Lost generation

Shortage of bucks frustrating hunters, biologists

When a generation of fawns is lost, as happened in the Gunnison Basin during the winter of 2007-08, it takes a few years for the missing deer to be noticed. Approximately half of all deer fawns are bucks, and recently biologists and hunters are saying there are fewer mature bucks in the units around Gunnison.



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When a generation of fawns is lost, as happened in the Gunnison Basin during the winter of 2007-08, it takes a few years for the missing deer to be noticed. Approximately half of all deer fawns are bucks, and recently biologists and hunters are saying there are fewer mature bucks in the units around Gunnison.

As this page reported Sunday, deer-hunting licenses in the Gunnison Basin will see a slight increase this fall thanks to a growing deer herd.

However, the story isn’t limited to what is happening around Gunnison and entails more than simply having more deer on the landscape.

Although it’s true there are more deer in places, there still aren’t as many as biologists would like to see.

Some of it’s the inherent nature of mule deer, which are susceptible to hard winters and drought, through both of which western Colorado has and continues to suffer.

Other components include loss of habitat from increased development, meaning there are more people on the landscape, too.

“It’s a little more complex than” having more deer, said Gunnison Area terrestrial biologist Brandon Diamond. “What some people are seeing out there is a relative shortage of older bucks, and I think that’s still a product of the 2007-2008 winter.”

That was the winter of deep snows and terrible cold, when Colorado Parks and Wildlife initiated an emergency feeding program for deer in the Gunnison Basin.

In spite of concerted efforts by agency personnel and many volunteers, it’s estimated nearly an entire generation of fawns and yearlings were lost.

Diamond attended college in Gunnison and in the late 1990s helped feed winter-stressed deer.

“I helped with the feeding program in the winter of 1996 and 1997, but that didn’t hold a candle to 2007-2008,” he said.

Figure half of all fawns are bucks. Biologists in 2008 warned hunters they eventually would notice a missing generation of bucks, and now it’s being seen.

“A 4- or 5-year old buck can get awfully big in this country,” Diamond said. “It can be frustrating to think what might have been possible” without that winter impacting fawn survival.

Recent winters in the Gunnison Basin have been comparatively mild, which has allowed deer numbers to grow, but the Northwest Region still is seeing the effect of hard winters made worse by drought.

“Most definitely we’re still feeling the effects of 2007-2008,” said terrestrial biologist Darby Finley in the CWP Meeker office. “Prior to 2007-08 winter, our fawn survival was in the low 70 percent range. That year, we had a 38 percent survival rate, and then there were two subsequent years (2008-09, 2009-10) where spring storm events impacted fawn survival as well.”

Finley said at least 60 percent fawn survival is needed to keep deer herds stable.

Even the winter of 2010-11, which most people don’t remember as being particularly hard, hit the Northwest herds and kept fawns survival to 40 percent, Finley said.

“We were sort of flying under the radar. Nobody else knew how hard we were impacted,” he said. “But then the 2011-12 winter was very mild, and we had a 70 percent fawn survival.”

It’s not yet completely known what the survival rate will be this year, but impacts already are being seen from a single storm event in mid-December that dropped three to four feet of snow in a band from the Axial Basin up the Williams Fork River and out to Maybell in far northwest Colorado.

“I’m seeing the impacts of that in” deer herd units around Meeker, Finley said. “A lot of that mortality has occurred in the last four to five weeks.”

Pending approval next month by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife commission, deer licenses in the Northwest will remain the same as last year, Finley said.

“We’re still very conservative on both doe and buck licenses, and in doing so we finally are seeing an increase in our buck-doe ratios,” Finley said.

He said doe licenses in the Northwest have been cut by 94 percent since 2007, and buck licenses have been reduced by almost 80 percent in the same period.

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