In the hunting community it comes as no surprise to those who frequent mule deer habitat, but it recently garnered national attention via an article published on FoxNews.com
According to the article, Colorado has seen a crash of the mule deer population of 36 percent just since 2005. It plunged 10 percent last year alone. In fact, another report estimates that across the West populations have slumped 10 percent from 2003 to 2009 with no end in sight for the declining ungulate numbers.
A few biologists are proclaiming that the sky is falling and mule deer may actually become extinct in the future. That would be a long way down the road and many debate that apocalyptic outcome, but nobody is singing songs of mule deer success for the species at the moment. While discussing the situation with Daryl Lutz, Game and Fish Department wildlife management coordinator at the Lander regional office, and a member of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Mule Deer Working Group, his view was worrisome at best.
“Given what we’ve seen since about the 1980s with a fairly dramatic population change in mule deer, I’m cautiously optimistic that it will change for the better,” states Lutz. “Conditions have really favored elk in recent years, but they have not really favored mule deer and I can’t tell you if this is a lasting trend. But I don’t think that in my career or lifetime I will see an across the board change in mule deer populations.”
The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Mule Deer Working Group has been in place since 1997. Its purpose is to coordinate with wildlife agencies throughout mule deer country, develop management strategies and share ideas in organized forums to address issues with the species.
The Mule Deer Foundation was formed in 1988 to address this concern and to date has funneled more than $25 million to the mule deer cause. Ninety percent of all the funds go directly to field projects, but like Lutz, MDF realizes the job is huge in turning the negative tide holding back muleys. And like the Mule Deer Working group, they realize no single cause is totally responsible for the decline of mule deer.
“The primary factors affecting mule deer across the west are all intertwined,” says Lutz. “Habitat loss, habitat change, predation, disease, and weather are the key factors with habitat loss encompassing issues such as urbanization, energy development, and the complicated influence of the succession of vegetation.”
As an avid hiker, horseback rider and hunter in my home state of Wyoming and nearby Montana, I’ve seen the trend firsthand. In the past several years of autumn hunting and spring shed antler hunting the number of sightings of mature bucks has been disturbing and mostly absent. My spring hikes for shed antlers confirm my fall suspicions. This past spring I didn’t find a single, fresh antler from a mature buck and only a handful of sheds from adolescents. And that’s from hiking literally hundreds of miles. On the contrary, my outings always reveal good numbers of elk, but elk have a whitetail-like ability to thrive in a variety of environments as evidenced by the successful relocation of eastern U.S. herds in recent years.
I agree on the fact that all is not gloom and doom for mule deer. In suburban areas of the West they thrive and a crack team of wildlife officials is on the job. Hopefully the various factors that ail the species can be addressed for some semblance of harmony. It would be a tragedy for mule deer sightings to become something folks talk about as a rarity.