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Mule deer population focus of state working group
Mule deer are increasingly common in populated areas around Fremont County as as this scene from West Main in Riverton shows, but overall deer numbers in several hunt areas is down. Photo by Wayne Nicholls

Decreasing mule deer population to be focus of new state working group

May 5, 2014 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Concern has been raised about mule deer hunting in general license areas 92, 94, 96, 97 and 160.

Wyoming Game and Fish is forming a public input group to help guide management of mule deer in several local hunt areas.

Declining populations of the species spurred the initiative, which is the first like it in the state.

"Kind of sounds like we're in a corner -- what do we do?" Lander game warden Brad Hovinga said during a public forum April 23. "That's what we're doing here tonight."

The agency held the meeting in Lander to gather input and solicit volunteers for the working group. About 50 people attended, including hunters, livestock producers, other concerned residents and staff from Game and Fish and other government agencies.

"The bottom line is we're at a juncture in mule-deer management in the state, and certainly this part of Wyoming," Game and Fish wildlife management coordinator Daryl Lutz said. "We feel like we need to engage with you folks."

The working group will give recommendations regarding mule deer hunting in general license areas 92, 94, 96, 97 and 160, covering land southeast of Riverton and Lander to Bairoil and Muddy Gap.

The group will include landowners, hunters, outfitters, business-people, agency staff, non-governmental organization representatives and others from the public.

Members will meet once a month from June 2014 through December 2015 to provide recommendations to Game and Fish regarding mule deer hunting. Also during that timeframe, the agency will host forums to gather input from other members of the public. Game and Fish also will hold its regular post- and pre-season hunting meetings.

Population problems

For the past decade, the populations of mule deer in the hunt areas in question have been below the management objectives of the Game and Fish department. Members of the public also have expressed concern about the animals.

"From 2004 to 2009 or so we've had good population increase, but since 2009 or so we've had prolonged and dramatic decline," Rawlins game warden Brady Frude said, referring to mule deer in areas 92, 94 and 160.

A similar trend occurred in the other areas, he said. Even in years when the mule deer population seemed stronger, Frude said all of the herds were smaller than his agency would like.

Across the whole region, the numbers of fawns born often was high enough to allow the population to increase, but the young mule deer have been less likely to survive their first year recently.

"That shows us our winter mortality is an issue," Frude said.

Precipitation and other environmental factors caused the trend, he said, and Hovinga agreed.

"None of those things we do in hunting season and hunting season strategies can influence how many fawns hit the ground," he said."In the short term it's kind of out of our hands."

Frude pointed out that Game and Fish, working with landowners, has improved mule deer habitat on thousands of acres in Wyoming, but climate and habitat encroachment still have a major impact on the animal's population.

Hunting experience

Hovinga said his agency's influence on mule deer populations has more to do with the hunting experience than the hunt-season structure. He asked people at the April 23 meeting to offer input about their experience hunting mule deer; they split into eight groups to discuss what defines a good mule-deer hunt.

"There were four common themes," Lutz said. "Hunting with family, providing quality habitat for mule deer, the opportunity to see and-or harvest a quality buck, and ethical hunting behavior."

Attendees also were concerned that the growing use of ATVs to hunt mule deer may detract from the experience, he said.

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