Mule deer and bighorn sheep populations plummet in Nevada

Photo credit: Dreamtime

Mule deer and bighorn sheep numbers are on a steep decline in Nevada after two years of successive drought, severe and snowy winters and, for bighorn sheep, widespread disease. Biologists are hopeful, but the current trend seems to be a downward spiral due to continued “erratic weather conditions,” according to the Nevada Independent.

“It’s hard to be optimistic as a wildlife biologist in 2023,” said Cody Schroeder, a staff biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW).

Historically, deep snowpack made it nearly impossible for mule deer to forage in areas like the Snake River Basin, the Carson River Basin and Southern Nevada’s Spring Mountains. However, these regions reported from two to five times the usual median snowpack as late as April 15, leaving both high elevation summer ranges still buried as well as low elevation ranges, which greatly impacted animals. 

According to Schroeder, there are currently about 68,000 mule deer in the state, which is the lowest number of mule deer in nearly five decades. To put that in perspective: in the 1990s, there were about 200,000 mule deer in Nevada. While fall surveys found 31 bucks and 54 fawns to every 100 does, biologists watched winter hit soon after, resulting in a fawn loss between 40% and 50%, according to the Nevada Independent. And, unfortunately, adult mule deer aren’t faring better, particularly among the herds around the Ruby Mountains. The three major herds in Elko County saw a 50% decline in population with about 5,000 deer succumbing over the winter months.

Bighorn sheep numbers are also plummeting. Only a few years ago, there were about 10,000 across the state. Today, biologists believe the population to be closer to 7,100. Their decline is due to a variety of factors like drought, loss of habitat and water sources as well as disease, which has caused massive die-offs within herds, according to the Nevada Independent

In fact, the last two summers across Southern Nevada found bighorn sheep “trapped, trying to find water,” said Mike Cox, staff biologist with NDOW. “We physically had animals dying of thirst.”

What does this mean for hunters? Fewer tags.

For the upcoming season, there will only be 234 bighorn ram tags issued (down from an average of 300), making it the largest single year drop ever. Mule deer tags will also be reduced with under 11,000 tags available, resulting in a 40% drop compared to 2022 tag numbers. 

And this could become an annual trend unless populations stabilize and increase.

“There will be small recoveries,” said Cox. “But other than [antelope] and elk that can hold their own, mule deer and bighorn are going to continue to suffer.”


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