Researchers release a doe mule deer during a study in western Wyoming that seeks information on nutrition and migration. Biologists believe summer and fall habitat deserve more attention than has been paid to them in the past. (Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish )

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.”

What happened?

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.

When studying mule deer that migrate between Kemmerer and Afton, biologists net does from the air, then transport them by helicopter to a base for scientific study and release. As mule deer numbers have declined in recent decades, Wyoming Game and Fish and other groups seek ways to help the population rebound. (Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish )

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.

A mule deer inspects a highway tunnel at Nugget Canyon where the Wyoming Department of Transportation built 7 underpasses and fencing along a 13-mile stretch of U.S. 30. Almost 50,000 mule deer used the tunnels in a three-year period, reducing vehicle collisions by 81 percent. (Hall Sawyer/WEST Inc.)

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.

Kevin Monteith measures rump fat on a doe mule deer captured near LaBarge. He is an assistant research professor with the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in the Department of Zoology and Physiology at the University of Wyoming, essentially a research arm of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. (Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish)

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.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. To Mike Darling, for one the WGFD DID NOT reintroduce wolves but was tasked with managing them and has done a far better job of keeping their numbers in check than Idaho or Montana. The state of Wyoming fought the USFWS very hard to make sure that wolves would be classified as predators in most of Wyoming. Deer in and out of occupied wolf habitat are showing similar overall declines.

    To rbd, the counties you claim to be so affected by lions have very liberal hunting seasons. Those hunt areas are 5, 6, 7, 25 and 31. In the last two years only area 6 reached its quota in 2013 and hunt area 5 in 2012. Two of those hunt areas, 7 and 31, are open to hunting year around and the rest have seven month long seasons. I don’t think the WGFD is to blame for limiting mountain lion hunting. opportunity.

  2. Looking forward to Part II of this series. Good concise reporting on a big topic, Angus.

    I do cringe when I read comments like that from Mike Darland here that tries to lay wholesale blame at the feet of the Grey Wolf , or other top predators. If there is a study or even a wealth of anecdotal evidence from a wildlife researcher that shows Wolves are having measurable or serious impact to Mule Deer herds in Wyoming , I am unaware of it. Probably because it is not happening nearly to the extent that the barstool biologists and wolf detractors claim. Those sorts of wild claims emanate from folks who have little or no understanding of the predator-prey relationship. It’s interesting to observe the ” impact” of wolves on the Whitetail deer populations of the upper Great Lakes. There, wolves get 60 percent of their food intake from deer ( and a remarkable 20 percent from dining on beavers! —bet you didn’t see THAT coming ). Are Whitetail deer populations threatedn by the many thousands of wolves in Minnesota and Wisconsin ? Hardly.

    Mule deer , especially fawns, are definitely on the menu for all manner of predators in Wyoming , from badgers to coyotes to the apex predators bears and wolves and Big Damn Cats. Especially the latter, in some specific areas. Wyoming has one of the most robust Cougar/Panther populations on the planet, and they prefer deer. But that has been going on since time immemorial… populations of both are entwined and go up and down depending on a wide range of external factors. The problem is we humans have added to that list of negative mortality factors in a very big way. The silver lining is if we crated the problem then we are capable of solving it. But do we have the will to do so ?

    Wyoming state wildlife policy is heavily bent toward killing predators ( thank you , narrowminded Stockgrowers) , which has been proven time and time again to not only fail to resolve the ” problem” but may actually making things worse all around and definitely unbalancing the ecosystem equations.

    Unofficially but far more noisily , folks find it far too easy to blame wolves…charge them with crimes, find them guilty, and sentence them to death under a perversion of the Napoleonic Code of being guilty till proven innocent if charged. Who comes to defense of wolves these days, or makes their case ?

    As Angus so clearly shows us here, the matrix of issues with Mule Deer is huge and complex, and we humans really do not understand enough of it. Yet that does not seem to prevent us from taking adverse actions towards deer, and indeed too many other species of wildlife.

    Blaming wolves is not helpful when discussing falling deer numbers. The deer – wolf dynamic is minor compared to other larger resource factors. E.g. , the wolves in western Wyoming prefer to eat elk in large numbers yet the elk herds are still growing in numbers where wolves are abundant, or none present. So—?

  3. I think MT touched on something acknowledged, but side stepped in the article – CWD. In the areas I previously mentioned, you have little to no additional development in the last 30 years, no reintroduced wolves, etc, but we have had a considerable increase in the number of mountain lions, as well as extreme drought, fires, etc. Toss in a little CWD and you have a population ripe for a serious decline. Do the researcher and G&F really grasp the true impact CWD is having on herds?

  4. Really, There are seriously only 374,400 mule deer left in Wyoming? I may have miscounted, but 374,395 of them were fighting over the last leaf on my rosebush this morning……The remaining 5 were busy gnawing on each other……….If it’s venison you crave — come to Newcastle — you can bag your limit before breakfast with a claw hammer around here…….

  5. After a 10-15 year drought, which are a natural part of western climate history, deer populations take more time to rebound. What will be the effect of making new roads, hauling, building and maintaining a gillian wind mills in mule deer habitat, so people in Los Vegas and L.A. can waste it?

  6. Stop introducing predators and start aggressively killing the predators = problem solved. I’ve been to Wyoming and there is plenty of “suitable habitat” so the habitat argument is hogwash. What did they think was going to happen when they turn a bunch of wolves loose?

  7. It’s obvious that wildlife habitat is the bottom line in the sustainable health of a wildlife species like mule deer. The drought over the past decade has hit deer hard, of course, but now that precipitation has rebounded the deer population hasn’t. What’s missing from this article is an analysis of the high impact that Wyoming’s energy colony has had on mule deer over the past two decades statewide. Between increased road density and road kill, poaching, and just less available habitat, the deer population has been reduced. Unfortunately, the state just looks the other way or does another “study” instead of being an advocate for mule deer. Hall Sawyer demonstrated the mule deer migration route along the Upper Green River Basin from Rock Springs to Hoback. This route is critical to protect the migration from winter range to summer range and back if this herd is going to be protected in the future. Likewise, the mule deer herds in the eastern part of the state have critical habitat areas and migration routes that must be protected from being destroyed by Wyoming’s energy colony. WY Game & Fish Dept could help a lot by being wildlife advocates instead of political hand-wringers and apologists for the energy and mineral industries that have destroyed more mule deer habitat than ever. The WYGFD is also sitting on a time-bomb by promoting the elk feedgrounds that are nothing more than petri dishes for wildlife disease. Chronic Wasting Disease is now in most parts of the state which could devastate the deer herds. If we had a state-supported habitat protection policy, we wouldn’t need the feedgrounds. With healthy habitat wildlife would be sustainable for the future.

  8. I cannot argue with this well written article, but I have watched the mismanagement at the G&F level the last 25 years that has more than likely compounded the problem. Hunters/ranchers/outdoor folks have point out issues to G&F personnel for years only to be ignored or blown off because the biologist knows best. I watched as mountain lions decimated what was once a large herd in the Platte/Albany/Laramie County area. Nobody at G&F cared……….and now most of that herd has dwindled into a small group. Sad, sad, sad.

    G&F used to be a great game management agency when I was a kid, but now seems more involved in politics and generating revenues than focusing on their primary mission. Look at the sage grouse……..the mule deer is heading the same direction. A sad state of affairs in this wildlife wonderland……..

  9. I’m 36 years of age and have studied Wildlife Science and Ecology since I was 9 years of age , have read almost every Historic Mule Deer Conservation book or plan that has been published . All in all , Habitat is the utmost importance to Mule Deer survival , second Predators . Mule Deer population declines due to weather trends , generally always rebound . But take away a Mule Deer’s Habitat and what do Deer have to reproduce ? nothing ? Since the reintroduction to the Wolf population into Wyoming and the added development , highway construction, and what do you expect ? A declining Deer Herd !
    California, due to the strict policies on hunting predators , Mule Deer Herds are struggling and of course the Developments in rural areas .
    Now for a great example when Wilderness is preserved and there is no development, look towards the Arizona Strip Units 13a and 13b . With 5 million acres of undeveloped Wilderness , the Arizona Strip likely holds the healthiest Mule deer herd in the West ! The Arizona Strip currently holds roughly 6,000 mule deer , and after careful calculations and looking at Historic charts , the Arizona Strip could sustain 20,000 to 30,000 Mule Deer . The greatest threat and impact to the Arizona Strip Mule deer herd is the Mountain Lion . The region does need to significantly reduce the Mountain Lion densities . Second , between 13a and 13b there needs to be an added 20-30 Wildlife Water Catchments .
    I have studied the Mule Deer herd on the Arizona strip for 23 years . But simultaneously I’m looking at other regions within other states and have studied the reasons behind the Mule Deer population fluctuations and there causes . What I strongly believe is that other States , States Agencies and NGO’s need to do is look at the Arizona Strip as a great example as to what happens or doesn’t happen when Habitat is preserved and or taken away .

  10. I’ve been hunting Eastern WY (Lusk area) for the last 50+ yrs. & have seen many fluctuations in the mule deer herd. However, the last (3) yrs. have seen a DRASTIC reduction on the ranch I hunt! At my age, I don’t expect to see a change in my lifetime & the ONLY reason I’m returning this year (health permitting) is to spend time with our dear friends who own the ranch. It’s a sad state, and I wish you success in your endeavor.