoot darts. The darts are filled with an immobilization drug, which varies by species and project, though there are guidelines, regulations, and approval processes governing how immobilization drugs can be used. When a deer is shot with a dart gun, ideally in a meaty part of the body like the ham, the drug releases into the deer. Researchers process darted deer while they are chemically immobilized and reverse the drug before letting the deer go on its way. Researchers use dart guns from tree stands over baited sites or even while driving around in a truck, so long as the deer will stand in range of the dart gun. Like other guns, dart guns must be cleaned and sighted in regularly to ensure accuracy.

I got the opportunity to practice with several dart gun models while learning to safely immobilize wild animals at a Safe-Capture workshop.

I got the opportunity to practice with several dart gun models while learning to safely immobilize wild animals at a Safe-Capture workshop.

These methods tend to be the most common in North Carolina and Missouri where I am familiar with deer research. Other states may deploy different methods to catch deer, however. Drop nets rest on poles above a bait site and fall at the will of the researcher when deer are present. Box traps are like a fully enclosed clover trap. In areas with long swaths of open ground without timber, some research projects hire helicopters to find and capture deer using a net gun. Regardless of the capture method, research allows state and federal agencies to better manage our deer herds. With a thriving deer population, nature enthusiasts from hunters to adorable animal lovers (to backyard deer chasers) will enjoy their presence for years to come.


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