Mapping habitat for the deer of the west

by Todd A. Black

As much as I can I have been trying to keep you up to date with the efforts of the Western Association of Fisheries and Wildlife Agencies (WAFA) Mule Deer Working Group. As a brief reminder this group was established back in 1998 for the sole purpose of identifying critical issues facing mule deer and to work together to come up with viable solutions to these issues and problems. Their mission will be a daunting task that can’t be done alone; find solutions to our common mule deer management problems and to optimize cooperative research and management in the Western states and provinces.

One of the things the group was tasked to do was to identify and classify mule deer habitat range wide. Many of the states already had some type of map or maps that identified certain types of mule deer habitat on a state level. Utah for example has a map where they have identified winter and summer ranges for mule deer state wide. Other states had nothing.While some data did exist, each state had done things differently or had excluded or included habitat types that other states did not include. When the WAFWA Mule Deer Working Group began planning for a Joint Venture Habitat Restoration Project, they found that the lack of these databases made cross-jurisdiction project planning impossible. They further believed that other planning projects have been stymied by the lack of this planning tool.

The Problems:

1- mule deer habitat extends across jurisdictional boundaries.<>

2-there is no range-wide habitat map available that identifies the distribution of mule deer in North America, nor is there a database that identifies the factors that limit the quality of mule deer habitat.<>

3-how can we understand the habitat needs of mule deer if we don’t have a map?

4-how can we work with Federal land management agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management on improving mule deer range if we don’t have a map?

The Solutions:

1-map all mule deer habitat in North America using a Delpi approach (expert opinion) in a single Geographical Information System (GIS) database.

2-solicit information from state-provincial-tribal nation experts in mule deer habitat conditions and use this information to develop a database that identifies mule deer presence in several categories (see table 1) and to attribute these polygons with the 3 primary limiting factors (see table 2 ) applicable to each polygon.

3-find the experts who can put this project together.

4-with this database in place, resource managers will have a tool that they can use to identify important mule deer habitats and to plan methods to maintain or enhance existing habitat values.

Table 1 shows the different habitat types the Mule Deer Working Group used to standardize habitat and a definition of these habitat types.

Habitat Classification Definition of Habitat type
A. Overall Habitat Includes habitat which is occasionally inhabited and/or contains small population of scattered mule deer.Simply stated marginal mule deer habitat limited by quality and quantity of food and or water.
B.Summer Range That part of the overall range where 90% of the individuals are located between spring green-up and the first heavy snowfall.Summer range is not necessarily exclusive of winter range; in some areas winter range and summer range may overlap.
C.Other important habitat Areas that are part of the overall range where higher quality habitat supports significantly higher densities than surrounding areas.These areas are typically occupied year round and not necessarily associated with a specific season.Examples include:rough break country, riparian areas, small drainages and large areas of irrigated cropland, migration corridors, highway crossings, fawning areas, etc..
D.Winter Range That part of the overall range where 90 percent of the individuals are located during the average five winters out of ten from the first heavy snowfall to spring green-up, or during a site-specific period of winter.A subset of this definition would include a “severe winter range” definition to include areas within the winter range where 90% of the individuals are located when annual snow pack is at its maximum and/or temperatures are at a minimum in the two worst winters our of ten.
E.Winter Concentration areas That part of the winter range where densities are at least 200% greater than the surrounding winter range density during the same period used to define winter range in the average five winters out of ten.
F.Year round population An area that provides year-round range for a population of mule deer.The resident mule deer use all of the area all year; it cannot be subdivided into seasonal ranges although it may be included within the overall range of the larger population.

Table 2 shows the different limiting factors that the Mule Deer Working Group used to identify issues facing mule deer by each polygon

(habitat type) in the map.

Code Limiting factor Category Examples
0 Domestic livestock forage competition Inadequate range utilization, forage production downturn.
1 Habitat succession/ maturation Canopy closure, seral stage advancement, mature forage height.
2 Urban expansion Human habitat encroachment, detrimental land use changes.
3 Public land availability Shortage of public lands to actively manage habitat for expanded herds.
4 Increased road densities Motorized access, lower habitat effectiveness and deer security.
5 Riparian impacts Concentrated animal groups, habitat over-utilization.
6 Timber harvest impacts Increased open road densities, vegetation quality/quantity.
7 Depredation issues Fence damage, standing forage loss, haystack damage.
8 Limited public lands access Private lands block public land hunt access, “refuge” situations.
9 Artificial feeding Public agency supplemental feeding, private lands “emergency” feeding.
10 Habitat Conversion Converting native range to agriculture or urbanization through burning, disking herbicide, etc.
11 Social carrying capacity exceeded i.e. low landowner tolerance of deer.
12 Late seral stages needed Increase hiding and/or thermal cover
13 High Density Recreation Any focused recreational activity (commercial/non-commercial) whichmodifies/degrades the basic habitat elements and renders that habitat less suitable for deer and other wildlife.
14 Water availability Ability to manage free-ranging deer population growth and distributionlimited by year-round water resource availability.
15 Transport/Water conveyance corridors Highways, railways, canals, ditches and other man-made corridors that can affect deer populations throughdirect mortality factors or limit/prevent access to essential habitats.
16 Mineral Extraction/Exploration Any activity(s) related to mineral resource exploration, location and extraction which can modify or degrade the basic habitat elements and render habitat less suitable for deer and other wildlife.
17 Competition with other wild ungulates Increasing elk herd issues.Lack of adequate forage, displacement, competition for resources, etc. is limiting the growth and recovery of the deer herd in a given area.
18 Special Situation Land ownership, social carrying capacity considerations, weather limitations, range conditions, and small size or configuration of the topography is not suitable to manage for increasing deer populations at the present time.Other situations could include game farms, tribal lands, past catastrophic fires, invasion of weedy species, feral horses predation issues etc.

For the past year I have had the opportunity to act as the project coordinator for this mapping effort. As I have traveled from state to state and province to province, I have learned that the issues and problems that are facing our mule deer today are quite varied. Each state faces issues that maybe a complete non-issue in another state. There hasn’t appeared to be a common ‘limiting factor’ across mule deer range. Habitat issues due to ‘Competition with other wild ungulates’, ‘habitat conversion’, ‘habitat maturation’, ‘urban sprawl’ are a key in the core states of traditional mule deer range but ‘public land availability’ depredation’ and ‘Social carrying capacity exceeded’ are limiting factors as you go to the fringe of mule deer range. It has been and eye opening experience for me to say the least. I do not envy the local biologist; they have a huge task ahead of them. I firmly believe that they have the sincerest interest in working with us to fix mule deer problems.

About the time that this issue of HI hits news stands the mapping project will be in its final stages and will be released to the group, states, and public by mid to late June. I believe that this mapping project is a significant step in turning the tide of mule deer. It will offer state wildlife agencies a unique tool in working with our federal land management agencies in improving and addressing habitat issues.If you are a computer junky like me, see what you can do to get a copy of this data and start asking your local wildlife and land managers what they are doing to fix mule deer problems in your area.

About the author:

Todd A. Black is a wildlife biologist and environmental consultant and part owner of CWMS. He enjoys hunting, photography, birding, and spending time with his family. Originally from Blanding, Todd currently lives in Hyrum Utah.

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One Comment


I’m a GIS Specialist as well as a hunter, so this article was very interesting to me. Is it possible to see the data, a map, or some sort of graphic that shows your progress?



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