Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Montana's Mule Deer

Officially at least, the status of Montana's mule deer population is listed as "stable," at roughly 220,000. The numbers are increasing in the central part of our state, stable to slightly decreasing in the west, but 20-32% below the long-term average in the east.

In 2013, Montana hunters harvested 6,803 mule deer does (females), far below the 20-24,000 annual take during 2007-09. They also shot 30,990 mule deer bucks last year (and more than 88,000 white-tailed deer). Still, Montana's muley population is well below the 10-year average of 286,000, and hunters are grumbling.

Mule deer buck (c) John AshleyTwo weeks ago, state wildlife managers gnashed their teeth, wrung their hands, and reduced mule deer quotas by eliminating antlerless (female) and "B" (additional male) tags in most of Montana's hunting districts for the next two years. The hipshot blame-game richocets around in letters-to-the-editor and in some hunting blogs, each writer blaming the drop in hunting tags on his own pet peeve - too many predators / hunters / houses, or deep winter snows and dry summer droughts.

They're all correct. Partially, anyway. But many of them the lack hindsight into what started these mule deer population swings in the first place. It all started, inadvertently, after we tried to remove fire from the landscape.

Montana's stable mule deer populations of the early-1800's were hunted to local extirpation in less than 50 years by a flood of well-armed Euro-american settlers. But this cultural sea-change also put into motion a series of events that soon drove mule deer populations to unprecedented high levels by the mid-1960's, only to have them crash again. What's going on here?

Mule deer are primarily browsers, and the availability of shrubby plants determines where they can survive, especially in winter. Big sagebrush is the single most important mule deer browse in the Missouri River Breaks, while bitterbrush and Rocky Mountain juniper are also critical in the Bridger Mountains. These taller shrubs are important, as snow depth and duration also play major roles in limiting mule deer populations. (Montana's herds took a "huge hit" during the harsh winter of 2010-11.) These large deer also need rough, broken terrain where their pogo running style, called "stoting," gives them an advantage over most predators (muleys can leap over obstacles that predators have to run around).

When the first settlers arrived to the Intermountain West (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada) in the late 1700's and early 1800's, mule deer were scarce in some part of Montana and plentiful in others. Their natural range was limited to edge areas where forest and grasslands met, including some lightly-burned forested areas.

Central Montana mule deer herd (c) John AshleyDuring the mid-1800's, hungry miners, ranchers and homesteaders took a heavy toll on populations of mule deer, elk and bighorn sheep. By 1900, the sight of a single one of these animals was considered "most unusual." But the mule deer populations eventually rebounded between the early 1930's and mid-1960's, for many reasons.

A new concept, conservation areas, helped protect mule deer from unregulated hunting, while predator control that began in 1914 also reduced deer mortality to a degree (though predators tend to remove the weakest individuals while hunters try to remove the healthiest ones). After the 1918 transplant of 6 mule deer from Yellowstone Nat. Park to augment the 13 surviving deer at the Nat. Bison Range, 1,829 more mule deer would be moved to various locations around Montana over the next 30 years. Overgrazing by domestic animals (cattle and sheep) in the 1920's greatly reduced grasses and forbs, leading to rangeland plant succession from grass dominance to shrub dominance. Then the livestock numbers fell dramatically across the plains during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930's, reducing livestock competition with native deer.

But overarching all of this, it is generally agreed that a change in fire frequency was the primary reason for the temporary mule deer population explosion during the mid-1900's. As a new culture swept over the existing one, fire was effectively removed from the landscape when Native Americans were forced onto reservations.

Frequent fires at low and mid-elevations kept Montana's plains and mountain valleys thick with grass while preventing encroachment by shrubs and trees. Sagebrush stands are largely dictated by the number of years since the last fire, with a fire interval of 20 years or less short enough to relegate this important mule deer food to isolated patches.

Mule deer near Chief Mountain (c) John Ashley
Mule deer herd near Chief Mountain
In central and eastern Montana, extensive grassland fires swept the plains every year until at least 1877. In western Montana, large forest fires only burned during exceptionally dry years (like 1889, when roughly 530 square miles were charred). One study found that 60 out of 145 low-elevation fires, from written accounts during the 1800's, were started by natives for forage enhancement, food gathering, warfare and communication. Grassland fires were also ignited by lightning and fur trappers, while prospectors started numerous fires in the mountains. In western forests, the ponderosa pine / Douglas fir stands in the Bitterroot Valley burned, on average, every 4-20 years. Higher and cooler forests in southeastern Montana burned, on average, every 20-40 years.

Post-1900, the exclusion of fire for 80-100 years led to tremendous expansions of big sagebrush into former grasslands, and bitterbrush expansions into some forests. New, large-scale logging also converted forests to shrubfields, which increased browse for mule deer. Side-by-side comparisons of range photographs that span 100 years or more show marked increases in trees and shrubs.

In the early stages of this plant succession, mule deer populations benefited as shrubs replaced grasses. Later stages of this succession, however, show that conifers are replacing important browse shrubs, and the decline in edge habitat and edible plants has caused mule deer populations to fall.

Nowadays forest fires no longer benefit mule deer as much as they used to, because modern fires are burning far hotter than ever before. After not allowing small fires for the past 100 years, our forests have reached the point where we can't put out every new start by noon the next day - as we used to boast. Fed by the heavy fuel loading, modern forest fires now scorch more underground roots and shoots, and sterilize the soil, which in turn reduces or even prevents the normally vigorous return of grass and shrub stages.

Modern-day wildlife managers are attempting to use hunters to hit an artificial target - an artificially high but stable mule deer population - that's being pushed in all directions by many different forces. Good luck with that. Meanwhile, thinning projects and prescribed fires can help mule deer and other native wildlife by slowly working the land back towards a more natural vegetative state - in Montana and all across the west.

Believe it or not, such work is happening on a small scale. One such conservation / hunting group, the Mule Deer Foundation, is currently working on thinning and burning projects near Miles City and Ashland, to go along with educational and noxious weed projects in various central and eastern Montana locations.

It's one thing to grumble about a problem. It's something else to roll up your sleeves and work at making it better.

Montana Mule Deer Foundation news
Mule Deer Working Group 2013 Status Report

For an eye-opening view from the mule deer's side of the equation, watch the new PBS video, "Touching the Wild." You'll never look at deer hunting the same way again.