A trail camera captured this image of mule deer from the Paintrock Herd in the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Cody Region. Mule deer populations have declined in Wyoming by nearly 40% since the turn of the century, and the state is seeking solutions to turn the tide. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

Wildlife managers have millions of dollars in new funding at their disposal to collect statewide movement and mortality data on mule deer, a species that has been in a prolonged decline in Wyoming and across the West. 

Ultimately, data derived from GPS collars on 1,000-plus animals and increased deer herd population assessments will be used to help identify pilot projects to knock down numbers of large carnivores that eat muleys. The data could also shine light on where the Wyoming Game and Fish Department will strategically shrink elk herds, which compete with their smaller, less adaptable cervid cousins for habitat. 

Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik told members of the Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce in late March that he doesn’t see large-scale predator control as a silver bullet to turning the corner on mule deer numbers, which have fallen statewide from a high of over 500,000 in the early 2000s to just over 300,000 today. But it could be a useful tool in places, he said. 

“We know we’re sharing our deer herds, in some places, with large carnivores,” Nesvik said. “Are there ways that we can make prescriptions and adjustments to wildlife management that will, at a localized level, provide more opportunity? In other words, share less of the deer resource with large carnivores.” 

Other pilot projects will target elk, which have thrived and trended in the opposite direction as mule deer, growing from about 90,000 animals in the early 2000s to 110,000-plus today. Research by University of Wyoming Ecology Professor Kevin Monteith provides enough justification to test out using hunters to trim down elk herds — a decline mule deer could respond favorably to, Nesvik said.  

Bull elk on a migration path between Yellowstone National Park and the Sunlight Basin in the Shoshone National Forest. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is looking into pilot projects that will reduce elk numbers in order to help mule deer populations. (Travis Zaffarano/Wyoming Migration Initiative/University of Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit)

Monteith, earlier in the same meeting, outlined preliminary results from an ungulate competition study south of Rock Springs in the Little Mountain area. 

“Those [deer] that are further away from elk are gaining more fat over the summer,” Monteith said. “Those [deer] that are living closer to elk are gaining less fat over the summer. 

“It’s certainly very convincing evidence that there’s potential competition between deer and elk given that relationship right there,” he added.  

Specific pilot projects to help mule deer via killing elk and large carnivores are still in the planning phases and have not been identified, according to Game and Fish spokeswoman Sara DiRienzo. But the large carnivore species that the department has zeroed in on are primarily black bears and mountain lions, Nesvik said. 

“There was no edict to create a war on mountain lions and black bears,” he said. “It’s not that.”  

As for other predators: wolves in Wyoming are managed close to the lower limits required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for now grizzly bears are protected from hunting by the Endangered Species Act and coyotes can already be killed without limit throughout Wyoming. 

A National Elk Refuge employee in 2013 witnessed a standoff between five coyotes and two juvenile mountain lions, one of which is pictured here taking refuge on a fence. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is looking at pilot projects that will reduce mountain lion numbers in order to help mule deer. (Lori Iverson/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Experimental predator control and elk reduction projects are just a couple of the possible outcomes of the infusion of mule deer research funds that the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission signed off on while meeting March 24 in Cody. The state agency’s seven commissioners OK’d a special allocation of $2.36 million for the five-year-study, called the “Mule Deer Monitoring Project.” All told, however, there’s $5.7 million projected to be sunk into the project, according to Game and Fish documents

This project represents a separate effort from the 15-year-old ongoing Wyoming Mule Deer Initiative, which focuses on improving habitat, adapting hunting seasons and developing science to attempt to conserve deer herds throughout the state. 

Millions of data points

There are three primary expenses to the new Mule Deer Monitoring Project, said Embere Hall, who supervises Game and Fish’s science, research and analytical support unit. One, the state is going to beef up its mule deer herd abundance surveys. Currently, she said, the state agency censuses just one deer herd a year, but the new funding will bring that total to seven or eight of Wyoming’s 37 recognized mule deer herds. 

“So over the course of the five-year proposal,” Hall said, “we’ll have gotten a really robust estimate, potentially for every single herd in the state.” 

Another big component will look closely at factors in mule deer mortality from five “focal herds” that will be selected from throughout the state — this is the portion that will most help inform predator control pilot projects. GPS collars will be used to monitor a total of 100 buck, doe and fawn deer from each herd, and when they die wildlife biologists and technicians will rush to the site to attempt to determine the cause. 

Data analysis and presentation is the third big expense. On that front, Game and Fish is partnering with the University of Wyoming Quantitative Wildlife Ecologist Jerod Merkle. Approximately every three months, he told WyoFile, the 500 or so mule deer that are wearing GPS tracking collars in the five focal herds at any one time will output 1 million location points. 

“We’re going to take in the millions of data points that are going to be collected, and turn them into something that can be used by field biologists and managers,” Merkle said. 

The raw data will be sorted, analyzed and presented with apps and through other means by Merkle’s lab, the university’s new school of computing and the Wyoming Innovation Partnership. It’s a unique collaboration, he said.

“We’re trying to build all this data science expertise at the University of Wyoming,” Merkle said. “And here we are plugging that directly into the state needs of wildlife management.” 

Of course, it remains to be seen if wildlife managers can use the fine-scale Wyoming mule deer data to help the species stage a comeback. Habitat quality, drought and winter severity — factors often out of wildlife managers’ control — typically drive mule deer populations.

“I think this gives the department and managers and the public the best tools that we can have to understand how our management actions are influencing populations,” Game and Fish’s Hall said. “Is it going to, at the snap of your fingers, return us to populations consistent with what we had 30 years ago? Probably not, but it can give us the information that we need to take the best steps in that direction.”

Mike Koshmrl reports on Wyoming's wildlife and natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures for the Jackson...

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  1. Please just stop with pumping more millions into collars and gathering data points. We have done enough of that over the last 20 years.
    The one lead researcher, Merle, said it all in this article – habitat quality, drought, and winter severity – factors out of our control- typically drive mule deer population numbers.
    We know and have known for some time that improving and enhancing habitat and the construction of highway wildlife crossings are two things we know have positive results. Lets put our full efforts and dollars into these two items only for the next five years instead. I bet we would see some positive numbers for our Mule deer.

  2. As I look at the comments here, I wish that many here were of the same mindset. I wish we could all agree on one simple thing that is crucial to maintaining these populations, and that is quality habitat, one simple thing we know is good for these animals. There will always be other impediments related to the populations that most of us may never completely agree to but putting emphasis on one thing that will help, and bring more people to the table IMO is a good thing, especially in this state with it’s limited population. Too many differing opinions and directions will always limit any effect we will have as sportsmen and conservationists.

  3. Everyone knows that the oil and gas industries are having the greatest negative impact on big game numbers. But too much under the table money involved for any real solutions.

  4. Not sure why extra funding is needed for jobs that should already be done year to year by hunter surveys!

  5. Have you factored in the impact cattle grazing on public lands has on mule deer nutrition and populations. Instead of killing more elk, reduce the number of cattle grazing on public lands. After all wildlife belongs to everyone, and so does public lands.

  6. Why not let the wolves take care of the situation instead of shooting them, use the wolves! They love elk!

  7. How has oil extraction affected wintering deer in Wyo? I had read earlier reports that this was significantly impacting mule deer numbers. No mention of that in this study. Or do we just not go there with these gas prices?

  8. i’m sure the Wyoming Game and Fish will take a good, hard look at the long term mule deer study being conducted by Chuck Anderson in Colorado’s Piceance Basin. This study has extensively looked at the impacts of coyote, mountain lion and bear predation and the effects of habitat loss and condition on the survival of mule deer fawns. The Piceance herd, south west of Meeker is Colorado’s mule deer factory and one phase of the study spent $4.5 million removing large predators, controversial of course. Perhaps we should visit with Chuck Anderson who used to work in Wyoming and glean what insights he may have. I hate to see millions of dollars spent in Wyoming, coyotes and large predators killed in what may well be a reinvention of the wheel. Like Dan Stroud said, perhaps this money could be better spent on the ground instead of yet, another study.

    1. Jerry, I was thinking just the same. I sought out information on the Colorado predator reduction project in the Piceance Basin, but my request to speak with Chuck Anderson was shot down. Colorado Parks and Wildlife also declined to provide any preliminary results pending their publication.

  9. Sure, seems to me since the wolves where reentroduced to the picture years ago are in major decline Elk, Deer. Yet the cats coyotes keep growing at a huge rate .too. can’t have wolves, cats having free rein on animals were hunting. The chances of bagging Elk, deer is surely against hunters. Government is known for screwing up game/ hunting / fishing ect. Why don’t you folks talk to the hunters / anglers and get the real scoop.

  10. Is the state of Wyoming going to open for out-of-state people to come in and hide elk to reduce the herds

  11. Maybe the Investigation should be into the Unaccountable Wyoming Game and Fish Department. They seem to have plenty of Money for Buildings and Equipment but never enough for the Wildlife they are supposed to be protecting?? They Issue far too many Licenses for our Big Game ?

    1. I totally agree with Mike Bromley. Seems G&F keeps giving out licences for game that is not here. Also they spend millions on a new building but can”t seem to mitigate the thousands of mule deer killed on Northfork and Southfork roads every year. Maybe there are large elk herds in other areas of the state but not in NW Wyoming anymore. These young bucks in G&F haven”t seen the 10″s of thousands of elk we used to have here in 1970″s and 80″s.

  12. What about coyotes? Some years back, I belonged to a mule deer group. I was appointed co-chair of the Projects Committee. Among other habitat-related projects, one of my pet projects was predator control(i.e. coyotes; specifically). We told G&F of our desire to do something and asked for 3-4 specific areas where some predator control might do some good. Although G&F basically scoffed at the idea and are generally opposed to predator control as an option to raise herd numbers, they did indeed give us a few areas of concern due to “predator pit” issues in sw Wyoming.

    So…we hired a helicopter crew to do some aerial gunning in these areas. $7500.00 was allotted for this project. The crew was to fly for 5-7 days and kill coyotes, land the chopper so they could document sex and age, try to find the den and kill any remaining coyotes. I realize this is disturbing to many people, and this project was killed after the 2nd year( IMO, this project was killed because it could cause some negative publicity, NOT because it wasn’t working). The first year, the crew killed over 100 coyotes in less than a week. They found several dens, too. There were deer and antelope leg bones(fresh) at EVERY den location…as many as 7 at one location.

    The very next year, the mule deer group did the same project with the same chopper crew. In the exact same basins coyotes were killed in the year before, there were none to be found. Instead, there were deer. Does with fawns! Twins mostly!! Those guys put in many more hours trying to find coyotes, but apparently the numbers were down that year. We tried to do this project just prior to fawning( or at least in the early stages of fawning).

    Of course, this data is subject to many different variables and is somewhat anecdotal after only 2 years..but it seemed to work! Coyotes are major fawn killers!

    Mule deer numbers will never recover from what they were before the winter of ’92-’93. That ship has sailed.

    There are a myriad of reasons deer numbers are down all across the west. IMO, predators are the #1 reason. That includes coyotes. How about including coyotes in this project?

    Good luck with this! I sincerely doubt the animal-rights/anti-hunting groups would ever let this happen without filing lawsuits and tying things up in court for several years.

    1. “Predators are the #1 reason”

      Then how come deer lived for millions of years, with many times more predators than there are now? Mule deer occupy about 10% of their original range, with even less predation.

      Habitat loss (especially on winter range) is THE issue.

  13. The comments here are right on the nose, in my opinion. The removal of wildlife habitat, of migration corridors AND the actual numbers of cattle and/or sheep in that very habitat certainly has to be blamed before predators. The great concern that there wont be enough mule deer for hunters (& dollars for permits/licenses) seems to outweigh any concern whatsoever for the actual wildlife.
    I know, as a NYS resident, my opinion likely doesnt count for much. But reading & hearing about the damage done on these grazing allotments & the lack of concern from our sainted agencies who supposedly are “managing” them?

    1. Its not necessarily on the agencies…livestock producers are borderline untouchable. They wrote the regulations that the agencies govern them with. Agencies are backed into a corner with no legal backing to actually find a solution.

    2. Do you think the amount of people visiting the public lands has an impact on deer numbers?

  14. The increases of annual grasses on public land has had an incredible impact, especially during spring fawning. There are vast areas in the Big Horn Basin that are monocultures of cheatgrass. These foothill and upper elevation desert areas are where does used to concentrate during fawning and parturition. I have seen similar weed infestations in Sublette, Fremont, Sweetwater and Carbon counties. Wildfires in the last 30 years has removed the sage and bunchgrasses and cheatgrass taken over. The poor nutritional value of cheatgrass and other weedy invaders has lowered the carrying capacity of ungulates in these areas. In addition, annual weeds do not provide the cover that sagebrush and taller bunchgrass provide for fawns to hide while their mothers feed. The BLM and State Lands have to get serious about treating cheatgrass on a large scale, or we will continue to see declines in all wildlife using these habitats. If the habitat was taken care of, and the ecosystems were functioning, there would be no need for additional population manipulation of other ungulates or large predators.

    1. This is also true. Cheat grass has taken over the Big Horn Basin. BLM is next to worthless when it comes to managing their lands.

  15. I think you need to look seriously at the impact that the Whitetail deer are having on the Mulies. In Meeteetse we never saw Whitetails until a few years ago, and as the Whitetails increased here the Mule deer decreased. I am not happy with any of the deer destroying my bushes ,trees and shrubs, but I a really upset that it is now White tails doing it. At least the Mule deer are native here, whitetail need to go away!

  16. THis is exactly the kind of recommendations you would expect from WWTF which is primaryly made up of stockgrowers/landbarrens and has nothing to do with sound wildlife management. WY needs to stop raping the landscape with energy extraction and abusing the remaining habitat by overgrazing the public lands. I hate to say it, but Colorado seems to have figured out the Mule Deer equations so why the hell doesn’t WY learn from them?

  17. Before the WY G&F touches one more animal in this state, they should first shave off the cancerous growth of both the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association. Until the G&F gets out from under the cloud of these two self serving and habitat using/abusing entities, then any move the folks in the redshirts make should be looked upon with a jaundiced eye

    1. Certainly a main reason. Rock Springs Grazing Assoc./J Magagna eat up all the new foilage every year, year after year. Maybe if Wyoming G&F would get out of the picture. Remember the 80’s and 90’s when you could legally obtain permits for a half dozen Mule deer, same for antelope or worse. Reaping what was sown.
      No food, habitat shot to s…, animal herds shot to s…. Special interests rule the day in Wyoming. At least Wyoming seems to treat their Elk and Deer with more respect than Washington. BS

  18. I find it interesting how we are spending millions of dollars, actually more disturbing. Whatever happened to doing on-the-ground habitat work? Why aren’t we building good plans for landscapes to aid their functionality for wildlife populations? Now we are talking around predator control but funding efforts towards it. We don’t seem to learn from past research.

  19. Isn’t this “director” the same guy who found no conflict with oil and gas drilling rigs and wildlife not that long ago? Political appointees, particularly those appointed by governors devoted to plunder and habitat destruction, caused by “developments” (including wind and solar “farms”, and livestock farming), cannot be trusted to properly oversee fish and wildlife populations.

  20. I saw no mention of disease as a cause of decline worth study.
    I saw no mention of impediments in migration corridors as a cause of decline worth study!
    No mention of habitat degradation related to climate change and draught.
    The underlying bias is kill one species to promote another.
    Its undoubtedly a WY bias that to manage a species means to sacrifice one for another. How disappointing.

  21. To help the deer we dont need predator control, we need cow control. The competition from elk is nothing compared to competing with cows.

    The predator control point almost certainly comes from the legislature, which is dominated by ranchers.

  22. It serves only the narrowest smallest stakeholder group in the mix , a/k/a/ Stockgrowers – to continue to ignore the 1500 pound Bovine in the room. Pitting one member of the Deer family against another member of the Deer family to mitigate population dynamics without mitigating domestic cattle (and certain allotments of domestic sheep) on the same overlay of habitat range, is purposeful negligence. Everything else lines up behind that. Including the Predator-Prey balance , which can take care of itself if allowed.

    By way of reminder, a domestic steer or cow/calf pair munching the public’s high country in the June-October grazing season will consume enough grass to feed 3 Elk and 5 deer. Ditto the low country at other times of the year. It is long past time for Wyoming GAME and Fish to become a genuine WILDLIFE agency instead of an adjunct to livestock production. The Stockgrowers will not cede the ground willingly … they still think it’s 1885 around here.

  23. Game and Fish dropped the mule deer ball years ago. Here in the Bighorn Basin, an overabundance of doe/fawn tags were given out and walla – we have almost no mule deer. Whitetail deer are filling the void. G & F Biologists in Cody blatantly ignored the concerns of sportsman but now they have a solution? It’s a well known fact that G & F serves themselves, first and the public, second. Over staffed, over funded but yet the hunting and fishing opportunities have dropped like a bag of moldy potatoes. G & F do have nice shiny green trucks to drive around in, though!

  24. Living in ranch country, (5 miles east of Sheridan)we see every year the impact of Whitetails crowding in on Mule Deer habitat.. Our only savior is Blue tongue and Hemorrhagic fever that knock the Whitetails down every few years. I understand it also affects the Muleys as well, but not as bad. But otherwise the muleys would have left our valley by now. We also have issues with mountain lions, and know when there’s on in the neighborhood, besides sightings by neighbors, but the deer disappear like like Moses parting the Red Sea, usually for about a week. Same thing happened when we had a wolf move in about 8-10 yrs ago..
    Wishing we could get a late season depredation hunt on the Whitetails. It would be a great opportunity for a muzzle loader (limited range weapon) season, Whitetail does only.. I know the ranchers would appreciate it!

    1. Cattle and sheep; the ranchers’ livestock are a much larger part of the problem than whitetail deer.