This is the first of two stories examining the plight of an important but somewhat neglected species — Ed.
Wyoming’s mule deer are in trouble.
Their numbers have dropped 36 percent since 1990. Fawn production has declined 20 percent in the last quarter century.
Mule deer habitat has been sucked dry by drought, invaded by development, cut apart by highways. Always-fatal chronic wasting disease infected 57 percent of hunter-killed deer in one area three years ago.
Parts of Wyoming were once known as a “mule deer factory,” and the state still strives for a population of more than 564,150. But they number about 374,400 today and their plight is such that advocates doubt whether the slate-hued muley can make a comeback.
“We’ll never get back to historic numbers,” Miles Moretti, president of the Mule Deer Foundation, said of a nearby herd as he addressed a gathering in Daniel Aug. 6. A group of 45 biologists, hunters, ranchers, administrators and land managers shared recent research and brainstormed how to boost the population of the beleaguered species.
To some, the Inaugural Wyoming Mule Deer Summit was yet another committee, to others a vehicle to focus statewide conservation efforts, including collaboration from non-governmental groups and landowners (see sidebar). What wasn’t in dispute was the precipitous drop in the mule deer population across Wyoming.
“We are about 35 percent below a combined statewide objective,” Game and Fish Mule Deer Working Group chairman Daryl Lutz said in an interview. “We don’t know that we can arrest the decline.”
Wyoming was — in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s — home to many more mule deer than are around today, summit participants agreed. “In recent years Wyoming’s landscape has changed drastically and habitats have been altered in ways that are relatively permanent,” an overview by the Game and Fish’s working group states. Among the causes are those also plaguing other Wyoming wildlife — industrial and residential development, wildlife-mangling traffic, domestic and wild horse grazing, reservoir construction, weather and other factors.
“Recent political and economic circumstances have also given rise to unprecedented natural gas development, causing habitat to be altered at a much greater rate than can be restored by reclamation,” the 2009 working group summary stated.
Game and Fish’s 2009 overview also quoted author Olof Wallmo, a pioneer deer researcher who in 1981 saw a diminution of deer in the Rockies and beyond.
“The only generalization needed to account for the mule deer decline throughout the West is that practically every identified trend in land use and plant succession on the deer ranges is detrimental to deer,” he wrote.
There was a population crash after the winter of 1983-’84 and the most recent decline came after the winter of 1992-‘93. Biologists know some of the responsible factors — drought and severe winters — but they can’t explain why deer haven’t rebounded as usual.
Kevin Monteith, an assistant research professor at the University of Wyoming, pointed to a nearby herd that used to number 50,000.
“We’ve not got back to the 50,000 we had,” he told the summit. Deer haven’t multiplied even though Game and Fish stopped the hunting of does, a strategy employed to boost the population.
Monteith showed a roller-coaster graph of deer numbers that had a corresponding set of hills and valleys for a line depicting the “carrying capacity” of a particular range. Weather was the factor affecting the carrying capacity line.
There’s another consideration — elk. They are subsidized west of the Continental Divide by 22 Game and Fish feedgrounds and the federal National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole.
“Elk are doing well,” Monteith said. “Coincidentally, deer are going the other way… for a couple of decades.” It’s necessary to bring that elk component into the picture, he said.
Regarding the fluctuating deer carrying capacity on his graph, Monteith asked, “Is 50,000 sustainable?” Given the variations in weather and other factors, “it’s almost impossible to know,” he said.
All about fawns
For Lutz, “it’s all about fawns,” he told the summit. Fawn ratios — the number of offspring compared to 100 does — is the telling statistic.
To sustain a hunted population, herds need to produce 66 fawns per 100 does annually. In the last 30 years the ratio has declined by 16 fawns, a 20 percent drop, Lutz said.
Since 1990, the statewide ratio has been lower than 66 fawns per 100 does in nine of the last 13 years. The lowest ratio was 57 per 100. In 2012, it stood at 63.
A nadir occurred near Ferris Mountain where a herd produced only 27 fawns per 100 does.
“We have got to figure out ways to improve mule deer fawn survival,” Lutz said. “We’ve got to get fawns recruited into the population.”
People recognize the importance of habitat, Lutz said.
“It’s been demonstrated that the probability of a particular doe’s fawn surviving is dependent on her condition,” he said. “Quality of lactation has everything to do with it. Habitat provides the groceries to get that doe in optimal body condition.”
Healthy deer can better avoid predators and robust habitat can provide cover, he said. “Mostly it has to do with moms and mostly her condition coming out of summer into winter.”
More attention has been paid historically to winter range and less to late summer and fall “transitional” range. “That’s something that’s fairly new to us,” Lutz said in an interview.
New scientific discoveries like that could have implications for a variety of land management agencies that seek to reduce the effects of activities, from energy development to recreation, on wildlife. Restrictions on exploratory drilling and recreation, for example, are routinely enacted to protect wildlife on their winter range.
Monteith agreed with Lutz. “If habitat is not good enough, if mother’s not doing well, forget it,” he told the summit. Working as part of the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, his latest fieldwork involves capturing radio-collared deer twice a year to see how their condition improves from spring to fall.
Last year the study followed 35 does in the Wyoming Range and involved estimating body fat and using ultrasound to test for pregnancy. One 13-year-old began the summer with a scraggly 1 percent body fat. It almost certainly didn’t have fawns, or abandoned them quickly.
It trekked 150 miles from one end of the range to the other, using a highway underpass at Nugget Canyon and ending up in Star Valley, munching in farmers’ fields. Among the deer Monteith followed that year, it started out skinniest and ended the most rotund, going into the winter with fat accounting for 20 percent of its weight.
Other does started out fatter, mothered fawns, but went into winter with less fat than the 13-year-old.
The lesson; it takes a well-conditioned deer to bring up fawns. Those on the edge can’t do it. Those that are in good condition can raise fawns, but it costs them valuable survival resources, like body fat, that could affect their survival.
Understanding the nutritional dynamics of deer allows managers to know “what components of habitat are growing us our deer,” Monteith said. Consequently, efforts to improve habitat can be more efficiently applied.
Hunters and hunting
The summit shouldn’t shy away from the fact that members support hunting, said Steve Belinda, an advocate with the Mule Deer Foundation. The goal of most is for “a sustainable, harvestable population,” he said. The North American Wildlife Conservation Model that sustains most game species in the U.S. has hunters and hunting at its core.
Nevertheless, some people feel hunting is to blame for mule deer decline and that stopping it would cure all ills.
“Many people believe if we were to close the season, mule deer would recover,” Lutz said. “That is not true.
“Changes in hunting seasons can address hunt quality,” he said. But controlled hunting itself is not an overarching demon when it comes to population-scale shifts. “Hunting seasons are not the problem,” he said.
Game and Fish gets most of its funds from the sale of licenses, however, a fact that critics never forget. One summit participant said the agency years ago allowed hunters to get as many as nine deer licenses in one season, a practice that’s since ceased.
Dissatisfaction over deer management resulted in “deer wars” in recent decades, an eruption in the Platte River Valley where restoration efforts are underway, and new grumblings around Rock Springs, summit members said.
Across Wyoming, Game and Fish manages 38 mule deer herds at a cost of $7.7 million a year. (Agency program costs amount to $69 million annually.) Resident licenses cost $38, nonresidents pay up to $552.
The statistical picture is somewhat fuzzy said Game and Fish’s Jeff Obrechct, because many deer licenses allow the killing of whitetail deer as well a mule deer. Whitetails are a small minority of the population, however.
In 2012 hunters paid $7.8 million in deer license fees. Game and Fish sold 68,764 mule deer licenses. Hunters killed 27,694 mule deer, according to the 2013 report, which summarized the 2012 hunt season.
In 2012 hunters took an average of 9 days to kill an animal. Slightly more than half were successful and together they spent more than $29 million that season. All told, they logged 255,445 recreation days.
In the five years from 2008 to 2012, however, the number of mule deer licenses sold slipped 23 percent. The number of deer killed dropped 24 percent, license revenue went down 27 percent, calculations from the annual report show. Overall hunter expenditures declined by only 15 percent during that period.
In FY 2013, deer accounted for 22 percent of the revenue collected by the department, 12 percent of the expenditures.
Over the last 30 years, Game and Fish has relied heavily on funding from the sale of nonresident deer and pronghorn license sales, spokesman Jeff Obrecht said. While the two revenue streams still generate a significant amount, they do not fund the department to the same extent as they did historically.
Game and Fish puts a “restoration value” on wildlife that it uses to support the prosecution and sentencing of poachers and other wildlife “takings.” For mule deer, that value is $4,000.
Mule deer hunters want better opportunities. They’ve killed fewer deer in recent years, but have had to spend a correspondingly longer time doing it, Lutz told the summit.
Surveys show satisfaction is slipping — from 84 percent in 2006 to 74 percent in 2012.
“Fewer people agree that there were adequate number of bucks,” Lutz said. Positive responses to the question of adequate buck numbers declined from 64 to 47 percent from ’06 to ’12.
Hunters’ attitudes are changing, and their definition of a “trophy buck” may be different than it was 20 years ago. Outdoor TV shows, where nary an errant arrow flies from the bowstring and successful hunts conclude within the half hour, commercials included, could fuel expectations, summit members said.
Hunters are increasingly interested in limited quota licenses — those drawn by lottery, Lutz said. They want to limit the number of hunters in the field but they also have a strong interest in hunting each year.
“More say habitat has gotten worse,” Lutz said, suggesting a growing interest in the ecology of the species. Also, the effect of predators “remains high on peoples’ minds.”
Advocate Belinda summarized hunters’ sentiments: “We want to hunt every year, we want more deer, bigger bucks, fewer people, lower prices.”
That could be a simplification. If the summit was looking for a poster boy to represent hunters, it could have chosen Chuck Kaiser, a Minnesota rifleman who’s been coming to Wyoming to hunt since about 1985. Last year he went to Patrick O’Toole’s neighborhood to hunt Battle Mountain.
“I picked Battle Mountain because of all the good things I read,” Kaiser said. “They said it was really good the year before .”
What they didn’t say was that seismograph crews were in the area, using helicopters and ground crews to map subsurface geologic formations of minerals. The clatter of seismic operations is widely disruptive.
“We saw the helicopters, places where the equipment was,” Kaiser said. What he didn’t see — other than some does and fawns — was deer.
“We met other hunters,” Kaiser said. “They didn’t see anything. They said they’re not coming back.”
His hunting buddy, “didn’t even apply for a license,” Kaiser said of this year’s expedition. “Now I’m wary.”
For Kaiser, who has deer in his home state and who hunts across the West all fall, the hunt is not about killing.
“That’s the goal,” he said of shooting a deer. “If I can just see deer, even if I don’t fill my tag, if the population is there, that’s a big part of the hunt.”
Kaiser has a non-resident deer license for 2014 that cost him about $340. Whether he will be one of those who fork out a dwindling total of $29 million during deer hunting season in Wyoming is uncertain. It’s a 16 hour drive from where he lives.
“If they’re going to be [seismograph] testing, I’m not going to go out that far to see nothing,” he said.