Friday, 29 October 2010

Reflections on an unsuccessful mule deer season.

Just after sunrise - Gerry is an orange spot on the hill in the upper left.
 Deer season came and went this year without putting any venison in the freezer.  I've killed 9 deer in the past 11 years, all bucks, some small ones, a few nice ones and a real trophy.  Last year was the first year I didn't kill a mule deer since I've been eligible for a resident Wyoming hunting license.  I wasn't counting last year as a failure because I was hunting elk during during the general deer season and so was not concentrated on deer.  This year I tried and still I  didn't get one.

Gerry sighting in his self-made 257 Roberts built on a Mauser action.

Gerry came out to hunt again this year having drawn a general mule deer license this year.  Unlike last year when we got eight inches of snow the night before the season opened, this year we had extraordinarily warm weather throughout the entire season.  Temperatures were up near 70°F some days.  October is one of the best months in Wyoming but it has not been this warm this late since we've lived here.  The only snow we say was a few flurries one day when we hunted the Platte River valley.

Gerry's 257 Roberts (left) and my 270 Winchester (right).

 We were not the only ones having trouble finding deer this year.  News out of the West Laramie Flyshop was that very very few deer were coming through.   There was some bitter complaining at the gas station/convenience store in Encampment WY too and some blame laid on Game and Fish.  They said they'd only seen a couple of very small bucks come through.  Because of the lower deer populations in the area G&F dropped the doe season this year (maybe they should have done this a few years ago).  For many years now, during the first week of the two week season here int he SE part of the state, licensed hunters are entitled to shoot any deer, doe or buck. During the second week only bucks can be taken.  A doe season is a population control measure, canceling it shows there is some concern about the population in this area.  I took the complaints against G&F heard in Encampment to mean that G&F is lagging and should have not had an open doe seasons for a few years now.
Gerry Cox
There are a lot of pressures on mule deer. For one, I have no doubt that the extraordinarily warm weather which held throughout October was throwing off the normal seasonal patterns for the mule deer.   Locally, the rut takes place in late October or early November.   The bucks typically come out of hiding (wherever it is that that disappear to) and start to herd up with the does by the third week in October.   This year it was not until mid-November that I started to see bucks running with the local herd.  I suspect that this late grouping has something to do with the weather.

It's tough to say how it is affecting the mule deer but the pine bark beetle infestation must be having an effect. The infestation  has impacted 3.6 million acres in Colorado and SE Wyoming.  One theory I hear from a local rancher (Al) is that with so many trees dead now and with the grasses and forbs growing up under the old canopy that the deer have less reason to leave the more protected space.  Al spends a lot of time out in the woods and  even more thinking about the deer and elk populations so I am inclined to think this might make a lot of sense.
Predator populations are up. We heard more coyotes this year than I think I ever have.  On one dawn hunt we heard three different packs in a relatively small area. Mountain lion populations would seem to be up. At the  Mountain Lion Foundation they complained about the liberalized hunting seasons for mountain lions in the state.  This was a move by G&F to try to keep the predator population down.  With fur prices so low, ($10 for a coyote pelt in good condition) there's not as much incentive for coyote hunters to make the effort.  With predator numbers so high I am more open to hunting them.  For many (including me) this is a topic fraught with ethical dilemma and I may discuss it in a future posting.

ATV use has had a significant impact on deer behavior, this I know.  Studies show the effect of ATV noise  on mule deer is negligible though it is significant for elk.  The problem with studies is that you can find a summary of studies compiled by the NOHVCC (an offroad vehicle lobbying group) that argue that off-road vehicle use is even beneficial to wildlife (snowmobiles provide trails for animals to use in winter) and is far less disruptive to wildlife than hikers are.  The thing is, ATV use has exploded and while the number of hikers has grown, it is not so much.  One number I've seen (lost the citation) is that between 1992 and 2002 the ATV use went up by  a factor of 7. On  public lands outside of wilderness areas (and even there too)  there is virtually nowhere you can go on foot that you will not end up crossing ATV paths.  During hunting season, I have frequently hunted up a steep ridge only to find overweight and out-of-shape hunter on an ATV's atop the hill.  The ATV has afforded easy access to places  the previously required significant effort to get to.  No matter what the studies say, it is common sense that a landscape crawling with ATV's has an effect on mule deer behavior in their preferred habitat.

In some states (Utah?) I've heard that ATV use is severely restricted for hunting.  There is a midday period when ATV use is permitted to allow hunters to use them to retrieve an animal.  Otherwise they are not allowed. I wish Wyoming would adopt a policy like this though I am sure they never will.

Dwindling habitat.

For populations overall, dwindling habitat may be the biggest issue and here I am personally culpable in a rather serious way.  We just built a house smack dab in the middle of textbook mule deer habitat (we're surrounded by them.)  There really is no way to justify that choice.  I rationalize it to myself by noting that the land had been subdivided and if I hadn't built a house here, someone else eventually would have.

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