Spring Rain Eases Mule Deer Concerns

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Wildlife officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks said today spring rains may help stabilize mule deer populations that suffered significant fawn losses over winter in parts of south central and eastern Montana.

"While the total number of mule deer is at or above the long-term average in many of the areas surveyed, we saw higher than average fawn losses in portions of FWP Regions 3,4,5,6,and 7 that may set us up for isolated declines, if drought continues in these areas," said Glenn Erickson, FWP Wildlife Division bureau chief.

More than two decades of mule deer research in Montana shows that fawn survival depends on precipitation during late spring and early summer. Dry summers with little forage make it difficult for fawns to build the fat they need to survive winter. Older adult females also tend to be vulnerable if they are in poorer condition going into winter.

Overall, June's snow and rain is likely to improve forage in early summer, hopefully improving mule deer survival this coming winter, Erickson said. The question that concerns biologists is whether specific areas in the state with low over-winter fawn survival will receive enough precipitation this summer to turn the situation around.

"We will have to wait and see. If we get enough precipitation where it is needed through the summer, it should improve the winter survival of this year's fawn crop," Erickson said.

For more information on FWP's mule deer management go to the FWP web site at fwp.state.mt.us under Hunting and click on Know Before You Go.


Wildlife managers across the state recently completed an analysis of the combined winter and spring mule deer survey results. Here is what they report:

In FWP Region 1, Kalispell and the surrounding northwestern portion of the state, fawns ranged in the mid 30's to 40's per 100 adults, still at or above the long-term average, but lower than the 54 fawns per 100 adults counted last year in the same areas. Prognosis: In FWP Region 1 the outlook for mule deer is normal to slightly improved due to good summer forage expected this year.

In FWP Region 2, Missoula and the surrounding area, fawn recruitment was good, ranging from 45 to 75 fawns per 100 adults. For the areas surveyed, the total mule deer population was at or near the long-term average in many cases. Prognosis: Based on the 2001-2002 annual mule deer survey results and the recent heavy June precipitation, the outlook for mule deer in FWP Region 2 is very favorable.

In FWP Region 3, Bozeman and the surrounding area, survey results were mixed. On the west side of the Bridger Mountains, the total population is nearly 30 percent above the long-term average for the area. However, biologists counted only 23 fawns per 100 adults, compared to the long-term average of 29 fawns per 100 adults for the Bridgers. On the east side of the Bridger Mountains, mule deer have not recovered from the mid-1990's decline. In this area, total mule deer numbers continue low, in some areas 20 percent below 2001. In the Upper Big Hole and most of the southwestern portion of the region fawn ratios were in the high 30's to upper 50's, compared to long-term averages of 20 to 40 fawns per 100 adults. Prognosis: Increased precipitation in May and June should help improve forage production and the overall condition of mule deer going into fall. Biologists anticipate stable mule deer numbers across the region if favorable conditions persist. In FWP Region 4, Great Falls and the surrounding area, survey numbers were also mixed. Surveys of the Rocky Mountain Front showed fawn survival at 34 fawns per 100 adults, still within the long-term average. Meanwhile, in the Little Belt Mountains only about 25 fawns survived per 100 adults, compared to the long-term average of 30-45 fawns. Adult numbers were at record highs in the Little Belts. Along the Missouri River downstream of Great Falls, an area of severe drought, fawns were in the low 20's per 100 adults. As few as eight fawns per 100 survived in the Coffee Creek and Arrow Creek areas, compared to an average of 30-45 fawns for these areas.

Total mule deer numbers in FWP Region 4 remain above average. Prognosis: The mule deer outlook in Region 4 is variable because of differing conditions in key mule deer habitats. Portions of the Region received heavy precipitation in June. The increased precipitation may moderate drought conditions in those areas. Numbers of adult females generally remain strong.

In FWP Region 5, Billings and surrounding area, the prairie areas are doing poorer than the mountainous country. Overall spring counts in prairie areas were down by 10 percent, while the mountainous HD 575 Census Area was still five percent above the last five-year average. Overall, fawn recruitment averaged 34 fawns per 100 adults, which is just adequate to maintain current population levels. Prognosis: Mule deer numbers are still relatively high. However a third year of declining fawn survival indicates the early stages of a population downturn. Although adequate rainfall this summer and fall could moderate the decline, the effects of consecutive years of low-fawn survival will be evident in fewer yearling and 2-year old deer in the population.

In FWP Region 6, Glasgow and the surrounding area, the total mule deer count is generally above the long-term average. South of Malta however, fewer mule deer were observed, and in three Hunting Districts with restrictive hunting seasons (Hunting Districts 620, 621, and 622), fawn survival rates are at 25 to 35 fawns per 100 adults, compared to a long-term average of 30-60 fawns. Prognosis: The Region average of 44 fawns per 100 adults is more positive than it looks because the adult numbers include a good number of young does that have not produced fawns yet. With above normal annual precipitation in June, the mule deer population outlook is excellent. In FWP Region 7, Miles City and the surrounding area, fawn survival tracked with recorded moisture levels. In the areas surveyed, an average of 58 fawns survived per 100 adults, with ranges of 30 to 80 fawns depending on the survey area. The long-term average for this habitat is 30-60 fawns. Region-wide, total spring mule deer numbers are 10 percent above the long-term average. Prognosis: Precipitation in May and June has dramatically improved wildlife forage conditions.

The outlook for mule deer populations in FWP Region 7 is fair to good; especially if additional moisture is received through June and again in early fall.