Sixty years ago, approximately 45,000 mule deer wintered at Devil's Garden in northeastern California's Modoc County. Today, the wintering herd is estimated at somewhere between 2,500-4,500. In this case, nature is the primary culprit for destroying deer numbers.
'We have a lot of issues here in northeastern California, ' said California wildlife biologist Richard Shinn. 'The huge expansion of western juniper has had a lot of negative effects on native shrubs and grasses. If you look at a dense stand of juniper, there's nothing growing underneath it — just dirt. ' Not good for muleys €¦ or just about anything with a heartbeat.
Other non-native vegetation such as cheatgrass and medusahead have also swarmed the landscape, overtaking valuable native shrubs such as sagebrush. These exotic plants are essentially worthless for mule deer, but they're like an all-you-can-eat fuel buffet for wildfires.
'Fires are much more frequent now, ' noted Shinn. 'These invasive grasses are extremely flammable. Native shrubs can't handle fire very well, but the grasses can. This causes large-scale changes in the habitat because the grasses are so successful. '
California manages their mule deer hunters accordingly, relying on a preference point system to limit pressure on deer. According to Shinn, about 70 percent of Modoc County is composed of public land, so access isn't an issue if you draw a tag.
Despite the low deer numbers and obvious concerns over habitat loss, Shinn offered some optimism: 'I've hunted a lot of Western states, but the biggest buck I've ever seen was here (in Modoc County). There is still good hunting to be had here, especially if you're willing to put in the time and effort. '