by Todd A. Black
Could the way we are hunting mule deer in certain areas be further contributing to their decline?
In case you have not heard me say it before, I will say it again; habitat is ‘A number one’ if we are to have a healthy and stable mule deer herd in a given area.More often then not, habitat is often overlooked. For the most part we are quick to blame other things when we are discussing our decreasing mule deer numbers. We should all realize that habitat includes more than just the groceries on the table and water to drink. It includes escape cover both from predators (four legged and two legged) critical secluded fawning areas, and non disturbed, not fragmented breeding areas. There is no doubt in my mind if we had perfect habitat and perfect conditions everywhere mule deer numbers wouldn’t be in the state they are today. Without a doubt if you have all these critical habitat components, likely you will have good deer numbers. If on the other hand, one or more of these are lacking, you are likely to have problems. My question is, can anyone show me on a large scale where this perfect mule deer habitat place exists? I think if the truth were really know, there aren’t too many places out there that don’t have some major habitat issues. At least that is the feeling I get when talking to the state agencies across mule deer country. Alright, enough said on habitat, I think we all realize that there are some problems out there that need to be addressed. I hope we are all working towards addressing some of these issues and fixing the problems. While we are working/waiting, let’s talk about the hunt, the harvest, which ever you prefer.
I have heard it before from my fellow biologist, read it in articles, even read it in the so called professional papers. ‘The number or ratio of bucks to does is unrelated to the number of fawns hitting the ground the next year’. Now I would have to agree that if we had perfect habitat in our given area, if we didn’t hunt bucks from August to November, if we didn’t have antlerless harvest, there just might be something to this statement. However, I find it hard to believe that we can have low buck to doe ratios, have fragmented and poor habitat, have unlimited buck harvest, be killing does because of depredation issues, constant recreational/hunting activities, and not have some effect the number of fawns hitting the ground next year. Also let’s not forget that the bulk of the ‘research’ we are basing all this information on was done 20-40 years ago. Back then mule deer numbers were way up there. Additionally, recreational uses of mule deer country were less, technology in bigger and better weapons and optics were certainly not what they are today, and don’t forget there were less elk out there as well.
Today, hunting season lengths hunter days afield might vary from state to state. If you were lucky enough to draw tags in every state, you could hunt mule deer from the first part of August and hunt through the end of December without missing very many days. Typically state agencies use harvest of mule deer as a means of management and keeping numbers in check with habitat conditions. Often though, mule deer hunting is overlooked as a means of population control and more of a much needed source of revenue. I believe many state agencies because are faced with the decision of how many dollars can be generated from the sell of mule deer tags as opposed to what areas do we need to reduce harvest or cut numbers back. For many years, state wildlife agencies derived much of their annual budget off the sell of mule deer tags. As such it is often difficult if not impossible without other funding mechanisms to cut back and only use mule deer hunting as a means to control and keep numbers in check. Additionally, mule deer hunting and ‘how many to harvest’ decisions is base on the need to satisfy demands of hunters for more deer and more opportunity to hunt deer. With these types of demands, the real management and conservation of the species more often than not gets put in left field. Having said all that, I will say that many of the states are now cutting back on the allocation of tags. In 1994, Utah cut their number of tags in half. More recently Colorado went to a limited number of tags as well. While I believe these are steps in the right direction, I think we have to ask if it is enough and what can we do to more adequately address conservation then the selling of permits.
Virtually every type of hunt, season length, weapon restrictions and choices that can be thought up has been tried in one state or another. Some have been done long enough to see valid results one way or another. Others are not tried long enough to be proven or non-proven means at all. Those that seem to work the best, that is to increase buck to doe ratios and allow populations to be managed at or near carrying capacity are those that have a limited number of tags and or those that have a shortened season that is early enough in the year as to not effect the rutting activities of mule deer. Those that do not work are ‘antler point restrictions’ this type of hunting scenario has been tried in several different states with basically the same results. It just doesn’t work.
So what does work? Not all mule deer hunters are trophy hunters, not all are meat hunters. Studies have shown that most are people who like to get out and hunt and enjoy the company of family and friends while being in mule deer country. Most would obviously like to see a buck or even have an opportunity to take a deer but for the most part, they just want to be out and about. Not every unit/region/area/zone needs to be managed for maximum sustained yield and not every area needs to be managed for trophy animals. We shouldn’t be selling permits just to be generating income from wildlife. What ought to be done is this. Every unit/region/area/zone should be managed for something measurable when it comes to mule deer management. These measurable objectives should be those types of things that can withstand the test of time. Deer population management objectives must be clearly defined in all aspects from January to December. This includes appropriate hunting seasons, weapon restrictions/choices, population objectives, antlerless and buck harvest objectives. These objectives should be very specific as to habitat, environmental conditions, and social as well as mule deer carrying capacity. These measurable objectives need to be determined with input from local game managers, land managers, public land users, concerned public, and sportsmen. ‘If it isn’t good for the people, it isn’t good for wildlife’. State and federal land managers need to have these objectives addressed in their regional land use plans so that mule deer management becomes a priority. Most important is that these objectives need to be closely monitored over long periods of time and be flexible enough that if changes such as weather or events that significantly change the habitat the objectives can change as well. We shouldn’t feel like we have got to hunt and kill a deer every year or we will die either. We all need to be flexible and open in our management and ideas.
In my travels to most mule deer states these past few months I firmly believe that the local biologist have the management of mule deer high on their ‘to do list’. They need our help, input, and support. Let’s stop thinking of ways we are going to harvest and kill deer and start thinking and working towards ways we can ensure they will still be around in 50 years.