What Has Happened to the Mule Deer?

Many events have led to the decline in mule deer numbers across the west, but there is still hope for recovery if land and game management methods can be changed.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

During the first three decades of the century, the alarming number of game animals in serious decline led many sportsmen to believe certain species would eventually perish.

However, through public concern, enlightened management policies and an infusion of sportsmen's dollars, these animals began to come back, spawning many of the supporting organizations we know today, including Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. But in the last three decades, one species has fallen into troubling decline, continuing to diminish population-wise. That species is the mule deer, symbol of all that is wild and free in the mountainous West.

In too many places across the West where riflemen gather today, talk of the big deer turns nostalgic-to what used to be in terms of numbers and the lack of big bucks. The story of this slow decline is not the same in every region but the causes often are, and stem from man's heavy, misguided hand in the environment. Strictly as a personal aside, I've hunted, studied, photographed and written about these fascinating animals for 35 years, observing many of the maladies outlined in this story firsthand.

It is vital to understand at the outset that no animal can survive or prosper if its habitat is either altered or eliminated. Regardless of health, hunting pressure, herd numbers and control of predators, habitat is key to everything else that follows, the linchpin to species survival and the most neglected part of the mule deer story.

** Ravaged By Fire**
Until the middle decades of the 20th century, natural wildfires cleared off tremendous tracks of Western mule deer range, allowing new plant growth to spring up under open sunlight. But beginning in the late 1950s, something called "modern fire suppression" began to change this natural cycle of burn and regrowth. Airplane tankers carrying chemical fire retardant and helicopters slung with giant water buckets were immediately dispatched to attack fires at the first plume of smoke. These practices, perhaps more than any others, have altered once flourishing deer ranges by allowing thick, overstory timber to grow. The advancing timber choked out the sunlight, killing the lower-growing food plants mule deer need to survive. Anyone who has compared pictures taken of open basins and sunny, sidehill terraces during the '50s and '60s with the same sites today quickly understands what has happened. Dark timber, uncleansed by fire, now dominates the entire scene.

The solution to slow, if not to reverse, this trend is to use far more controlled burns, and to use them much more aggressively. We need to let wildfires that do not threaten life, limb, private property or communities burn out old-growth timber, especially thick stands of ponderosa pine and oak, before being extinguished. Almost all controlled burns today do not take out these most important plots. Instead, they concentrate on brush.

The Great Land Grab
Mule deer do not gravitate to suburbs or the fringes of civilization as whitetails and even blacktails do, often found nibbling at lawn shrubbery and vegetable gardens. They need space, places of rest and time to mature and build their numbers. Yet over the last three decades, their range has been invaded, subdivided and settled-first by industry's rush in the late '70s to search on public lands for oil-shale and natural-gas deposits, and second by the public's desire to buy vacation property in mountain areas.

When the drive to find domestic energy sources began, and especially during the oil embargo years, roads were driven into formerly remote deer range, up every canyon and down every ridgeline, with equipment brought in and test wells sunk. I was there; I saw it. Suddenly, the backcountry was wide open to anyone who could drive a two-wheeled vehicle, and big bucks were shot ofwithin a few years. Most of those roads still exist today and are heavily used. As soon as a buck shows antlers over his ears he's fair game. That kind of intrusion cannot continue.

The second blow to mule deer came as a result of the financial boom of the last 20 years and the corresponding ability and desire to own a summer retreat or ski chalet "up in the mountains." Sadly, much of the land that was sold off was at the lower fringes of the national forests-precisely the ground that mule deer must have for winter range. Streets, houses, cars and people, along with the resultant businesses that sprang up to support them, pushed the deer farther back or higher up, denying them ancient ground they'd always needed to thrive.

So now the question that must be asked is: Why aren't environmental concerns about deer being addressed any time roads or developments are planned, whether on private property or public lands? If the federal government, through the Environmental Protection Agency, can protect guppies, frogs and butterflies, why has it not come to the aid of the mule deer? Because there has been no public outcry.

The Elk Effect
It's difficult for sportsmen and sportswomen to fathom that the amazing comeback of one big-game animal can result in the serious loss of another. But that is exactly what has happened in many places across the West, as the dramatic resurgence of elk has coincided with the decline in mule deer.

Elk are larger, stronger and more aggressive than deer. They can survive on a greater variety of foods (especially marginal plants) and they can browse higher on plants out of reach of deer when deep snow buries low sources. Elk also do better in country where taller trees and timber have taken over, using them as both a refuge against deepening snows and as a food source, stripping off bark and twigs to eat when more favorable food sources are limited or unavailable. Being naturally larger, elk often win in competing with deer for food, and in the main go through winter without the seasonal die-offs so common among deer, who need a higher quality of food to survive under the same conditions. The old hunter's adage-that where you find large numbers of elk you find fewer mule deer-is often true.

Enter the Whitetail
As if competing with elk wasn't enough, the mule deer has had to battle the advance of whitetail deer in Western mountains, river valleys and farming regions over the last 30 years. Once considered an oddity in many Northern mountain states, whitetails are now seen as a major big-game animal-a trend directly related to the decline in mule deer numbers. Whitetails are in direct competition with mule deer for food, especially during critical winter months, when mule deer move down from higher country to winter range that both species must share.

As we have seen, mule deer do not do well mixing with other animals such as elk, and they fare little better with whitetails. In those places where whitetail numbers have grown, and they are many, mule deer herd size is often reduced.

Predator Problems
A long-simmering question in big-game management remains: What role do predators play in deer herd numbers? Can population spikes in predators decimate deer numbers, or do they have only a minor effect? The three major predators of deer, in order of importance, are the mountain lion, the coyote and the bobcat. Man is certainly a predator but his predation is limited, controlled and even eliminated, if need be. Predator control was once widespread and practiced by both federal and state agencies, but those efforts have largely been abandoned. Today, predator control by trappers, where it is used at all, is generally at the state level and involves complaints of loss of domestic animals such as sheep, cattle, horses or fowl. But should this control really be taken off the table?

If real habitat-renewal measures that give deer the chance to make significant gains can be implemented on a large scale, then why not reduce predators over the short term (five or six years) to let herds rebound in certain areas? One thing is for sure: No amount of control, regardless of how aggressive it is, will ever completely eliminate any predator species. There will always be enough left to come back. A number of studies are now being conducted in the West to try to reassess this predator/prey relationship, and most are driven by one thing-the steady decline in mule deer numbers.

A cougar can lie in wait and take down a deer one on one with its cunning and overpowering strength, but the often repeated notion that they take only the old and infirm is just so much horsefeathers. The big cats are opportunists and will take any animal they can bushwhack, be it fawn, doe or four-point buck. Estimates I've seen say they will take a deer a week when they can get them, and that's a lot of venison.

When deer are caught out in deep snow and bogged down, coyotes can easily run over the surface, and three or four of the persistent little wolves can certainly take down any deer.

Bobcats, on the other hand, probably make most of their kills on deer with fawns caught in spring bedding grounds-areas, by the way, that coyotes have also learned to frequent for a quick and easy meal. Black bears have also been seen diligently searching for fawns as meticulously as a hunting dog on a bird, and when you add all these together you come away with a much clearer picture of what predation by a variety of animals can do to declining mule deer herds. I believe the question of predator control should not be dismissed as unworkable, but should be seriously looked at as one tool in the effort to help the big deer recover in specific areas.

Cattle and Sheep
Livestock grazing on national forest lands, especially "rotation grazing" (bringing in cattle, then sheep, to snap up every blade of feed), must continue to be reevaluated. This is especially true after years of drought, when domestic stock feed off already sparse ground plants. What 200 sheep can do to a piece of ground has to be seen to be believed, and, when possible, eliminated. Mule deer already have sufficient forces allied against them without unnecessarily adding more.

Assessing the Decline
Game departments across the West track mule deer though harvest, population counts and hunter participation (the latter by license sales). The figures in the sidebar on page 84 cover a long period of time, in most cases more than three decades, and not just two or three years, which can be totally misleading in the cyclic ups and downs of deer numbers.

I've listed what I feel are the most important figures, such as total mule d?

If real habitat-renewal measures that give deer the chance to make significant gains can be implemented on a large scale, then why not reduce predators over the short term (five or six years) to let herds rebound in certain areas? One thing is for sure: No amount of control, regardless of how aggressive it is, will ever completely eliminate any predator species. There will always be enough left to come back. A number of studies are now being conducted in the West to try to reassess this predator/prey relationship, and most are driven by one thing-the steady decline in mule deer numbers.

A cougar can lie in wait and take down a deer one on one with its cunning and overpowering strength, but the often repeated notion that they take only the old and infirm is just so much horsefeathers. The big cats are opportunists and will take any animal they can bushwhack, be it fawn, doe or four-point buck. Estimates I've seen say they will take a deer a week when they can get them, and that's a lot of venison.

When deer are caught out in deep snow and bogged down, coyotes can easily run over the surface, and three or four of the persistent little wolves can certainly take down any deer.

Bobcats, on the other hand, probably make most of their kills on deer with fawns caught in spring bedding grounds-areas, by the way, that coyotes have also learned to frequent for a quick and easy meal. Black bears have also been seen diligently searching for fawns as meticulously as a hunting dog on a bird, and when you add all these together you come away with a much clearer picture of what predation by a variety of animals can do to declining mule deer herds. I believe the question of predator control should not be dismissed as unworkable, but should be seriously looked at as one tool in the effort to help the big deer recover in specific areas.

Cattle and Sheep
Livestock grazing on national forest lands, especially "rotation grazing" (bringing in cattle, then sheep, to snap up every blade of feed), must continue to be reevaluated. This is especially true after years of drought, when domestic stock feed off already sparse ground plants. What 200 sheep can do to a piece of ground has to be seen to be believed, and, when possible, eliminated. Mule deer already have sufficient forces allied against them without unnecessarily adding more.

Assessing the Decline
Game departments across the West track mule deer though harvest, population counts and hunter participation (the latter by license sales). The figures in the sidebar on page 84 cover a long period of time, in most cases more than three decades, and not just two or three years, which can be totally misleading in the cyclic ups and downs of deer numbers.

I've listed what I feel are the most important figures, such as total mule d