Mule deer group putting $1.3M to research project
Mule deer numbers across the West have been declining for decades. As researchers struggle to understand exactly why, conservation groups are stepping up to help solve the mystery.
The Muley Fanatic Foundation, a grassroots sportsmen’s and -women’s group based in southwest Wyoming, has pledged $1.3 million to help launch a five-year project to study the declining mule deer herd south of Rock Springs.
The Deer-Elk Ecology Research (D.E.E.R.) project will focus on determining the exact factors that are impacting mule deer numbers and which of those factors are having the most damaging effects. The project will be done in partnership with the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
“The bottom line is, we’re only as good as the information we have,” said Joshua Coursey, the Muley Fanatic Foundation’s president. “There’s no silver bullet, and we know that. It’s an array of things causing the decline, the changing habitat and competition with elk and feral horses and depredation and unfriendly fences, the list goes on and on.”
Researchers will examine the relationships between interspecies competition, predation, drought, habitat quality and other issues that are believed to affect the deer. They will also take a look at deer behavioral patterns, including diet, migration and seasonal habitat selection, in order to extrapolate upon the aforementioned relationships.
Information will be collected from radio collars and satellite monitoring. They study will also use a full-time researcher from the cooperative unit and implants in female deer to track birth rates. Data will be available to researchers as it is gathered.
Unlike conventional research projects, which often wait until the study has been concluded to release results, the D.E.E.R. project will give biologists access to real-time data. The intention is to help biologists understand the problem deer face so game management practices can be adjusted accordingly, which could ultimately lead to faster solutions.
“UW Coop Unit research often translates into specific on-the-ground wildlife management actions. That is certainly the case for this research project – it supports our current big game management priorities and will provide important findings that can be used as soon as they are available,” said WGFD Deputy Director John Kennedy.
Researchers will target the Greater Little Mountain Area of southwest Wyoming. Long touted by sportsmen as an important trophy deer region, the landscape near Rock Springs and Green River has all of the suspected factors impacting the population - severe drought, habitat alteration, predation and growing elk populations.
“This is completely different than other projects. It is in a very prized area,” Coursey said. “It makes the perfect lab not only because it is a tremendous area for deer and elk and has very little disturbance, but also because it borders two other states. We have to figure out where our deer are going.”
Experts are confident that the information garnered from this study will help make a profound impact on wildlife management decisions and hopefully the ability to help bolster mule deer populations across the West.
“What we learn about the challenges facing mule deer on Little Mountain will aid in understanding reasons behind our struggling mule deer populations in Wyoming and beyond, and what we can do to help them,” said UW Coop Unit Assistant Research Professor and D.E.E.R. project Principle Investigator Dr. Kevin Monteith.
After all, conservation efforts are limited by the information that they are based on. To ensure the future of the mule deer, more data is needed.
“It’s critically important that we in the hunting community support this cause,” said Coursey. “We’re asking for help from deer enthusiasts everywhere to stop the long slide.”
The Muley Fanatic Foundation plans to meet the project’s $1.3 million price tag with raffles, memberships and other grassroots fundraising mechanisms.