Shrinking deer herds reason for concern as hunters become enamored with elk

A mule deer doe is followed by a fawn wearing a radio collar during one of the many winter-survival studies conducted by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. One study done on the Uncompahgre Plateau indicated habitat treatments and management increased winter survival.

Two decades ago, Colorado and other western states with a long tradition of quality mule deer hunting realized their deer herds were in trouble.

Harvest was declining and worse, interest from hunters was dropping.

Many hunters, aware that deer numbers were declining but unsure of what to do to help the herds, simply stopped pursuing mule deer as a voluntary method of sustaining the herds.

Get around a group of hunters today and you still can hear arguments debating whether it was over-hunting, loss of habitat, predation or the explosion of elk herds as being the main contributor to the shrinking deer herds.

It easily might have been all three in equal amounts, but no one yet really knows for sure.

Colorado, maybe more than other states, particularly was hurt by the mule deer decline because only a few years earlier this state was renowned nationally for its deer herds and the quality of the hunting.

National sporting magazines frequently carried articles on Colorado mule deer hunting and deer hunters were a major source of income for Western Slope businesses and the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Looking back on the early 1980s to late 1990s, you can graph the fall of deer hunting in direct correlation with an accelerating rise in elk herds and elk hunting.

Hunters quickly became enamored with chasing elk and not unexpectedly the Division of Wildlife followed suit, actively managing elk herds to provide more opportunity wherever possible across the Western Slope.

It’s like songstress and poet Joni Mitchell once lamented: When things are going well (the deer herds seemed to be doing fine with minimal attention), “you don’t know what you got until it’s gone.”

Fortunately both for the deer and deer hunters, the Division never really lost sight of its deer herds.

When the hunting community (hunters, guides, outfitters and related businesses) stepped forward with its concerns, that added more impetus to the Division’s desire to restore deer hunting back to (or at least similar to) its former glory.

The seemingly drastic step of adopting totally limited deer licenses in 1999 was a major and not universally popular move but it certainly revealed the state’s determination to do whatever might be necessary to bring back the deer.

Limiting the availability of licenses showed positive results within a few years as hunters reported seeing more and bigger bucks while harvest and participation numbers edged up.

However, it wasn’t only a matter of cutting back on licenses, there also was a renewed emphasis on mule-deer research.

Colorado’s wildlife agency has long been a leader in mammal research and over the past 40 years or so there have been many notable studies on mule deer that contribute not only to hunting but also preserving one of the West’s iconic species.

Colorado, in fact, is one of the very few states that still has a research program in its wildlife agency (many states now rely on their public universities to provide research).

More recently, along with winter deer-survival studies on the Uncompahgre Plateau and in the Piceance Basin, Division researchers have been conducting a multi-year study of buck mule deer survival in Middle Park.

According to researcher Eric Bergman, the project will develop a population baseline in Middle Park and then adjust hunting licenses to impact the buck-to-doe ratios in the area.

There’s always been the theory that bucks don’t survive winters as well as does because bucks go into the winter stressed by rut, which leaves them both physically and nutritionally drained.

However, except for some post-winter field counts of deer carcasses, there’s not been any conclusive data to support this theory.

Bergman’s most recent project will attempt to provide some answers on how well bucks survive.

“It’s extremely important for managers to know if there are differences between survival rates of bucks, does and fawns when we manage herds for different objectives,” Bergman said. “For instance, in some areas we may be managing for a post-hunt ratio of 45 bucks per 100 does while in other areas we may be managing for a post-hunt ratio of 25 bucks per 100 does.

“We’ve learned that we can effectively accomplish this, but we don’t know if the over-winter survival of bucks under these two conditions is different.”

Bergman will introduce his study at meetings in Granby (Feb. 1) and Kremmling (Feb. 2) but you can find a background on this and other mule deer research at the DOW website, Click on “Research” and then “Mammals.”


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