Moffat County, Colorado Students Help Study Mule Deer

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A group of six Moffat County High School juniors and seniors enjoyed a unique learning opportunity as they helped Colorado Parks and Wildlife researchers and managers study mule deer as part of an ongoing research project in the Piceance Basin.

The students, Tyler Ripka, Brady Martinez, Ryder Seely, Kolton Wickham, Justin Stephenson and Aaron Shaffer, are all enrolled in Rick Murr's Wildlife Management class at the school. They were invited to participate by District Wildlife Manager Mike Swaro of Maybell, who regularly offers the class hands-on projects that encourages them to consider wildlife management careers.

"The kids did great and they had a great time," said Swaro. There is nothing like a little hands-on experience like this to show young students how important wildlife management is to their future, and the future of their community."

Since the early 1980s, the mule deer population in the Piceance has declined and researchers are conducting a decade-long series of studies to try to determine the reasons why this may be occurring.

Many in the local communities are concerned because their economy relies heavily on hunting opportunities and stable wildlife populations.

"We know that severe winters and periodic drought have had an impact, but we are also looking at increased activity from oil and gas development, degraded habitat, and how deer react to different phases and approaches to development," said lead researcher Chuck Anderson. "Ultimately, we plan to identify and implement beneficial development practices and habitat improvements to enhance mule deer populations when favorable weather conditions support recovery."

After being "net-gunned" from helicopters, the mule deer were dropped off at a central location where the students had the opportunity to help weigh them, take body condition measurements, check for pregnancy using ultra-sound equipment and draw blood samples. Once they finished these tasks, the students helped tag, collar and release them unharmed.

Some of the students are avid hunters and the experience helped give them a better understanding of the species they love to hunt.

"It was really cool to actually touch a live mule deer," said 17-year-old junior Ryder Seely. "And I enjoyed watching them run off after we were done." Like many in his community, Seely enjoys hunting mule deer in the area.

In addition to the hands-on experience, they also had the opportunity to talk to and learn from the capture crews, researchers, veterinarians, and District Wildlife Managers.

Another avid hunter, 16-year-old Brady Martinez, enjoyed learning from researchers and wildlife managers. Like others in is class, he said he plans to pursue a future career in wildlife management.

"Getting my hands dirty is something I like to do," said Martinez. "It was fun, and a great learning experience."

The Piceance Basin is located southwest of Meeker and contains one of the largest natural gas fields in the United States, and one of the largest migratory mule deer populations in the country. Several corporations currently own leases throughout this 600 square-mile winter range.

The study, which began in January 2008 and is expected to continue through 2018, is funded and assisted by various partners including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Colorado State University, Idaho State University, multiple energy corporations including Encana, Williams, Shell, Exxon and Marathon, various sportsmen's organizations, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and now, a few lucky students from Rick Murr's Wildlife Management class at Moffat County High School.

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