Published January 25, 2013, 07:06 AM

Ideas for the mule deer dilemma

A mule deer symposium sponsored by the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association (MOGA), the Boone & Crockett Club, the Mule Deer Foundation and the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Foundation was held in Bozeman earlier this month without many earth-shaking revelations.

By: Bernie Kuntz, The Jamestown Sun

A mule deer symposium sponsored by the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association (MOGA), the Boone & Crockett Club, the Mule Deer Foundation and the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Foundation was held in Bozeman earlier this month without many earth-shaking revelations.

The Mule Deer Foundation stressed the need to preserve and increase mule deer habitat. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks pointed out that habitat and weather affected mule deer populations more than anything, and that predators also were a factor; hunting not-so-much a factor.

A wildlife management consultant from Utah presented a commercial analysis of antler scores versus net profit, focused on calculating the “per-animal” value of mule deer, and concentrated on maximizing net profit from wildlife from a rancher’s point of view.

Hunters who attended, expecting to hear from mule deer authorities on the subjects of mule deer population dynamics, winter range and other habitat conditions, disease, predation … probably were sorely disappointed. Much of the symposium centered on managing deer for profit.

It was obvious that the Ranching for Wildlife idea that has taken hold in Colorado, Utah and other areas is now being “sold” in Montana. It is a strategy for privatizing and commercializing public wildlife for profit. One attendee later did an online search and determined that in Utah, landowners ended up with 60 to 90 percent of mule deer tags, selling them at substantial prices to the hunting public. Yes, I know — it stands traditional state licensing of hunters on its ear!

Anyone who has hunted mule deer for any length of time (50-plus years for this writer) knows that mule deer numbers have declined during the last several decades. We can point to oil and gas fields with their associated roads, ponds, well-sites and other activity as one culprit. Subdivisions built on mule deer winter range is a serious factor in much of the West.

But what about areas like southeast Montana, where there are no such subdivisions, gas fields or any notable habitat degradation? Some blame coyote depredation and drought. Certainly, one factor in Montana has been the selling of over-the-counter mule deer doe permits. I remember in the late 1980s when I’d see camps of hunters from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan with 15 or more legally-taken mule deer does in the Missouri River Breaks. Those mule deer populations never have recovered.

Montana also has a five-week deer hunting season, the last two weeks or more of it during the rut, when mule deer bucks are most vulnerable. However, that is not likely to change because hunter surveys show that almost 80 percent of Montana hunters like the five-week season and don’t want it shortened. Sentiment like that is why it is very difficult to find older age-class bucks in Montana, unless you are hunting a private ranch where public access is severely curtailed.

Some states, like Utah and Nevada, are totally on a special permit system for mule deer hunting. Frankly, I like permit systems because when you draw, you can be assured you will not be overrun by competing hunters, and you probably will see some mature bucks. Of course, if you are a resident of Nevada, it may take 10 years for you to draw a permit, and most hunters don’t like that. In addition, I’ve talked to several Nevada outfitters who say mule deer hunting is nothing like it once was. Some blame drought; most simply don’t have a good answer.

Browse species, which are crucial to mule deer, have declined due to fire suppression that results in heavy timber growth, or wild fires that replaces browse with grasses — neither situation good for mule deer.

As my friend Randy — a guy who has hunted all over the western U.S. says — “there is no consensus from the hunters’ side as to what is the problem. Ask 100 hunters and you get 25 different answers as to what they see as a problem, and you get 100 different answers as to what they see as the solution.”

He suggests raising resident fees in Montana and “start acquiring and using the best biological data to accomplish what the majority of hunters, guided or unguided, want as the final outcome.

“We would eliminate a lot of doe tags, possibly restricting mule deer hunting in some areas until population objectives were met … not for the sake of growing big deer (bucks), but for the sake of having a healthy, abundant herd of diverse age classes (of mule deer.)”

Makes sense to me, but then again, as with everything, common sense does not always reign.

Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been an Outdoors columnist for the Sun since 1974

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