Meeker-area mule deer population down sharply

MEEKER — Bryce Purkey watched his family’s game-processing business go from processing as many as 1,500 deer and elk in a year to handling less than 400 two years ago. And more of those 400 were elk than deer.

“There’s just no deer left,” Purkey said.

The sharp decline in mule-deer numbers in the area surrounding Meeker has the Colorado Division of Wildlife concerned as well, and it prompted a range of responses the agency outlined in a meeting attended by more than 80 people this week in Meeker.

Deer in that area are estimated to have declined from somewhere between 75,000 and 85,000 in the early 2000s to 50,000 to 60,000 last year.

“This is probably the lower end that we’ve seen over the last 30 years,” said Bill de Vergie, area wildlife manager in Meeker.

The decline mirrors one occurring statewide. In the Meeker area, the agency believes a number of factors may be taking a cumulative toll. These include heavy snow and cold temperatures, disease, predation, competition from elk, and habitat impacts such as roadkill, wildfires that take out critical winter range, and oil and gas development. Its response is heavily focused on projects aimed at improving habitat. But some Meeker-area residents said this week they think a big focus should be on removing animals that prey on deer.

“We’ve got to do something to help the Division of Wildlife get rid of all these predators,” Purkey said at Monday’s meeting.

Local rancher Lowell Klinglesmith added, “It seems like there are more predators now than there ever were.”

The agency long has heard that concern from local residents, de Vergie said. Its research suggests predation is claiming nearly one-third of the area’s does and fawn. Removing predators on a localized, short-term basis can have benefits, such as for a rancher seeking to keep them out of a drainage during lambing operations, de Vergie said. But to boost overall deer numbers through predator control in all the habitat around Meeker would require more resources than are available, he said.

A 1997 Utah project in which aerial and ground teams killed 863 coyotes ended up costing about $350 per animal.

A coyote removal effort in Idaho resulted in no discernible increase in mule-deer numbers, said Darby Finley, a DOW terrestrial biologist in Meeker. He said DOW research in the Meeker area is demonstrating that fawns killed by coyotes often show signs of malnutrition, meaning they likely would have starved to death had they not been killed. That raises the question of the degree to which predators are simply killing animals that would have died anyway, rather than contributing to the decline of deer.

Luke Schafer, a Colorado Wildlife Federation board member, said he hears a lot about predator control, but “there’s a lot of other parts when it comes to herd health.”

Whatever the factors are behind declining deer numbers in Meeker, the consequences are considerable for a region accustomed to hunting as a way of life and an economic driver. A study conducted for the DOW found hunting and fishing accounted for 5.8 percent of all jobs in Rio Blanco County in 2007, the fourth-highest percentage statewide. They also accounted for almost $18 million in direct and more than $30 million in total economic impacts in the county, with most of those dollars coming from hunting.

Responding to the deer decline, the DOW reduced doe licenses by 92 percent in the Meeker area since 2007, and buck licenses by 72 percent.

About 1 percent of does are now taken each year. Though it may seem counterintuitive, and run counter to local desires, the agency is considering increasing hunting of does. Finley said the idea is to let the range recover from impacts such as drought and support more deer in the long term, while reducing the short-term problem of starvation due to inadequate habitat.

It also is evaluating whether increasing elk numbers may be harming deer numbers. So far, researchers have had trouble specifically detecting whether the two species actually compete for browse and habitat. Finley said they may directly compete for calving and fawning areas in a more confined area such as the Roan Plateau, but competition is less likely in larger expanses such as on the Flat Tops.

Due to the concern about roadkill on local highways, the Colorado Department of Transportation imposed lower nighttime speed limits on Highway 13 south of Meeker seasonally to protect migrating game.

A sizable amount of local traffic is related to oil and gas development in the Piceance Basin. The DOW is concerned about the relatively small direct habitat loss from well pads and other industry activities, plus the much larger indirect losses such as from habitat fragmentation, vehicle collisions and disturbances of migratory routes.

Besides being a hotbed for natural gas development, the Piceance Basin is home to the state’s largest migratory deer herd. The DOW is completing its third year of examining things such as fawn survival and deer density in the basin, home to important winter range. Currently, the agency says the cumulative effects of energy development on deer range are unknown.

The agency delineated four study areas within the basin: three that have varying levels of development occurring and one that isn’t seeing drilling. DOW researcher Chuck Anderson said the control area has higher mule-deer densities, but the other three appear to have populations that are at least stable.

The agency completed a pilot habitat-improvement project on 120 acres in areas where drilling is occurring, and it plans to do 1,200 acres there next winter.

It’s working on hay-field improvements with Williams to benefit deer, and it is working with other oil and gas companies on addressing impacts, including through wildlife-mitigation plans.

Elsewhere near Meeker, since 2009 the agency completed 3,374 acres of habitat-improvement projects for deer and elk, treating vegetation in crucial areas, mostly through mechanical means but also with fire and pesticides. The work cost $546,943. Most of the money came from the Division of Wildlife and its Habitat Partnership Program, with private landowners and the National Resources Conservation Service also contributing.


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