August 04, 2014
By Josh Dahlke
Mule deer have faced a nationwide beat-down for more than a decade. But it's not all doom and gloom, even in the most troubled muley country. Get off the road, put your glass to work and you're bound to discover some big-eared brown beasts.
If you want to make the most efficient use of your time afield — whether it's spent hunting for trophy-class bucks or high-odds venison — it pays to do your homework.
After a week of digging through data and playing phone tag with a dozen state wildlife biologists, here are some not-so-hot muley spots I discovered that you might want to avoid.
Oregon holds a stable mule deer population of approximately 200,000-225,000 — only beat by California and Wyoming. There are plenty of opportunities for hunters who draw a tag and want to encounter high numbers of deer or large-antlered bucks, but make sure you don't show up in the state only to waste your time knocking on doors.
'The Columbia Basin Unit and Biggs Unit are primarily private land, ' said Game
Program Manager Tom Thornton. 'The hunting can be very good in those units, but you really need to secure permission with a landowner if you plan to hunt in either. '
Oregon is another state struggling with an explosion of western juniper. It's a native tree, but it acts as a leech — sucking the moisture out of the ground and overtaking vegetation that's beneficial to mule deer and other wildlife. The state's current Mule Deer Initiative has included 1 million acres of habitat improvement, primarily in the form of juniper control.
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. '
Montana's mule deer management policies generally lean more toward hunter opportunity versus managing for trophy bucks and high buck-to-doe ratios. While tags are generally accessible, you need to have reasonable expectations — and the 'quality ' of a hunt is in the eye of the beholder.
Mule Deer Foundation
President Miles Moretti highlighted land access as being a significant barrier for nonresident hunters or anyone who hunts in the state without a private connection.
According to Region 7 Wildlife Manager John Ensign, 75 percent of the land in northeastern Montana is private. 'Public access has always been an issue out here, ' explained Ensign. 'We're spending a lot of time and effort to improve it with our Block Management program. ' Couple a lack of open land with the fact that Montana has the second-largest number of mule deer hunters in the country (next to California), and it might not be the most desirable destination to put on your muley bucket list.
Harsh winters and devastating droughts as of late have also put a significant dent in the quality of Montana's mule deer hunt. These inclement conditions have caused high winter mortality and brutally poor fawn recruitment. As part of the state's reaction, no antlerless mule deer can be taken in 2014. To put it in perspective, an annual antlerless harvest of 20,000-24,000 was reported from 2007-2009, whereas only 6,832 were killed in 2012. Ouch.
For hunters who look to the Missouri River Breaks as a muley hotbed, think again. 'This is a popular area with a massive amount of public land, but there just aren't the numbers of deer that you might expect, ' said Region 6 Wildlife Manager Mark Sullivan. 'There are still deer to hunt, but just be aware it's not what it was like before the tough winters. '
It's generally tough to make a living as a mule deer, chomping on sagebrush and scouring for scant cover in rugged nooks and crannies. Add unusually miserable weather to the mix and life as a muley can be downright dreadful. As of late, that's been the case for deer in northwestern Colorado.
Severe winters followed by extreme drought have left herds in and around the Piceance Basin struggling to maintain solid numbers. An influx of energy development in this area might not be making matters any easier. While the technical jury is still out on how natural gas drilling affects mule deer, a hunter could only deduce that any level of increased human activity isn't helpful. Combine disturbance with habitat fragmentation and it makes matters even more complicated.
But one can't reasonably place all the blame on energy companies. Outside of the Piceance Basin, some herds are hurting even more. 'The deer west of Rangely, around Dinosaur National Monument, aren't doing well at all, ' noted Chad Bishop, Colorado Parks and Wildlife's
Assistant Director for Wildlife Natural Resources. 'Again, it's a combination of factors that are influencing this decline. '
Nevada manages its mule deer hunt conservatively through a statewide draw. Tag availability is based on deer populations and buck-to-doe ratios, and depends on the management goals for particular areas. This type of system typically means deer hunting will be decent no matter where you go, that is, if you can get a tag. The major concerns for the health of Nevada's mule deer — like most Western states — lie in troublesome weather and habitat conditions.
The northwestern portion of Nevada north of Reno has been hit with consistent droughts and wildfires. 'It sounds stupid, but this year we're in the midst of a very dry drought, ' explained Chris Healy from the Nevada Department of Wildlife
. 'This is the worst I've seen it in 28 years. Fawns being dropped in 2014 have a very difficult road ahead of them. If we get a snowy, cold winter, we will lose animals in some places because their body conditions will be rough going into winter. '
When droughts strike, wildfires often follow closely behind. Fires eliminate high-quality food sources and invasive plants take their place, knocking mule deer numbers down because the herds simply can't live off the land. Additionally, trophy muley bucks can't meet their full potential. 'The quality of antlers will dissipate because of poor nutrition, ' noted Healy.
With a stable mule deer population, high buck-to-doe ratios and ample public land, the Gunnison Basin remains a coveted area to draw a deer tag. However, some surrounding areas aren't doing so well.
'We're not happy with the deer herd performance around Montrose, the San Juan Basin and San Luis Valley, ' explained Colorado wildlife biologist Scott Wait. 'Fawn recruitment has been low, therefore the populations are below or at the low end of our objectives range. '
Trouble is, there are a swath of factors negatively impacting the herds. It's difficult to point to one or even just a few culprits and put a bandage on the wound. That's why a statewide 'Mule Deer Strategy ' initiative is in progress this year. Scientific research and input from seven public hearings will be analyzed in August, at which time the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission
will offer guidance for proactive measures to counter the mule deer decline.
Idaho is one of the few states with abundant over-the-counter hunting opportunities. According to biologists, three consecutive mild winters have benefited fawn recruitment and the overall population is stable.
If a hunter plans to hit the southwestern region, you might want to avoid the South Fork of the Payette River. 'The winter of 2008 was tough on the herd, ' said Craig White, Regional Wildlife Manager
. 'I love the area, but it's not the top spot where I would send someone — especially if they aren't familiar with the country. '
Specifically, White recommended that mule deer hunters be wary of units 33, 34 and 35. These units aren't totally fruitless, but you can find better hunting in other parts of the state.
When speaking with Mule Deer Foundation
President Miles Moretti, he voiced concern over areas affected by the state's alpha predators. 'I would stay away from anywhere wolves are prevalent. ' However, White offered a different perspective about wolves' relationship with mule deer: 'Wolves tend to have more of an impact on elk. ' According to White, during a recent study, the Idaho Fish and Game
radio-collared 400-500 muley does and only 1 percent were killed by wolves.
Western North Dakota
The Badlands of North Dakota are revered as one of America's geological gems. Undoubtedly, it's a special place to visit. But in terms of its qualities as a mule deer hunting location, the Badlands are struggling.
'We're seeing a significant change in the landscape of western North Dakota due to the drilling of natural gas and oil and the associated roads and infrastructure, ' remarked Kent Luttschwager from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department
. 'I think the major issue we will see is habitat fragmentation, but the long-term effects will not be known for years down the road. '
One of North Dakota's big game managers, Bruce Stillings, shared similar viewpoints about the impact of energy development in the Badlands, but he pointed to wicked winters as the main deer herd hindrance: 'Our mule deer population was increasing from 1998 to 2008, but then, from 2008-2010, we experienced three of the most severe winters in the last 100 years. Our mule deer herd declined by about 50 percent from 2008-1012. '
Stillings shared that units 4A and 4F have been the least productive for muley numbers. These are also two of the smallest of the Badlands hunting units, and 4A has the highest concentration of oil and gas drilling operations.
'Hunters will have to work harder and see fewer deer, ' said Stillings. 'But there are certainly great opportunities to be had in the Badlands. ' If you're a nonresident hoping to hunt this iconic landscape in your lifetime, you'd better start applying now — only 1 percent of tags are currently allocated to nonresidents annually.
Drought conditions have also struck Wyoming during the past 3 years, so fawn productivity for mule deer in Wyoming has been depressed. Another factor working against muleys is EHD
— a disease most commonly known for causing dramatic die-offs of whitetails.
If Wyoming is on your mule deer hunting travel docket, consider staying away from Area 92. 'Deer numbers are down in this area, ' explained Daryl Lutz from Wyoming Game and Fish
. 'The last two years have had the driest summers on record. These deer are doing into winter with whatever groceries they have on their backs, and the does have been in very poor condition.
Regarding the dreaded EHD, Lutz had this to say: 'The Lander area was significantly hit by EHD. We don't know what toll this took on mule deer, but we know they were exposed and affected. '
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