by Art Isberg
For any rifleman smitten with the west’s Number One big-game animal, the mule deer, the question now, and over the last two decades, has been “what happened to all the deer?” It’s certainly one I’ve asked, and heard discussed, many times wherever and whenever buck hunters gather from the Rockies to the Sierra Nevada’s, and Montana to Mexico.
I’ve had my suspicions and so have many others keenly interested in the survival of the big deer, but still it took a lot of study, ferreting out reports, fact and figures to fill in the blanks, and it should be understood at the start, that not all those blanks fit precisely the same in each state or region. However, there is no escaping several basic conclusions where mule deer were once seen and hunted clearly in larger numbers than they are today. Here is what I’ve found aside from my own personal observations hunting them across much of the mountain west over the last 35 years.
PUBLIC LAND POLICIES
No big-game animal, regardless of number or vitality, can survive or prosper once its habitat is threatened and diminished, and the single largest habitat of mule deer resides on the vast National Forest Lands, in wilderness areas, and Bureau of Land Management properties across the west. Some substainal holdings are found on private properties where big-game management has literally become a science and a profitable and successful one for mule deer, elk, and antelope. But in the main, it is public land that the vast majority of riflemen rely on to hunt deer.
In this scheme of things, it must be pointed out that while various state fish and game departments may offer plans or make efforts to improve or repair habitat loss, federal land agencies that hold and administer them are under no obligation to either cooperate or go forward jointly. In fact, the opposite is true much of the time. The Forest Service under the Department of of Agriculture, has never made big-game management on their lands a goal, and rarely if ever asked for input from state agencies, big-game organizations and most especially, hunters themselves. What little has been offered from time to time has largely been ignored.
The main interest of the Forest Service lies in revenues from timber harvest, camping fees, mining, and with increased frequency, sale of surrounding public lands for second, or so called mountain homes and vacation properties. Mule deer, or those of us who hunt them, are not considered a cash crop. If these lands are available for fall hunters to ply their trade on, then the Forest Service feels it has done all it’s going to do, and nothing more. This becomes increasingly interesting when we see the federal government jump through hoops, mobilize their lawyers and spend millions of dollars to protect and save various frogs, guppies, and the spotted owl, but not one red cent to insure the survival of a single mule deer?
The long and short of this is that the Forest Service is under the “political gun,” so to speak, and there is neither will nor incentive in the halls of Congress to change long standing management policies, few of which benefit mule deer.
The great forest fires that raged across the west during the 1930’s, 40’s and into the 50’s, cleared off huge tracts of old growth timber allowing sunlight in and reintroduction of lower brush, shrubs, forbs, and grasses. Plant eating big-game animals prospered because of it. The 1950’s are still remembered as one of the greatest expansion of mule deer numbers ever recorded, but now those same lands are once again grown back with overstory timber that has vastly reduced, or totally lost, those valuable food chains. Anyone who has seen pictures taken of western deer country 30 or 40 years ago, then compared them with one from the same spot today, quickly understands what has happened. Where once the land was open with low ground plants, now tall timber blots out the light and few, if any, herbaceous plants can grow.
The general non-hunting public does not want to see burning forests and blackened stumps in its aftermath, though fire is as old and necessary to the land and animals in it as mountains themselves. Only one thing has changed the natural scheme of evolution and rebirth, man. Man now manages these lands to suit his own desires and in a most unnatural way by fire suppression.
Today, the instant a smoke plume curls up, aerial tankers loaded with chemical fire retardant, helicopters slung with giant water buckets, roar in to put it out, and where they cannot be effective, smoke jumpers float down on parachutes to battle the enemy hand to hand. We wage all out war to keep the trees, but not to keep the deer. Witness the public battles over letting the Yellowstone fires burn some years back.
As a national management tool, wilderness fires that do not threaten communities, business’s or homes should be allowed to burn and do their vital work clearing the land of overstory timber, then be put out when they’ve achieved that goal. Prescribed controlled burns, where feasible, should also be vigorously applied in those areas where they are most needed, and if the public has to be reeducated on what fire really does and why it’s needed to enhance wild animal populations, then let federal and state governments launch a media campaign in magazines, on radio and in newspapers, and television to explain its role. I have never heard a single report on fire mention that big-game will benefit from it, so why should the general public be expected to think or know any better? But what almost every western big-game department will tell you is that the artificial suppression of wildland fires is the single greatest detriment to big-game and especially mule deer, and accounts for the steady decline in population numbers over the last 20 years.
MULE DEER VERSES ELK
It seems nearly inconceivable that the grand return of one big-game animal could so adversely impact another, but that is exactly what has happened over many areas in the west where elk have made a strong comeback. The reasons for this have been known and understood for some time now, and once again we find the answer in habitat and food choices both animals make.
Although deer and elk do have some overlapping in their diets, elk eat a far greater variety of grasses and some forbs, while mule deer mainly rely on shrubs and some forbs making them more selective in what they require. Stomach and body size also require that deer eat a higher quality of food, while elk can fare better when these choices are severally limited and winter snows cover the land. Compressed on winter range, elk are more aggressive than deer, can browse higher out of reach of deer, and in general come through winter with females in better shape carrying their unborn young for spring.
Bitter winter temperatures, high winds and deep snows always have a more pronounced effect on deer than elk, and this is constantly proven in the falling number of mule deer after prolonged severe winters. Elk also survive in greater numbers because where plant succession expressed in regrowth of taller timber and heavy cover has taken over blocking out sunlight for lower plant production deer need, they can shift their diets easier to lower quality foods and still survive.
Mule deer need time to mature, sufficient food chains, and equally important, places of quiet retirement where they are not run from pillar to post. Yet the mania to drive more and more roads into traditional mule deer range has continued unabated, literally for decades, and clearly with negative results. I can think of no better example than the frantic search for energy sources on the western front of the Rocky mountains during the 1970’s and early 80’s, though it went on in many other places.
That great stronghold of the deer, the rimrock, table top lands lined in limestone plateaus was a favorite of my three son’s and myself, and a place where we and friends took many very large bucks until it was suddenly assaulted by D-9 Caterpillar tractors driving graded roads up every mesa and ridgeline, followed by the boom of probing dynamite explosions.
In four years, the big bucks were shot off by those who could drive passenger cars far back into remote canyons we used to hike hours to reach on foot, and that scenario was played out in dozens, if not hundreds of other places. We do not hunt there anymore, but I have my notions about what should be done anyplace big-game range is going to be violated like that.
No new road construction should be allowed until an environmental impact statement and ALL its effects on big-game animals has been thoroughly studied and evaluated. The federal government does exactly this through the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) on everything from mice, butterflies, and rodents, so why not an animal as important as mule deer? It only makes common sense to do so, but first there must be the will!
I’ve briefly mentioned recreational properties being sold cheaply for summer homes or winter ski chalets, and their most serious effect on deer is their location. The great majority of these are at lower elevations on the fringes of national forest lands where timber thins or ends, and where sagebrush, bitterbrush, wild grasses and forbs grow because of exposure to sunlight. In other words, much of this land removes the mule deers vital winter range with roads, homes, people and vehicles, appearing to have little value to many.
Mule deer are, and always have been, wilderness animals. They are not at ease, nor do they prosper, living on the fringes or sometimes right in suburbia as whitetails and blacktails often do so successfully. No deer herd can survive or propagate without sufficient carrying capacity on its winter range, regardless of what support it gets the rest of the year. Winter stresses deer like no other time of the year, and the greatest losses are the oldest, often largest bucks first who’ve come out of the rut already run down, and yearling animals, small and without the stamina of their mothers. When winter range is lost either through home construction, “all weather” Interstate Highways that block or divert animals from traditional migration routes and seasonal patterns, and dam pools that flood winter valleys, their numbers fall dramatically.
As if the question of federal management policies isn’t contentious enough, we come to the subject of whether or not predator control plays a significant hand in mule deer numbers. In recent years the trend has been to reduce mans efforts to limit predatory animals that take big-game such as coyotes and especially mountain lions, but I believe it can and should play a role in those areas where deer populations have been adversely effected by mans heavy hand, for it can be an effective tool in limited areas, and over limited periods of time.
City dwelling Californian’s voted to ban the taking of mountain lions even though they were on a strict quota system originally that never threatened their existence. Yet, after several years of study, state fish and game biologists came to the conclusion that the golden state actually had a population of at least 6,000 big cats, and more than any other state in the continental United States! As their populations swelled, new toms moved out into new range while people moved into their former domain to experience “country living.” The results were inevitable. Household pets disappeared, two women were actually attacked, killed and partially eaten, nearly a dozen youngsters mauled by roving lions. Ranching relatives of my wifes family had a big tom jump one of their horses right behind their house, and another lion laid up on rocks nearby to watch his wife hang out clothes until they ran it off. How many mule deer do you think lions along the Sierra Nevada mountains kill annually with numbers like this? No one knows, but it must be a substantial figure. Deer hunters in recent years have had the big cats even make determined advances on them, and one stood his ground and took Polaroid pictures published in the states big-game magazine, just to show how bold they’ve become.
Clearly, the cats should be thinned down substantially, but they will not be because of romantic silliness. So much for big-game management via the ballot box, but that does not mean it cannot be applied in other states as needed.
Can the many problems highlighted in this story be addressed by those of us supporting the comeback of the big deer? Of course they can, but it will take work. A number of prominent organizations now exist dedicated to helping mule deer and they want and need the support of hunters from coast to coast. Some directly lobby state and federal agencies during the policy making process, while others support big-game projects with money and even grants to organizations and public agencies with plans to improve the deers lot. Here are four outstanding ones and how to contact them.
The Mule Deer Foundation, 1005 Terminal Way, Suite 170, Reno, Nevada, 89502.
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, 1120 Connecticut Avenue, NY, Suite 900, Washington, D.C. 20036.
Safari Club International, 4800 West Gates Pass Road, Tucson, Arizona, 85745.
The Berryman Institute, Utah State University, Logan, Utah, 84322.
Further information and details on all these organizations also be found on the Internet at http://www.muledeer.org/.
As for individual hunters ourselves, there is much we too can do. When state and federal agencies convene on effecting mule deer, we must make it a point to attend those public meeting and have our voices and concerns heard. You don’t have to be a big-game biologist or wildlife manager to express your view and relate what you’ve seen over the years in the field.
Letters to Forest Service managers and supervisors, either in your local district or those you plan to hunt, are well worth the time and effort to write. Anyone can also write his or her senator and congressman asking for policy changes long overdue. Can you imagine someone in the halls of power suddenly getting a couple of hundred letters about mule deer and why they’ve been so badly short changed over the years. It’s very likely they’ve never received a letter on the subject in their entire political careers.
Finally, what is clear is this. If we just give the big deer of the west the same attention, study, and funding that’s been dolled out to other species of plants, birds, and even rodents, then we can have them into the future for our children, grandchildren, and their children’s children. To simply let them drift as has been done in the past is no longer acceptable and nothing short of criminal. It is time those who support the mule deer stand up and make their voices heard.