What happened to the mule deer?

In 1988, hunters bought 51,011 deer hunting licenses (“tags”) in Nevada, and harvested 26,784 mule deer.

In 2008, the Nevada Department of Wildlife sold 16,997 tags. Hunters bagged only 7,025 deer.

That’s a huge decline. Where are the deer?

And oddly enough, whatever the problem is, it seems to affect ONLY mule deer — the species that generates most of the Department of Wildlife’s revenue, when you consider that Uncle Sam matches deer tag revenue three-to-one.

Bighorn sheep populations are up. Antelope tags and harvest doubled over those same 20 years. Elk tags skyrocketed, from 182 to 2,723, with the elk harvest growing from 91 to 1,315.

It’s hard to believe all those other game species could thrive if the problem were drought, or wildfires, or fences or roads cutting off migration routes (as though a road or a four-foot fence ever stopped a mule deer.)

A state biologist says the apparent decline is due to cherry-picking the 1988 date — a wet year and a high point for the state’s deer herd. Just six years earlier, for example, 23,053 hunters took only 11.954 deer in 1982. Current deer populations and harvest are only “slightly below” the historic average, according to Tony Wasley, the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s official expert on mule deer.

But a prominent hunter’s advocate, along with current and past members of the state Wildlife Commission, disagree. They paint a more ominous picture of a Californian re-appointed to head the agency as a political favor by incoming Gov. Brian Sandoval after that director, Ken Mayer, was fired by former Gov. Jim Gibbons precisely for failing to take concrete steps to bring back the deer herd.

They worry Mr. Mayer may have brought from his 27 years with California Fish & Game — a state where mountain lions are no longer hunted except when they eat a jogger — a reluctance to thin out predators including lions and coyotes.

“For over two decades, NDOW has used 15 different excuses for Nevada’s mule deer decline,” argues activist Cecil Fredi, of the group Hunter’s Alert. “For the past few years, NDOW has used the habitat excuse. This is an excuse they can use for several more decades until their retirements kick in. It’s hard to blame habitat when elk and deer occupy the same areas. Elk numbers have increased dramatically over the past two decades while deer numbers have dramatically declined,” Fredi says. “The reason for this decline is that the main source of food for the mountain lion is the mule deer.

“Most biologists (but not NDOW’s) believe that a lion will eat a deer a week,” Fredi writes in a recent report with the attention-getting headline “Nevada’s deer will never recover.”

“How bad is the lion problem in our state?” Fredi asks. “In Hunt Unit 014, which is one of the smallest units in the state, Wildlife Services (a federal agency operating under contract with the state) removed 40 mountain lions in three years. This means 480 deer and bighorn sheep are still alive because of this lion removal. …

“Wildlife Commissioner Scott Raine worked long and hard on a new mule deer Management Guideline,” Fredi reports. “The committee was composed of people like Cliff Gardner and John Carpenter who had witnessed the Ruby Valley deer migration which numbered in the thousands in the 1950s and 1960s. Today the migrations are all but gone because there are no deer. At the December 2011 meeting led by Chairman Mike McBeath and director Ken Mayer, the complete policy was deleted. So much for deer restoration in our state.”

I called deer hunter and Wildlife Commissioner Scott Raine — the immediate past chairman of the Commission — in Eureka, where he runs the town’s only grocery, to ask him if Fredi’s account is accurate.

“That’s exactly correct,” says Commissioner Raine. “The mule deer population has just been crashing like a bomb in the past decade. They say, ‘We don’t know why it’s happening but it must be habitat.’ When in doubt blame the habitat. …

“When you start talking about predation control, they don’t even want to consider that part of the equation. That bill was set forth by Jerry Claborn in the Nevada Assembly, a bill to put the $3 predation management fee in place. He came to our meeting and said that money is supposed to be for on-the-ground predation management, that’s it, and you guys are spending that money on salaries and other things. … Mayer says ‘That may have been your intent, but the Legislature as a whole passed it, and you can’t speak for them.’

“In the mule deer management plan, the first point is we need to come up with a number of animals that we think is appropriate for each management unit,” Mr. Raine explains. “When they heard that they absolutely went into a fit and flopped around on the floor. ‘We can’t do that, you expect us to come up with an appropriate number for each management unit?’

Mr. Raine responded “If you can’t set an exact number, at least give us a range. They said ‘No, no, we can’t do that.’

“They say predation isn’t necessarily additive mortality, it’s just compensatory mortality,” Mr. Raine say. “In other words, the lions aren’t necessarily killing ADDITIONAL deer, they’re just killing deer that might have died off, anyway. They say if you were a professional, you’d understand this.”

GETTING RANCHERS OFF THE LAND

“Predator control can allow a population to respond more quickly to favorable conditions,” responds NDOW’s deer expert, Mr. Wasley. “But if that population is at or near the carrying capacity, all the predator control in the world won’t have any effect.”

But Mr. Raine’s complaint, of course, was precisely that NDOW biologists won’t set a number for any given area’s carrying capacity.

“The problem is that carrying capacity fluctuates widely,” Mr. Wasley replies. “The drawback is if you choose a number that’s based on an all-time high, if you choose too high a number you’re constantly in a state of failure. But if you set your goal too low the other users of the land will say, ‘Hey, you guys already reached your capacity.’ …”

“The vast majority of the money is not spent doing anything productive to increase the game animal population and the sage grouse is probably the worst example of that,” Commissioner Raine warns. “The sage grouse could devastate Northern Nevada; if it becomes listed it could become our spotted owl.

“The ranchers are the only reason there’s much wildlife out here to begin with,” Scott Raine points out. “Before ranching started in the 1800s … Nevada really was a wasteland. The ranchers created all the hay meadows out of a dry desert. And a lot of that is going away because they’re trying to eliminate grazing on the public lands, I think that’s part of the goal of Ken Mayer is to end grazing on public lands, especially domestic sheep.”

“I’ve never heard our agency take a stance to get domestic sheep off the land,” Mr. Wasley of NDOW responds.

“You see bitterbrush all around here, there’s not enough deer here to keep it pruned back,” Commisioner Raine continued. “We’ve got huge seas of forage that have been unburned.”

Deer eat young bitterbrush, Mr. Wasley responds. They can’t digest older plants.

“Those areas that were burned back then are some of the best habitat that exists, now,” says Commissioner Raines. “The sagebrush are 12 inches tall, it’s turning into great habitat. You need a little bit of fire to do that. We used to have grazing to keep the burns down, (but) they’re shutting the grazing down.

“We’ve got 70,000 domestic sheep in the state of Nevada; we used to have 3 million. When you get down to single decimal points of what we used to have, they’re basically gone.”

“We argue that historically there were not a lot of sage grouse present,” here, Mr. Wasley responds, but “The agency not in favor of reducing sage grouse numbers so the species will be listed as endangered. … We have no agenda to get the public off the public lands.”

“Mike Stremler, a rancher and lion hunter, submitted a proposal for deer enhancement by removing lions in a particular area,” Cecil Fredi notes. “During Stremler’s initial presentation, Director Ken Mayer stated that his biologists told him there were no lions in the Stillwater Mountain area. … Stremler’s total in a little over a one year period was the removal of eleven lions and there are at least three more in that area. All of this in a 12-mile radius!

“In the course of one week, 139 coyotes were removed in Unit 031 on the Hunter’s Alert project with this money. Pat Laughlin’s project was responsible for removing 239 coyotes in less than three days in Elko County. All the coyotes removed were in wintering deer areas and many were shot off freshly killed deer.”

“We had $400,000 in Heritage Funds to spend on projects,” recalls Gerald Lent, the now-retired Reno optometrist who chaired the Wildlife Commission for two years and served as vice chairman last year, but who was not reappointed by Gov, Sandoval.

“Two sportsmen’s groups, Cecil’s was one of them, and then Hunter’s Alliance in Elko, proposed to do predator control on mule deer and sage grouse. The commission passed (approved) them. Director Mayer fought against all these, he called the feds and shut down the sage grouse study.”

Why would Director Mayer do that?

“I don’t know,” says Dr. Lent. “It’s been proven if you kill the ravens you bring back the sage grouse,” since the ravens eat the grouse eggs. “The sportsman’s group said let’s put the money where there’s the most sage grouse and see if we can save them, He wanted to put the money in central Nevada where there’s one sage grouse per 100,000 acres. …

“He said the predator project to save the deer he wouldn’t go along with. I think he’s from California where they outlaw predation projects. …”

‘IF YOU DON’T WANT TO DO IT, YOU STUDY IT’

I tried to reach NDOW Director Ken Mayer for a response, last week. He didn’t return my calls, but delegated Tony Wasley, one of those wildlife biologists and NDOW’s expert on the mule deer, to answer my questions. Mr. Wasley argues the very fact his position was created two-and-a-half years ago demonstrates the department’s commitment to maintaining the species.

“We have several predator control projects ongoing, and have spent millions of dollars in that arena,” Mr. Wasley argues. “When we have removed a considerable number of predators we have not been able to show any positive impact on game populations.”

Former Commission Chairman Dr. Lent has a different recollection.

“Under Sen. Claiborne’s bill $3 per hunter is supposed to go to predator control, it’s $300,000. So we put it into (Hunt Unit) 014 west of the Gerlach Desert,” Dr. Lent remembers. “The project was started in 2005 by (U.S.) Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services. From 2005 when they started, up till now, in the smallest deer management area in the state they’ve taken probably 45 lions out of there, killed them. In 2005 the deer population was 850, this is out of NDOW’s own book. Right now they estimate 1,400 deer there in 2011 — that’s a 65 percent increase in deer population. And you see it in the tags issued. In 2005 there were 45 tags, and now there’s 101 tags (in area 014.)

“Right across the road in area 015, that area is going down down down,” Dr. Lent insists. “There’s no lion control in there. The lions kill a deer a week.”

“There was no significant difference in the area Dr. Lent is referring to in comparison to areas where there was an absence of predator control,” Mr. Wasley responds.

“In Idaho the wolves have decimated the elk herd,” Dr. Lent reports. “Up in Alaska the caribou and moose population is down. They’ve got a law there now that the department must take immediate action, they must do predator control immediately. They can’t wait to do study after study. I think basically Mayer wants to study. If you know the right thing to do and you don’t want to do it, you study it, and then you retire in 20 years and enjoy your pension of 75 percent of your highest year’s earnings.”

I asked Dr. Lent is he believes NDOW is inflating the numbers of the current deer herd.

“Absolutely. They cannot prove the deer went up 2 percent from 107,000 to 109,000. The deer tag money is matched three-to-one federally. It’s their cash cow.

“We had a predator conference that we had on the agenda,” Dr. Lent says. “Ken Mayer brought in his buddies he used to work with down in California, and they basically said predation by mountain lions had no effect on the deer population, and that’s not true. See, you can’t hunt mountain lions in California and I think that philosophy comes over the mountains. I said “How many lions do you think kill the game animals, the deer,” and they said they’re not even supposed to report that.

I asked Dr. Lent if he also believes it’s part of the agenda of the current NDOW administration to get the last of our ranchers off the public lands.

“Yeah. That’s why he (Director Mayer) opposed the sage grouse (study), because he’d like to get the ranchers off the land. If they get the sage grouse listed (as threatened or endangered) it’ll get the ranchers and miners off the land, although he’d never say that.”

Mr. Wasley defends the Department’s current estimate of 109,000 mule deer in Nevada, arguing that number is arrived at by tripling the deer seen from helicopters in aerial surveys.

“So for somebody to suggest that it’s as small as half of our published estimate, that would suggest that what we’re seeing is close to 70 percent of the deer in the state, which simply is not the case. If the numbers were that small, we would begin to see hunter failure. …

“Utah closed their season for two years and that herd rebounded with predator control — killing coyote and mountain lion,” Dr. Lent reports. “Then they went to a restricted hunt the first year and the deer were unbelievable, so it’s been proven, if you deer-manage that way, it works.

“I’m not under any constraint,” Mr. Wasley argues, “the director hasn’t come down here and told me ‘We’re not gonna kill lions, we’re not gonna kill coyotes.’ If there was a way that I knew we could increase mule deer, I would do it today, for selfish reasons. I love mule deer; I love to hunt mule deer. … If there was something we could do to create more opportunity for Nevada’s deer hunters, we’d do it.”

4 Comments to “What happened to the mule deer?”

  1. Howard R Music Says:

    I noted your comment about ranching and deer population. In Texas many years ago screw worms were killing out deer. From what I understand when cattlemen learned to control the screw worms, the deer population thrived. It’s common to see deer graze among cattle. When I was a kid in the 60’s, peanut farmers let us hunt their land for free, to help thin the deer that love peanuts.
    Great article.

  2. Lava Says:

    40 x (52×3) = 480 ?

  3. Lava Says:

    The NDOW thinks it knows better than a professional hunter what a mountain lion is. “If you were a professional, you’d understand” that predators only kill off the dying animals. In other words, like scavengers. Mr professional believes that mountain lions are scavengers, not hunters.

  4. Bob menefee Says:

    It’s the lions,more lions more dead deer, now California bear are going to be all over the place.No more dogs.If these people could use the common sence that was used in the 50’s 60’s we’d be better off.

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