Increasing Mule Deer Population

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How do you "grow" more mule deer? Well, the Idaho Fish and Game Commissioners recently endorsed a plan they hope will do just that.

Although mule deer populations are good throughout most of our state, parts of eastern and southeastern Idaho and a bit of south central Idaho are not meeting the Department of Fish & Game's objectives. In southwestern Idaho, population numbers are better but high vulnerability to hunters leaves too few older bucks to meet hunter expectations. The wildlife agency said it's time that changed. "It basically came down to we can't continue what we're currently doing. We're going to have to do something different," said Brad Compton, State Big Game Manager. "We're going to have to get more engaged in intensive management, so to speak."

Over the next year, the Department of Fish & Game will be partnering with federal and state land agencies, sportsmen's groups and private landowners to launch an intensive effort to promote mule deer numbers. "It's pretty exciting for those of us in the Department that really kind of like mule deer," said Compton. "And it's an opportunity to do some things that are the reason we got into this business."

Hunting shouldn't be a factor in the total populations because seasons in troubled areas are buck-only. Issues that are more likely to be affecting mule deer populations range from predation and disease to habitat change and degradation. Biologists believe a big reason may be the steady disappearance of aspen stands. "Aspen is one of the most productive habitat types that we have in Idaho because it has a real rich forb base and that is real key especially to mule deer does that are raising fawns," said Compton.

Another factor may be the expansion of elk into traditional mule deer range. Biologists have observed where both species occur, mule deer seem to suffer. And of course, everyone points to tough winters as a major factor in mule deer decline, but actually dry, drought-stricken summers are as much to blame.

"About every ten years or so we see a winter that comes through, especially in southern Idaho that kind of knocks mule deer populations back. What's real interesting is that summer range, in some cases, may be even more important than the winter range," said Compton. "Because if these deer will come onto the winter range in really good shape with lots of fat on them, they can survive most winters."

Public involvement will be key to deciding these management issues. Fish & Game will begin enlisting the support of sportsmen, private landowners, and public agencies. To get a jump-start on things, the Department will be implementing some habitat improvement projects this year.