Elk vs. Mule Deer
By Scott Reekers
Before I dive into this subject with any level of analysis or personal opinion I have to make a much needed disclaimer: mule deer population decline is the sum of many problems, not just a singular issue. However, understanding all of the issues facing the species that whittle away at the overall population in one state will play a huge role in any attempt to help mule deer numbers grow. With that in mind, what I am writing below is simply ONE of MANY things impacting mule deer populations in many states and areas within those states.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Elk hunting right now is popular, especially archery elk hunting. Every one of us with a cell phone now has the ability to go into the elk woods, get that content for the “Gram” and share a slobbering, rut-eyed bull charging by us at 20 yards. The adrenaline rush is high and even without a kill many archery elk hunters are beyond satisfied with the experience. The key for a growing population of archery elk hunters to stay satisfied though is to have a lot of elk on the mountain.
The problem with having a lot of elk on the mountain is that too many of them can have a negative effect on the populations of other ungulates, their own populations included. According to a recent study that just about blew up western hunting social media there was a demonstration that where there were a lot of elk, mule deer struggled to put on the necessary body fat for winter survival.
In anecdotal terms I have personally watched mule deer leave basins when the elk roll in. In areas of western Wyoming, where I never used to see elk, they are now summering where there should be bucks growing big antlers. In a few cases I have seen herds of elk dominating areas that have typically been summer doe and fawn nurseries with very few deer in sight. When I read the articles covering the study I have to say that I wasn’t really surprised.
So does that mean that we should triple the number of cow/calf tags in every area with struggling deer populations? Let’s go back to the popularity of elk hunting. I dare you to say at any archery organization banquet that we need to cut elk populations down significantly. People are funny, and rather than listen to the why, most will likely only hear that “those people at Game and Fish want to cut our elk tags!” Rock, meet hard-place.
To add more confusion, let’s throw out that many people have never had someone give them a solid explanation on what an elk objective actually is. That in and of itself might be an article but the simple reality is that often objective has a LOT to do with what players in the game want, the public being one of them. The public wants as many animals in the field as possible and sometimes those numbers end up pitting species against each other. In some of the worst case scenarios we even end up with objectives that are higher than carrying capacity.
Which brings me back to the original disclaimer. Mule deer are struggling because of MANY factors, not just one. If there was one reason it could easily be addressed. So indulge me for a second and see if this idea makes sense, we have to address them all as best we can and do our best to raise carrying capacity in habitat and work to lower conflicts that result in death for many deer.
So what can we do? It starts with a lot of robust conversations. The silver lining to the winter of 22/23 is that many people are open to a lot more ideas than say what they were 10 years ago. We have to have conversations on how a big, over-carrying-capacity, elk herd is not healthy. In fact, we can see fewer big bulls in those circumstances which impacts overall hunter satisfaction.
We need to push legislators for more options for safe wildlife crossings, when almost as many mule deer die from vehicle collisions than during hunting season it’s a problem. The worst part is that collisions aren’t selective on trophy quality, it is usually the breeding does and the young population that gets hammered hardest.
We need more wildlife friendly fences and a means to encourage ranchers to allow them to be installed. We have resources for it, the trick is to get the land owners to buy in and use them.
We also need to have a conversation about moving from a general tag system for mule deer to some form of limited quota system. I would even be ok asking the commission to go to mandatory reporting so that the biologists and wardens have the most accurate data available to build their quotas and plans. I have heard more and more hunters say they would be open to limited quota in more areas if it meant that the herds would be rebuilt.
So what say you? Are over objective elk a part of the mule deer decline and what is your solution?