Mule deer populations are dropping. It’s so bad, in fact, some question whether the animal will even be a part of the Wyoming landscape further on down the road.
In a carpeted room in the back of the River Rock Café in Walden, Colo., Steve Torbit posts a graph of the downward slide of mule deer populations in southern Wyoming and northern Colorado.
“What’s the future look like?” he asks the crowd, which sits quietly, arms folded, legs crossed. “We’re demanding a lot more of the landscapes in the West. We’re demanding so much you can’t really look at those (impacts) in isolation anymore.”
The graph, a product of the report “Population Status and Trends of Big Game along the Colorado/Wyoming State Line,” by the National Wildlife Federation, shows a 30-year decline in both mule deer and pronghorn in the region. As a side note, elk, which tend to use different habitats, are seeing rises in population.
“The tricky thing about this is we can’t absolutely tie this to one or two specific occurrences,” says Torbit, who retired recently as regional executive director of National Wildlife Federation.
He likens the pressures of drought, development and loss of prime habitat to the over-stretching of a rubber band. If natural variations such as weather are already stretching the band, then added pressures like energy development might be the breaking.
“We’ve gotta relax the rubber band,” he says. “We can’t continue to assume that it can take this kind of development.
“It’s going to snap because we overextend it. Or we let loose a little bit and give critters a little bit of a break.”
Just south of Rock Springs, mule deer herds have declined about 38 percent since 1986. Following that trend, hunter harvest has fallen from a high of 1,200 in 1987 to less than 400 in 2008.
To the south of that, herd deer populations in the northwest corner of Colorado also have plummeted by 66 percent. Hunter harvest also has dipped. In the late 1980s, more than 800 deer were harvested in there. Some 20 years later, only 48 were harvested.
“That deer population information really hit us between the eyes,” Torbit says. “We knew it was tough over there. But we didn’t really realize how severe that decline was.”
Perhaps just as problematic are rates of recruitment, or how many young animals survive to adulthood each year. This tends to be tricky since there are so many factors that can influence it: weather, drought, quality of habitat, predators or disease.
For pronghorn and mule deer, those rates need to be about 70 young per 100 to maintain robust populations.
But five-year averages of pronghorn in southern Wyoming flirt at the mid-50s, dropping as low as 39 per hundred in the herd near Baggs. For mule deer, those numbers are in the 50s, for the most part.
“If we want deer and antelope to be huntable in the future, we’ve got to do something different,” Torbit says. “Hunters need to wake up. If they don’t speak up, they’re going to experience declining opportunity.”
A tipping point?
While pronghorn certainly have challenges, it’s mule deer that seem poised to bring about a revolution in game management.
Currently, Wyoming Game and Fish is investing time and money into not only understanding what is going on with herds but it also to figure out how to reverse the trend.
They are working on initiatives in both the Wyoming Range and Platte Valley, asking residents for problems and solutions. A meeting for the Platte Valley Mule Deer Initiative will be in Cheyenne at 6 p.m. on Aug. 25 at Game and Fish headquarters.
But to understand why mule deer are seeing such declines, it’s important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
As equal opportunity residents of a multitude of environments, deer seem as though they would be hearty and easy to manage.
Unfortunately, it is quite the opposite. Deer are finicky. They require specific nutrition, stemming from the way their digestive system is made up.
Deer have specialized microbes in their guts that break down the food they ingest. Take a deer from Casper and place it in Cheyenne, even in a habitat with identical food sources, and it’s likely that deer won’t survive.
Historically, deer have seen cyclical highs and lows. Early accounts from trappers show deer were not overly numerous.
But that started to change as the 1940s rolled around. Game laws had been enacted and large swaths of lands were being settled for ranching and farming, furthering the call for predator control. Wet weather moved through, creating good habitat.
In short, mule deer flourished. In fact, according to some experts there were too many deer.
Then, as droughts came and went, land got more settled, migration corridors became impinged on, fire suppression became the norm and energy development began cropping up, those numbers began a cycle, plummeting then recovering, plummeting, then recovering again.
The problem was they never recovered fully, meaning the highs of later years were stair-stepping down in a gradual decline.
Today the numbers are far below those of the 1950s. Habitats have seen great change, and not for the better, says Daryl Lutz, wildlife management coordinator for Game and Fish.
“Those same shrub communities that flourished (in the ’50s) are the same ones we have today, by and large,” Lutz says. “Literally, the same plants.”
But the question of how to fix it – if it can be fixed – remains unanswered. Without a solution, many biologists question whether mule deer will continue to be a part of the landscape in the long term.
“What I tell people is we need to start focusing on what we’ve got,” he says. “If we can sustain the number we’ve got today, we’re going to be doing good.”
A habitat in crisis
Dressed in a navy blue Hawaiian shirt, Bill Rudd with the wildlife division at Game and Fish looks over numbers detailing conditions of habitat in the Platte Valley.
The charts, which show glimpses of how much wildlife uses certain plants across large areas, is filled with red numbers, signaling areas of concern.
The link between quality of habitat and quality of wildlife herds has long been established: Good habitat generally equates to healthy herds. The opposite is also true.
“We’ve been in a long-term downward trend for deer,” Rudd says. “Whatever changes occur, or whatever combination of changes has been occurring, they are not positive for mule deer.”
Today, suitable habitat for wildlife seems to be disappearing at an alarming rate, and not just because of the rise in drilling.
According to the State Engineers Office, nearly 100,000 acres of land were subdivided into lots of 35 acres or less between 1998 and 2006. At that rate, 80 percent of new development in Wyoming will be on lots of 10 to 40 acres by 2020, and 2.6 million acres of ranchland will be turned to residential development.
Populations are increasing and the West is housing much of that rise. Fourteen of the fastest-growing counties were in the Rocky Mountains in 2006, and four of the eight states in that region saw double-digit population increases between 2000 and 2005.
Energy development also plays a role in habitat disturbance. In Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana and Utah, about 27 million of acres of wildlife habitat have been leased for energy development, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
Between 2001 and 2007, more than 15,000 wells were drilled in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. Compare that to just over 4,000 between 1996 and 2000.
And while permitting has slowed, the future of development in southern Wyoming and northern Colorado looks busy. More than 15,000 wells are set for the coming decades.
And it’s not just oil and gas. Renewable energy will be taking up a footprint in southern Wyoming as well.
Near Saratoga, two wind farm projects – the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project – are set to go in adjacent to mule deer and pronghorn habitat. Combined, they are expected to have 1,000 wind turbines spread out over almost 100,000 acres plus the addition of about 500 miles of roads.
Managing herds around such projects is going to be tricky. While BLM can put stipulations on construction, once the turbines are up it’s hard to limit activity. At the moment, studies on how wildlife reacts to wind farms are slim.
With that in mind, Torbit says agencies like BLM need to take cumulative impacts into account when issuing reports on potential impacts from energy development.
But doing that can be difficult, says Dennis Saville, wildlife biologist for BLM’s Wyoming State Office.
“We certainly try to always consider cumulative impacts when looking at any given activity,” he says. “It’s a really tough hill when you’re talking about this big of an area and when you’re talking about things like climate.”
Regardless, there are still many who think development has little effect on habitat. Industry maintains its requirement of reclamation keeps herds from being negatively impacted.
“In Wyoming, the first oil well was drilled in 1884,” Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming told the Associated Press in July. “We’ve been here 127 years, and we’ve got lots and lots of wildlife. They continue to thrive.”
But Torbit disagrees.
“We can’t keep fooling ourselves that all this development is having no effect on our wildlife and expect to have the same kind of wildlife we’ve had over the last 25 years,” he says.
“I don’t tell the oil and gas industry what kind of oil or gas the geological formations hold. I don’t tell them where the best location is for a well. They don’t tell me what’s best for wildlife.
“But for some reason, they seem to think they know it all.”
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