DOW working to solve decline in mule deer herds

A meeting Monday night in Meeker might help to explain what’s happening to the West’s mule deer herds.

Colorado Division of Wildlife biologists are set to talk about challenges facing the White River deer herd, Colorado’s largest deer herd, from 6-8 p.m. at the Rio Blanco County fairgrounds.

“We’ve heard some concerns from hunters and the general public about seeing fewer deer,” said Darby Finley, terrestrial biologist for the DOW in Meeker. “We’ll share what we are doing to address the decline in mule deer.”

Colorado has an estimated 460,000 mule deer, a number that’s been steadily dropping since the 2002 drought.

It isn’t solely Colorado’s problem.

Mule deer herds across the West are in decline and there’s no one reason to address.

“If we knew what the problem was, we’d (have) been doing something to fix it,” Finley said.

Utah recently reported the 2010 deer hunt was particularly difficult, with poor weather and a shorter hunting season contributing to lower success.

That state recently announced a plan to tackle what appear to be the major issues, including habitat restoration, controlling predators, reducing highway mortality, preventing disease, and increased monitoring of deer herds and winter ranges.

Also, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has begun a Mule Deer Initiative designed to address declining mule deer populations statewide.

But as game agencies everywhere are discovering, it’s easy to talk about the most obvious possible solutions, even when they might not be the right ones.

In Colorado, the deer harvest has dropped over the past four years after seven years of increasing harvest.

You can blame some of that decline on the weather, of course, along with fewer licenses available and the recession causing fewer hunters.

Still, the overall success rate has remained fairly stable in the low- to mid-40 percent, with hunters last year harvesting 34,768 deer, for a 44 percent success rate.

Hunter numbers in 2010 were slightly up (78,603) but there are other issues outside the purview of game managers.

Energy development, drought, the increase in human population in prime deer areas — all these make big-game management increasingly complex.

The state already has a lot going on. Finley has spent 10 years on a deer mortality study, which gives him and other researchers invaluable long-term information on how deer populations are affected by weather, development, habitat changes and human encroachment.

“I don’t think we’ve had anything like this since the early ‘80s,” Finley said. “There’s so much information we can use from studies such as this.”

Meeker area DOW manager Bill de Vergie said other states are talking about the deer decline but no one has yet pinpointed any sure course of action since the problem isn’t the same everywhere.

“We’re paying attention to what Utah and Wyoming are doing,” he said. “But (the decline) really depends on where you are. In the area north of the Yampa River we’re not seeing as much of a reduction as we are in the south.”

Weather, of course is a big player in herd health. Herds had just started to rebound from the long drought earlier this decade when the winter of 2007/2008 took its toll.

Now, after a winter that saw record snows across the north half of the state, it’s hardly likely the deer are going to rebound quite so well or so fast.

“Deer are so weather-dependent,” said Finley. “They can rebound quickly since they reproduce at high rates, but it still takes a while to rebuild our herds.”

This past winter, de Vergie said, might have been the wettest on record.

“We had like five days in May without precipitation,” he said. “As of (June 8) Trappers Lake was still iced over. We have records going back 80 years and this is going to be one of the latest ice-offs we we’ve ever seen.”

He said Monday’s meeting will include presentations about ongoing DOW deer research and possible avenues for future studies.

“We wanted to have this meeting to get people together who are interested in what we’re doing,” he said. “I don’t guarantee we’ll have any solutions, but we’re willing to listen to what the public has to offer.”

Angler meeting in Montrose: The DOW in Montrose will host an angler open house from 6-8 p.m. on Wednesday at the Holiday Inn Express, 1391 S. Townsend Ave.

On hand to answer questions about regional fishing topics will be DOW aquatic biologists Dan Kowalski and John Alves.

District wildlife managers will also be on hand to answers questions.

Information: 252-6000.


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