May 29, 2023
Someone interested in mule deer hunting in the Western U.S. is probably not sure what to think about the current state of the species given the onslaught of issues that make the headlines—including this historically harsh winter we just had.
When you look at deer management across the Northern Rockies, each state does things a little differently. Some licenses are available over the counter for residents. Some hunt deer during the rut while others consider it sacrilege. But the drivers of the populations in the Northern Rockies and subsequently the hunting prospects are still weather conditions and habitat quality—both being hands dealt by mother nature.
These states in the Northern Rockies are the ones hit hardest by harsh winter events and often make headlines for their catastrophic impact on hunting opportunities from year-to-year. Their midterm future, however, does not look as bleak as headlines may have you believe. Precipitation can be linked with fawn recruitment, better habitat and more resilient populations than following severe drought.
If you care about the conservation of mule deer, appreciate pursuing them and want to know the trajectory of this iconic species, here is your mule deer state of the union for the Northern Rocky Mountain states in 2023.
The diversity and quality of habitats in Colorado cannot be understated. It is why this state continues to be the best opportunity in the West to consistently hunt mule deer with the chance of turning up a truly giant deer.
Looking back at the 2022-2023 winter, the western half of the state received much-needed precipitation to pull them out of the drought status from previous seasons. All the while the eastern plains are still in a drought.
The snow that fell in the northwestern part of the state was intense and included severe cold and wind that made access to feed difficult for wintering mule deer, pronghorn and even elk. These deer herds are very productive and offered a lot of hunting opportunities but are experiencing significant population-level losses. Expect point-creep to be severe as licenses for mule deer near Meeker, Craig and Kremmling will be reduced by upwards of 75% for either sex tags.
If you have hunted Colorado lately, however, you may have noticed changes made by the state to curb the spread of chronic wasting disease. This population reduction may set back the clock on CWD’s advancement in southern parts of the state that has little to no disease prevalence.
Things are looking up for those whose hunt south of I-70. The good monsoonal rains last summer and the ability to escape the big snow events on these drier winter ranges have these herds coming out of winter in good condition. Buck ratios are strong and hunters should be excited to have one of these southern Colorado licenses in their pocket.
There is a wide gradient of mule deer habitats in Idaho, as well as a wide margin of how this winter impacted the state. Nonresident hunters have acquired this year’s general season licenses already, however, there are expected to be quite a few turned back in for the areas hit hardest by the 2022-2023 winter.
Bear Lake, Caribou and Franklin Counties in particular were hammered by a harsh winter that never seemed to let up. Unfortunately, Idaho does not have many collared animals to extrapolate data to find the extent of the impacts. The neighboring states of Wyoming and Utah give a strong clue, however, with upwards of 95% fawn mortality and over 50% adult mule deer mortality in places.
For the most part, the lower-elevation winter ranges near Boise, along the Snake River, in the Frank Church and in Hells Canyon allowed deer to winter better. Essentially, those who have a mule deer license in their pocket should consider giving local biologists a call to set expectations for this year.
Unfortunately, in Southeastern Idaho it will take a handful of years for hunters to see another crop of mature bucks hit the landscape. But the habitat should be in excellent shape to support strong fawn recruitment. Those with a long-term view of hunting southeast Idaho in 2028 and beyond in these areas may see some light at the end of the tunnel.
The cyclical nature of mule deer populations in Montana creates a seesawing effect on the average mule deer hunters’ take on this state. Things were positive, deer numbers were marching upwards and hunters found high success rates in central and eastern Montana until 2019 when the recent drought began to take hold.
High amounts of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) along with low fawn numbers have brought deer numbers back to earth. For southeast Montana’s Region 7, for example, there were an estimated at 114,000 mule deer in 2020. In 2022, managers estimated a number closer to 58,000. While the decrease is significant, it’s important to note that there are slightly fewer deer in Montana’s Region 7 than all of the state of Nevada.
Though populations are likely in a trough in Montana, strong feed on the ground this year, and overall populations that largely escaped the worst of the West’s winterkill means Montana will be a mixed bag in 2023.
There are two stories to tell about the state of mule deer in Utah. One is tragic as the northern units, (Cache, Morgan/South Rich, Wallsburg, etc.) have not only lost most of their fawns but a large portion of their adult deer populations as well. The Wallsburg herd, which makes up part of the Wasatch units, only shows 20% survival in their couple of dozen collared adults.
Utah has severely cut licenses in response and this part of the world will take a while to rebound. Luckily, these northern Utah units do see good fawn recruitment on normal years and someone looking to the next four or more years can expect things to come back from this harsh winter.
The other tale in Utah is that of excellent survivability in does and record numbers of fawns in the southern part of the state. For instance, the Pine Valley unit is showing 85% survival in this fawn class—which is nearly double normal—and they came off a great overall number of fawns last year thanks to last summer’s monsoonal rains.
Essentially, things are looking up in southern Utah. Hunters with a southern Utah license are anticipating great antler growth and a great handful of years coming up. While licenses were cut drastically during the drought of 2020-2022, expect more opportunities here in the coming years.
The Cowboy State initiated a large mule deer herd study going into the 2022-2023 winter by collaring 200 deer in five different focal herds. It appears Wyoming Game and Fish Department is getting their return by knowing specifically how hard each of these samplings of units across the state was hit by the historic winter.
As of mid-April, 2023 the survival rates in these five herds were as follows. Keep in mind average survival rates hover around 85%.
- Sweetwater: 86% Adult Survival
- Upper Shoshone: 92% Adult Survival
- Laramie Mountains: 81% Adult Survival
- Wyoming Range: 47% Adult Survival
- North Bighorn: 96% Adult Survival
While certainly a harsh winter across the state, the south-central and southwestern deer herds fared the worst. Regions G and H were hit hard and hunting seasons have been altered significantly there as a result. The deer herd near Baggs, which supports nearly twice as many hunters as any other singular unit in the state, also took a beating. The extent of the winterkill there is yet to be quantified, and hunting seasons are extremely conservative here in 2023 with a five-day season and antler-point restriction as a result.
Wyoming hunters should expect significant point creep and should also temper expectations for the number of deer they see when they arrive in the field. That said, if you can turn up an older-age-class buck in Wyoming, it will probably be sporting its best potential rack.
The rest of the state that did not experience major loss, unfortunately, was still feeling impacts from the same drought and EHD outbreaks that other parts of the West had witnessed before this winter. Places like the Black Hills, Powder River and Cheyenne River mule deer herds have not rebounded from the severe drought, but last year’s summer rains coupled with this year’s precipitation will certainly help fawn recruitment and things could be looking up in the next few years.
A Look Forward
Headlines in early 2022 stated the American West was in a 1200-year drought. We can all agree that without food and water, deer have a hard time making a living. Although this winterkill can be a tough pill to swallow for someone who wanted to hunt an affected area in 2023, it is overall a good look for the future of these arid landscapes where mule deer call home.
Meteorologists are predicting an El Nino cycle coming our way. The last time we saw a strong El Nino cycle was 2014-2016. The five states mentioned above grew nearly a quarter of a million mule deer in that timeframe. If the West gets the strong El Nino it deserves, there is positivity on the horizon for mule deer of the Northern Rockies.