THE BLOG

The Mule Deer Wars

Dec 17, 2012 | Updated Feb 16, 2013

"The Mule Deer Wars." That's what I've come to call a tenacious western wildlife controversy.

It began in the 1990s, when state wildlife managers started reporting lower mule deer populations and decreased fawn-to-doe ratios throughout the West. In Colorado, Utah, Idaho and elsewhere, an outspoken coalition of hunters, outfitters and ranchers blamed the decline on predators, as if coyotes, mountain lions, and bears (plus wolves in Idaho and Montana) were suddenly enjoying a West-wide population explosion. With no credible evidence and certainly no science to back their Chicken Little squawks, the predator-phobes nonetheless demanded a state-by-state war on predators.

In reluctant response to this mouthy minority, in 1999 the Colorado [1] and Idaho [2] wildlife departments launched long-term investigations into the true causes of the perceived mule deer decline. Both studies soon enough reported, in line with previous research throughout the West, that coyotes and other predators indeed are capable of keeping isolated and already critically low deer populations from recovering via a rare phenomenon known as a "predator pit." Yet, such generally man-caused anomalies aside, redundant studies have shown that among healthy game populations in healthy habitat, predation does not limit deer populations.

Indeed, nature operates in sublimely subtle circles of cause and effect, rendering all simplistic "obvious" causes for any situation (including life itself) highly suspect. As the Idaho study authors sum it up: "Quality habitat is the most significant factor determining the size and health of mule deer populations. All other factors, such as weather, predators, and human-caused mortality, are mitigated for or exacerbated by quality of habitat." In other words, even if a given deer herd could be artificially inflated in the short term by killing predators, that same herd would suffer increased starvation the next time a rigid winter comes along, being ultimately habitat-limited.

Taking a more forceful and controversial approach than Colorado, the Idaho study included an attempted total extermination of coyotes in four of eight study areas. Across its first four years, the Idaho coyote study "managed" (killed) almost a thousand coyotes (at an average cost of $167 each) -- resulting in negligible gains in deer "production." As report author Mark Hurley explains: "Killing coyotes costs about $1,000 for each [mule deer] buck that survives its first year and about $6,000 per 4.5-year-old trophy buck.... You would have to remove 70 percent of the coyotes each year to have an [ongoing] effect, and no one in the world is going to get 70 percent."

In the first decade of the 21st Century, muley numbers gradually improved and the predator-haters quieted down. Yet a tiny contingent of bilious hunters and ranchers remains doggedly convinced that predators are ravaging mule deer herds and should be permanently "controlled." And now, after a decade of relative quiet, they're braying and bellowing again. The Mule Deer Wars, redux.

In fact, the most dangerous long-term enemy of mule deer and hunting throughout the West is a growing and increasingly consumptive and nature-ignorant human population, causing habitat loss, degradation and splintering. Put subdividing former ranchlands (essential mule deer and elk wintering habitat) at the top of that list, then add overgrazing, oil and natural gas development, fencing, road-building, and rampant ORV abuse and overuse, all of which human activities fracture and consume critical, low-lying winter habitat and lead to increased wildlife fatalities, harassment and stress.

Trout Unlimited's Idaho public lands conservation director and lifelong hunter Scott Stouder nails it when he asks: "What's wrong with mule deer populations in the West today? It certainly isn't coyotes. Maybe we should use our limited resources in areas that will make real differences -- like wide-scale habitat preservation and restoration of the West's public lands. Mule deer are not generalists in forage and habitat selection, as are elk. Nor can they thrive in our backyards like whitetails. Muleys are the terrestrial equivalent of salmon; quintessential ecosystem health indicators. If mule deer herds are in poor health, the land is in poor health."

Adds retired Colorado biologist Tom Beck: "Even if the last predator in the universe were killed, without the support of hunters for increased habitat protection and enhancement, quality mule deer hunting for future generations is only a field of dreams."

Scapegoating ¾ whether aimed at our fellow humans, or at our fellow natural predators, is a standard tactic among small mean minds and a counterproductive approach to solving complex problems. Eliminating predators, even if it were possible, simply doesn't work to increase and sustain game populations. Yet the predator posse continues pushing the Colorado Wildlife Commission to squander funds the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife (CDPW) doesn't have on a predator pogrom that has been shown repeatedly not to work. So far, an easy majority of state wildlife commissioners, along with CDPW Director Rick Cables, are standing firm against this warmed-over onslaught of meanness and stupidity... as they must continue to do if, as Teddy Roosevelt put it a century ago, the sane majority of Americans are to prevail over the lunatic fringe.

[1] Pojar, T.M., and D.C. Bowden, 2004. "Neonatal mule deer fawn survival in west-central Colorado." Journal of Wildlife Management 68:550-560.
[2] Hurley, M.A., and P.E. Zager, 2004. "Influence of predators on mule deer populations." Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game. Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration, Project W-160-R-33. Completion Report, Boise, USA.