The sense I’ve been getting from some wildlife biologists is that the health of the summer range is The Game for Northwest elk and deer.
The more productive the landscape is for our ungulates in the high season, the fatter they are going into winter (what might one day be referred to as walking hibernation), the better they are at sustaining pregnancies, the healthier those calves and fawns are coming out of the womb, etc.
Then along comes a study that, while it doesn’t contradict that, it certainly reminds yours truly that the winter range should not be taken for granted either.
Earlier today I was forwarded some new research on Central Oregon mule deer, a herd that is in decline due to long-term habitat issues — a 55 percent drop since 1960 in the upper Deschutes basin alone.
(The herd is also having trouble with poachers who appear to be targeting does, which doesn’t help one bit.)
Seasonal neighbors: residential development encroaches on mule deer winter range in central Oregon, a produced by the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station in Portland, looked at land uses around booming Bend over the past 50 years and projected out another 30 and found that development there appears to be “increasingly infringing on mule deer habitat and blocking passage between the deer’s summer and winter ranges.”
Gates, if you will, are going up in what researcher Jeff Kline calls “key choke points” between large areas of winter pasture.
Then there’s traffic between Bend and the resort community of Sunriver, and not just on US 97, but on even-more-deadly-for-deer side roads.
Fire breaks cleared around houses reduce winter forage and cover for deer, and we and our dogs and others further disturb the animals at a time of year when their reserves are taxed often to the max.
That’s what Glen Ardt, an ODFW wildlife biologist who teamed up with Kline, terms the greater “footprint” that residential development has on mule deer country.
Add in poorer quality summer forage due to invasions of junipers and cheatgrass and less and less logging in the mountains and you have less fit deer having a tougher and tougher go during the cold months.
Writes Marie Oliver in the Forest Service’s March issue of Science Findings:
Ardt believes that a main contributor to the decrease in the mule deer population in central Oregon is stress. Insecurity in their environment causes deer to react much as humans do when faced with the unexpected. “When disturbance occurs, wildlife either freeze, flee, or fight. And just because they don’t flee, it doesn’t mean they aren’t being disturbed,” he says. “Studies have shown that when an animal is disturbed, its cortisol level goes up—that’s a stress hormone.”
Even if forage is available, the deer may not browse if they are disturbed, and undernourished or stressed-out deer can die prematurely. Stress also can cause a doe in poor condition to abort or reabsorb a fetus, says Ardt, which further reduces the herd. “If they are disturbed, they are using energy they wouldn’t otherwise, which can be critical in mid to late winter when their body condition is at its poorest or during the post-fawning and rearing periods when energy demands are higher,” he says.
That’s not exactly the tone you’ll see in a Las Vegas Review-Journal opinion piece posted yesterday and which looks at mule deer declines well to the south of Bend, in Nevada.
In fact, it suggests that habitat is just lazy biologists’ catch-all explanation.
It points the blame at predators, chiefly mountain lions, and a purportedly lax-to-pursue-them game-agency director who came over from big-kitty-cat-friendly California.
“For over two decades, NDOW has used 15 different excuses for Nevada’s mule deer decline,” argues activist Cecil Fredi of the group Hunter’s Alert. “For the past few years, NDOW has used the habitat excuse. This is an excuse they can use for several more decades until their retirements kick in. It’s hard to blame habitat when elk and deer occupy the same areas. Elk numbers have increased dramatically over the past two decades while deer numbers have dramatically declined,” Fredi says. “The reason for this decline is that the main source of food for the mountain lion is the mule deer.
“Most biologists (but not NDOW’s) believe that a lion will eat a deer a week,” Fredi writes in a recent report with the attention-getting headline, “Nevada’s deer will never recover.” Fredi’s main contention is that the state Department of Wildlife refuses to acknowledge any predator problem.
I called deer hunter and Wildlife Commissioner Scott Raine — the immediate past chairman of the commission — in Eureka, where he runs the town’s only grocery, to ask him if Fredi’s account is accurate.
“That’s exactly correct,” said Raine. “The mule deer population has just been crashing like a bomb in the past decade. They say, ‘We don’t know why it’s happening, but it must be habitat.’ When in doubt, blame the habitat. When you start talking about predation control, they don’t even want to consider that part of the equation.”
Utah is also seeing declines in its mule deer herds — the problem, in fact, is widespread across the West — but it’s getting tough on predators. The governor recently signed two anti-coyote bills, including one that tacks on a $5 surcharge to big-game licenses to fund bounties.
We’ll see how that works out — a study in Southeast Idaho by Idaho Department of Fish & Game wildlife biologist Mark Hurley and published last summer suggests that whacking coyotes won’t have much if any effect on deer numbers, though targeting mountain lions did appear to increase survival slightly.
Back to Central Oregon, Oliver summarizes final thoughts on Kline’s and Ardt’s work:
Kline says his projections give landscape planners and managers data to inform their decisionmaking about what conservation measures may be necessary for certain plots of land, given population trends and past development patterns. “They could use information like this to figure out where development is likely to be,” he says. “We’re not trying to make any judgments about whether development is good or bad. We’re just saying, ‘here’s how buildings are growing on this landscape.’”
Several options are available that could meet a variety of land use goals in the area, says Kline. “Land use planning might do the job, but there might be other things to consider that would augment planning,” he says, such as establishing conservation easements or an outright purchase of land that is set aside for habitat conservation. He also suggests that policymakers might consider providing consistent or increased funding to existing state programs that protect and enhance critical winter habitat.
Sounds a wee bit like what’s long been going on in Washington’s Okanogan County, home of the state’s most important mule deer herd and where the Department of Fish and Wildlife has purchased over 68,000 acres of land along the national forest and valley floors, and hopes to buy more from willing sellers or secure conservation easements from others.
But even there the mule deer herd has been in a long, slow decline since the 1960s and ’70s, though it’s still above where it was after the brutal winter of 1997. Coming out of last fall’s hunt it also sported a whopping 29:100 buck-to-doe ratio, highest it’s ever been as far as I can determine.