South Florida Deer Research Project

South Florida Deer Research Project

Marsh Deer

Project Summary

The South Florida Deer Research Project is one of the largest white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus seminolus) research projects ever conducted in Florida. It is a collaborative effort of researchers and managers from multiple agencies and organizations.  The project began in 2014 and will run through end of 2018 and involves more than three years of intensive field work.  Research sites consist of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Bear Island and North Addition Land Units of Big Cypress National Preserve (BCNP). 

One of the main goals of the project is to gain a better understanding of deer ecology in the unique South Florida environment, including how water levels, habitat differences, predation and hunting impact deer population dynamics.  Another goal is to develop a monitoring technique that can provide reliable estimates of deer densities in South Florida habitats. 

Hunting within or close to the study areas?  Please see information at the bottom of this page regarding harvesting or observing a collared deer.

Deer With Fawn

Remote camera data and field observations of females with fawns allows researchers to estimate when fawning occurs and how many fawns survive the first year of their life (recruitment rate).

Background – Research Need

Throughout the state, white-tailed deer are one of the most valued and sought-after game species. In South Florida, deer are also the most important prey species of the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi).  In recent years, particularly in the southern portion of the BCNP and Everglades National Park (ENP), the area has experienced deer declines.  Although these declines have coincided with changes in hydrology, habitat and predators, the extent to which these variables have affected the deer population is unknown. Concerns, voiced by hunters and agency managers, over the declining deer populations were part of the reason why the study was initiated.       

Although white-tailed deer are one of the most well-studied wildlife species, information on deer in South Florida is limited. Previous deer research in the BCNP region dates back to early 1990s, and the area has changed significantly since that time, including hydrological changes, an increase in the panther population, and changes in other predator populations.  Therefore, up-to-date information on survival, causes of mortality, recruitment (how many fawns survive their first year) and population trends are needed to inform effective management decisions. 

Furthermore, there is a need for a cost-effective monitoring methodology that provides more reliable deer density estimates.  Historically, deer population estimates in this region have been derived primarily from aerial surveys.  Although aerial surveys can provide an index of deer abundance, reliable density estimates are difficult to obtain.  Aerial surveys are also expensive, time-consuming and pose an inherent risk to the safety and lives of biologists.  Reliable estimates of population density and trends are essential for science-based management in this highly dynamic area of Florida.     

Team Effort

The project is a collaborative effort, and the current partners include Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, University of Georgia, Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service.  In addition, Conservancy of Southwest Florida has partnered with the study by providing expertise, camera data and field assistance.    

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is responsible for a majority of the project funding and provides research and logistical support.  Personnel from multiple FWC divisions, including Hunting and Game Management (HGM), Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI), and Habitat and Species Conservation (HSC), are represented by the following staff: Cory Morea (HGM), Elina Garrison (FWRI), Dr. Erin Leone (FWRI), and Dr. Dave Onorato (FWRI).  Elina Garrison, white-tailed deer research biologist, is one of the co-principal investigators and the main contact for FWC on the project.

The University of Georgia and Jones Center team includes Dr. Richard Chandler, Dr. Michael Cherry, Dr. Robert Warren, Dr. Karl Miller and Dr. Mike Conner.  Dr. Chandler is the principal investigator on the project and has considerable experience with population estimation and modeling.  He and Dr. Miller serve as co-advisors for the graduate students that are working on the project.  Dr. Cherry leads the field research as a co-principal investigator and brings extensive experience with deer capture, camera surveys and predator-prey ecology.  Dr. Warren, Dr. Miller and Dr. Conner provide decades of white-tailed deer research and predator-prey expertise.  Two graduate students, Daniel Crawford and Brian Kelly, are responsible for on-going field efforts.  For more information on UGA’s role please visit UGA's south florida deer study website. External Website

David Shindle, formerly with Conservancy of Southwest Florida, is one of the investigators and provided both historic and current camera survey data, panther expertise and extensive field experience to the project.  David continues to provide expertise to the project in his current position as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Florida Panther Coordinator.   

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is providing funding, expertise and assistance to the project, including housing and office space at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.  Kevin Godsea, Project Leader for SW Gulf Coast Refuges is the main contact for Fish and Wildlife Service.  For more information on the Panther Refuge please visit  the U.S. fish and wildlife services Florida panther website. External Website

The National Park Service’s Big Cypress National Preserve is providing assistance, including use of a helicopter and staff to assist with deer captures. Please visit the Big Cypress National Preserve websiteExternal Website


Researchers With Deer

Deer that were captured by a helicopter were physically restrained, but not anesthetized with drugs. This allowed the researchers to do the work-up quickly and with minimum stress to the deer. Each adult deer was fitted with a GPS collar, ear tagged, measured and evaluated for weight and body-condition. Blindfolding and tying the legs together helps the deer remain calm and keeps everyone safe. The work-up was done in less than 10 minutes and the deer were released immediately at the capture site. Mike Cherry and Elina Garrison

Field Work

Field work began in January 2015 with the capture of over 100 deer using helicopters and nets. Researchers placed Global Position System (GPS) collars on deer to monitor movement, habitat use and survival.  In addition, approximately 200 trail cameras were deployed within the study area. 

Deer locations collected by GPS collars allow researchers to understand how deer use various habitats in the South Florida landscape.  Data on deer locations provide information on home-range size and how their movements are impacted by various factors such as water levels, predators, hunters and habitat quality.  These locations also allow researchers to investigate deer survival.  The transmitters allow researchers to find deer that died, and by using field sign and necropsy (animal version of autopsy) results, they are able to investigate causes of mortality.  Deer home-range, movement and survival data, combined with information about concurrent water levels, predators, human-use, and habitat characteristics will provide scientists with the essential building blocks for deer population models specific to the unique South Florida environment. 

Remote-sensing cameras (trail cameras) are another important tool in wildlife research. In the South Florida Deer Project the trail cameras, in combination with the marked deer, are a key component in developing a monitoring method to estimate deer densities.  Cameras were placed in systematic grids representing all major habitats, hydrological conditions, and hunting levels within the study area.  The sites are not baited, as research has shown that baiting the camera sites can strongly affect movement patterns.  Camera data provide information on how deer use different habitats between dry and wet seasons, or fawning and breeding seasons.  This type of data will provide the basis for models that predict the effects that changes in hydrology or habitat improvements will have on deer abundances.  Cameras will also provide information on other wildlife, as well as fawning period, recruitment, timing of antler casting, and activity patterns of deer relative to season, moon phase, weather events, and human activity. 

Team with Deer

On portions of the study site helicopter captures were not feasible due to thick canopy cover. The team is using ground-based capture techniques such as chemical immobilization administered by darting (as seen here) and rocket-netting to capture deer in these areas. From the left: Brian Kelly, Daniel Crawford, and Mike Cherry.


The research addresses several components identified in FWC’s Strategic Plan for Deer Management 2008-2018 Adobe PDF.  Information on how water levels, hunting, habitat, and predation impact deer populations will assist FWC in making science-based population and habitat management decisions.  In addition, the results will benefit all our partners responsible for land and resource management in South Florida, including FWS and NPS.   

The survey method developed in this study will give managers a tool that uses the latest techniques available to estimate deer population densities in South Florida and throughout the state.  Reliable deer population estimates and trends are important for deer and panther management and conservation in this highly dynamic portion of Florida.     

Results will also benefit private landowners, managers, sportsmen and other stakeholder groups by providing new information about South Florida deer populations, habitat management and survey techniques.

Quarterly Project Updates Adobe PDF

Project updates for each quarter will be posted within 2 weeks of the end of each period. The next update will cover from October to December 2018 and will be posted by January 14th.


Everglades Coordinating Council Hosts Researchers from the South Florida Deer Study

Photo of research group at ECC 2016

On June 1st, researchers from the South Florida Deer Study were hosted by the Everglades Coordinating Council in Davie, Florida, to give a white-tailed deer research seminar. Nearly 200 hunters, sportsmen, and other interested local parties attended the seminar to learn more about UGA’s on-going research in southwest Florida and to speak with the students and scientists involved.  FWC biologist Elina Garrison started off the night by presenting recent research about white-tail breeding chronology in Florida, followed by presentations from three UGA Deer Lab graduate students. Kristin Engebretsen introduced her project to estimate fawn survival and recruitment through modeling camera trap data. Daniel Crawford presented both camera trap data and GPS collar data showing spatiotemporal anti-predator behaviors in south Florida deer. Brian Kelly discussed survival estimates and cause-specific mortality of adult deer over the past 18 months. Dr. Mike Cherry concluded the seminar by discussing the effects of fire and water on this unique ecosystem and giving a research project update. This event allowed UGA and FWC scientists to successfully connect with the ECC attendees and local stakeholders and to share updated project information with those interested in this comprehensive field study. Following the meeting, Drs. Cherry and Miller met with FWC personnel to discuss future plans for the South Florida Deer Study.

Deer With Antlers

 Hunting Season and Collared Deer

During deer hunting season, you may see a collared and/or ear-tagged deer within or close to the South Florida Deer Research Project study areas.

Do not let the presence of a collar impact your decision to harvest a deer.  If you would normally harvest a deer that happens to be collared, do so.  On the other hand, if you would normally pass up that deer, do not let the collar impact that decision either.

If you harvest a deer with a collar and/or ear tags please call 239-657-8021 or email as soon as possible after the harvest.  If you harvest the deer at a wildlife management area, and the area has a staffed check station, please check the deer there.  Although we are monitoring the deer remotely, we would like you to report any marked deer you observe, even if you don’t harvest one.

FWC Facts:
According to the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting & Wildlife-Associated Recreation, 66.1 million people engage in wildlife observation, spending about $38.5 billion per year.

Learn More at AskFWC