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Nevada’s disappearing deer

From the Tim Burmeister's 5 Favorite Stories for 2021 series
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Deer hunt

The decline of mule deer populations in northeastern Nevada is reflected in this Department of Wildlife graph of hunter success over a 63-year period. The average harvest fell from 3,000 to 500 in some hunt areas.

Going out on a deer hunt is a highlight of the year for many people in Nevada. But the experience is not what it used to be.

“When I first moved here in the late ‘70s, if you didn’t see 150 or 200 head of deer in a day, you had a bad day,” said Jim Cooney, chairman of the Elko County Wildlife Advisory Board. “And now, if you see 12 to 15 in two or three days … that’s where we’re at.”

Deer populations are always fluctuating.

“However, over the long-term, in general mule deer populations not only in northeastern Nevada, but throughout the state, as well as much of the West, have been declining,” Tom Donham, eastern region game division supervisor for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, wrote in an email. “These reductions can be attributed to many things, but the main issues in northeastern Nevada are loss of crucial winter and transition ranges from wildfire, pinyon-juniper encroachment, drought, shrub senescence, impacts from feral horses, and improper grazing.”

In Nevada, deer populations reached their peak around 1988, when there may have been more than 250,000 statewide. Now the statewide deer population may be around 90,000.

“Right before that explosion of deer numbers in the late ‘80s, there were two back-to-back really good precipitation years, where the habitat was just in phenomenal condition,” said NDOW Game Biologist Kari Huebner. “So the deer were in fantastic shape … That was before we really started having these large catastrophic fires, 100,000-acre fires. The fires didn’t used to get that big.”

Elko County is divided into five NDOW game management units. Area 6 includes the western part of the county; Area 7, along with the small Areas 8 and 9, are the northeastern section of the county; and Area 10 includes the southeastern part of the county. Area 6 reached peaks of around 18,000 deer in 1983, ’87 and ‘88, and is now estimated to have less than 8,000 deer. Area 7 had nearly 30,000 deer in 1988, and now has an estimated 11,000. Area 10 may have had more than 40,000 deer in 1988 and now has about 13,000.

The lower populations, of course, mean that deer harvests have been down in recent years. For example, Area 10, which used to have buck harvests ranging from around 1,000 to 3,000 each year, had record low buck harvests in three of the past four years, with harvests of 626 in both 2019 and 2020.

Last year saw a drop in mule deer hunter success. The NDOW Big Game Status report for 2020-21 said, “The overall success rate for resident Any Legal Weapon seasons was 36% statewide, which is well below the previous 3-year average success rate of 46%.”

Hunting season weather can be an additional factor in low success rates.

“When hunting mule deer in October, and it’s really hot, the deer just stay in the cover … so it makes it really challenging hunting conditions,” Huebner said.

Enhancement Program

For many years NDOW has been working on ways to deal with the threats to the deer populations.

“Many people believe that NDOW has been ignoring mule deer and their declining populations, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” Donham said.

This year NDOW started the Mule Deer Enhancement Program, which is bringing together groups of people in every area of the state to discuss the threats to deer populations and develop ways to deal with the problems. The MDEP subcommittees in the game management areas throughout the state include NDOW game and habitat biologists, county Wildlife Advisory Board members, local sportsmen and sportswomen, representatives of sportsman’s organizations, members of industry including livestock, farming and mining, and federal land management agency personnel.

At the Area 10 MDEP subcommittee’s initial meeting on June 9, rancher and outfitter Henry Krenka said, “I’ve seen it go from bad to worse and come back again. And this time it doesn’t seem to want to come back. So I think we need to get together to do what we can do.”

“I’m really excited,” NDOW Game Biologist Scott Roberts said in his opening remarks. “I think we have a really good team here with a lot of collective wisdom and a lot of experience in area 10, and I’m excited to see where it goes.”

Each subcommittee member will rank what they feel are the biggest deer population challenges in their area, and will discuss ways to address those challenges.

Donham said NDOW intends to continue to work with MDEP subcommittees in the years ahead.

“This isn’t a one-off, this is going to be an ongoing process.”

At the Area 10 MDEP meeting in June, Bert Gurr, representing the Elko County Wildlife Advisory Board, said he thinks wild horses are a major issue, and he talked about some of his thoughts on how to address the issue and the need to interact with elected officials.

“Even when the challenges are obvious, like with feral horses, getting some fresh perspectives or ideas on ways to address that challenge is where things might really benefit us,” Donham said. “Just thinking outside the box … It was actually pretty encouraging listening to the conversation that we’ve already had tonight, how to maybe tackle that issue.”

The challenges to deer populations are complex. Some might look at the low deer population numbers and make suggestions that may not work. For example, sometimes people suggest we stop hunting does for a while and hunt more bucks, so there will be more does and fawns and more food for them so the populations will go up. But if the population goes up and there is not the winter habitat to sustain them, there’s a problem.

“Unfortunately, all the deer just eat all the food till it’s gone, and then they’re all compromised,” Huebner said. “And you have these big die offs, which we’ve had in some really severe winters, where we’ve just lost many, many deer. So that’s what we’re trying to do by proactively managing, is just trying to keep the number of deer on the landscape equal to the amount of habitat that that landscape can support.”

Donham said NDOW is trying to do everything possible to improve habitat and increase the number of deer.

“The list is long, but includes post-fire rehabilitation, pinyon-juniper removal, invasive weed abatement, re-establishing beneficial shrub/grass/forbs to compromised habitats, water development, spring protection, highway crossings, migration corridor protection, disease surveillance, assessing and trying to mitigate impacts from mining/energy development, predator management, and collaring and monitoring mule deer to identity limiting factors/mortality/habitat selection, etc.”

Success stories

There have been some success stories through the years. One of the big benefits to deer has been the project which the Nevada Department of Transportation worked on with multiple partners to construct five wildlife overpasses and four wildlife underpasses along US Highway 93 and Interstate 80 in Elko County. These have prevented hundreds of deer-vehicle collisions every year.

At the initial meeting of the Area 6 Mule Deer Enhancement Program subcommittee on March 3, NDOW Game Biologist Travis Allen said that even though the deer populations are down from where they used to be, all the work done over the past 30 years to deal with the habitat challenges have kept the numbers from crashing.

“It truly is remarkable we have as many deer in Area 6 as we do,” Allen said. “The success is attributed to the hard work of and relationship between federal partners — BLM, US Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service — private landowners, non-governmental organizations and NDOW.

“This is a success story that we have this many deer, and that we have the tools to continue to do good things to sustain this deer herd. And hopefully with this team we can continue to address these limiting factors and do these needs assessments and continue to bolster our strategy of how to benefit the Area 6 deer.”

Agendas for and recordings of the meetings of the MDEP oversight committee and the subcommittees can be found on the website by clicking on public meetings, committees, and mule deer enhancement oversight committee. By watching the videos of the meetings, people can learn a lot about the deer in Nevada, the habitat challenges and what is being done to help increase populations.

“If people have an interest in mule deer enhancement, we’d love to hear from them,” Donham wrote. “Attend and participate in public meetings, educate yourself regarding mule deer and the challenges they face (That means the facts! Not social media and bar room science).”

“Hopefully we will see some improvements in mule deer populations moving forward,” Donham said. “But a lot of that depends on things that may be out of our control. While we’d all love to see increases in mule deer, if the best we can hope for over the long-term is to maintain status quo, or even just slow the decline, this is still a very important effort.”

“Many people believe that NDOW has been ignoring mule deer and their declining populations, which couldn’t be further from the truth."

-- Tom Donham

game supervisor


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