The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Mule Deer Working Group (MDWG) recently released two new publications to help managers improve monitoring of the species and deal with the rapid expansion of energy development in the west. The MDWG also completed a documentary titled “Mule Deer: Saving the Icon of the West” that is now showing on the Sportsman Channel. Each of these outreach materials is helping to spread the word about the status of mule deer and what is being done to reverse the declines in deer numbers, reports the Wildlife Management Institute.
Mule deer are one of the most charismatic and economically important big game species in the West. Each year several hundred thousand hunters pursue the species across its range from the Dakotas to California and millions of people enjoy watching these deer bounding across diverse habitats from prairie grasslands to the highest reaches of the Colorado Rockies.
Mule deer population declines in many parts of their range over the past 25 years have generated intense interest, and occasionally heated debate, about the causes. Habitat loss to urban development, energy extraction and highways along with increasing numbers of predators and drought are just a few of the factors often cited as contributing to lower deer populations.
Managing such a wide-ranging species in response to these factors requires collaboration among a host of agencies. In 1997, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) established a Mule Deer Working Group (MDWG) consisting of a representative from each western state and western Canadian province. The purpose of this working group was to: 1) Develop strategies to reverse the decline of mule deer populations throughout the West; 2) Improve communication among mule deer biologists; and 3) Provide a forum to respond to information needs from agencies.
Over the past 15 years, the MDWG has published numerous scientific articles and books addressing mule deer biology, predator-prey relationships and management strategies. They also developed habitat management guidelines for each of the seven eco-regions where mule deer are found. In 2006, the MDWG received the Wildlife Management Institute’s prestigious “Touchstone Award” for their creative and collaborative work to provide managers with tools to make a real difference on the ground.
The rapid expansion of energy infrastructure in the west prompted the MDWG to develop Energy Development Guidelines for Mule Deer to help guide management decisions in mule deer habitat where development of renewable and nonrenewable energy is occurring. The publication includes sections on oil and gas, wind, solar, and geothermal energy development and provides state-of-the-knowledge recommendations for minimizing the impact of the energy industry on mule deer habitat and populations. MDWG chairman, Jim Heffelfinger with the Arizona Game and Fish Department said, “These guidelines will provide resource managers with the background and latest research with which to make the right policy and permitting decisions to protect and promote our mule deer herds. ”
Controversy between sportsmen and state agencies has developed in part due to disagreements over the methods used to monitor mule deer populations and the resulting data. As a result, agency estimates of numbers, trends or predator impacts and management decisions have been challenged. To address this concern, the MDWG recently compiled and released a handbook for deer managers that describes the basic information an agency needs to monitor mule deer populations and offers a range of methods and techniques to capture this data. Heffelfinger said he hopes that sharing information about the best ways to track what is happening to mule deer populations will help shift the debate from what the numbers are to what needs to be done to help mule deer.
In addition to the publications aimed mainly at professionals, the MDWG teamed up with Orion Entertainment, America’s largest producer of outdoor adventure programming to develop a 45 minute documentary on the status of mule deer and the efforts of state agencies, volunteers and organizations like the Mule Deer Foundation to restore this “icon of the west.” The documentary will air multiple times on the Sportsman Channel through 2012. Early in 2013, the video will be available for agencies to use in their outreach efforts to sportsmen and others interested in mule deer.
Visit the Mule Deer Working Group website  to download either of the publications mentioned above or learn more about the documentary. (cs)