Meeker-area hunting outfitter Shawn Welder had just come down from the Flat Tops high country in mid-July and was struck by the lack of something he would see as a teenager when guiding up there.
Back then, it was not uncommon to see groups of what he and others called woodbucks on the tundra, perhaps huddled around clumps of willows.
“The last two times I’ve been there, over a two-year period, I haven’t seen a single dollar,” he said. “For me, being in this country felt like a big change.”
Welder said he was not an expert on mule deer and knew that populations inherently grow and contract, but local mule deer numbers are no longer what he was.
“I see a lot of money, but not so many deer. There are far fewer and their scope seems more limited,” he said.
Welder is far from alone in his observations. The decline of mule deer populations in western Colorado is an issue that has been on Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s radar for decades, and one that it has worked hard to address. He estimates that the state’s mule deer population has fallen from about 600,000 in 2006 to 390,000 in 2013.
Andy Holland, the agency’s big game manager, said mule deer herds in Colorado’s central mountains and eastern plains are doing well, with their populations stable to growing, but the majority of declines. occurred in the western third of the state, which is also home to some of Colorado’s largest herds.
According to a management plan the Parks and Wildlife Commission approved in late 2020 for the White River mule deer herd, centered in the Meeker area, that herd alone was estimated to number more than 100,000 deer at the start. 1980s, but in the decade before the approval of the new plan had not exceeded 40,000 animals.
If there’s any good news about mule deer in the area, it’s that Holland says they’ve stabilized biologically and ecologically at a lower population level, which he’s grateful for.
“It would be worse if they continued to decline,” he said.
He said the latest estimate of total mule deer in the state was around 416,000, and that state populations over the past decade have remained fairly stable over the past decade at around 420,000. .
The western slope strategy is working
Parks and Wildlife can cite the West Slope Mule Deer Strategy it adopted in 2014 for helping stabilize numbers.
Welder ticks off a number of factors he says have impacted deer numbers, and there’s a lot of overlap between them and the issues the strategy addresses.
“Humans, to be obvious, are the biggest impact on wildlife,” he said.
More people are moving to areas, he says, and outdoor recreation trends play a role, along with factors such as chronic wasting disease. He said he was not against motorized recreation, but a shift in recreation towards increased use of all-terrain and off-road vehicles “has really changed the impact and pressure on deer and elk”.
To some degree, mule deer numbers in Colorado were probably not sustainable. White River’s 2020 deer plan suggests its herd numbers for some time were abnormally high, thanks to factors such as widespread poisoning at one point to control predators.
The plan identifies a number of factors that subsequently influenced the bio-carrying capacity of the habitat in this herd area. These include such things as habitat fragmentation due to energy development, rural residential development, recreation trail development, wildfires, increased elk competition in wintering and drought combined with overexploitation by livestock, wild horses and wildlife.
Working with a new reality
Two recently approved Parks and Wildlife Mule Deer Management Plans, for the Bookcliffs Herd extending approximately north and west of Palisade/Grand Junction to the Rangely area and the state line , and for the Rifle Creek herd north of Rifle/Silt/New Castle, provide reductions in population goals for these herds. This reflects the reality of their reduced numbers due to factors such as drought, fires and development.
The 2014 strategy outlines actions to be pursued such as habitat protection, mitigation of development impacts, habitat enhancement, predator management where predators may limit deer survival, addressing impacts of highways on deer movement and mortality, reducing impacts on recreation, maintaining high population and disease. carefully monitor and regulate deer hunting in sparsely populated areas.
Many actions carried out by the agency since 2014 contribute to the implementation of the strategy. One example is mandatory chronic wasting disease testing for rifle season hunters, which began in 2017 and has focused primarily on deer herds. Parks and Wildlife has responded to try to reduce prevalence rates of the deadly disease where rates are high, through means such as increasing hunting of males, which have higher infection rates than others. .
Holland said when it comes to highway issues, “we’ve made a lot of progress in reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions.”
Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Department of Transportation are part of an alliance focused on things like installing wildlife crossing structures, and Governor Jared Polis signed an order to reduce wildlife collisions and vehicles, Holland said. He said work was underway to prioritize things like wildlife fencing and crossing structures in the design and planning phase of highway projects, rather than waiting for the process to be completed.
He said when it comes to habitat, Parks and Wildlife’s West Slope strategy for mule deer focuses on both quantity and quality. Quality can be affected by factors such as drought and the spread of invasive species like cheat grass.
Holland said Parks and Wildlife has pledged to spend about $500,000 a year on habitat improvements.
Parks and Wildlife sagebrush habitat coordinator Trevor Balzer has been heavily involved in these projects. He said about $1 million in enhancement projects are carried out each year to benefit mule deer, with support from partners such as the Bureau of Land Management that supplement Parks and Wildlife spending.
“We probably process about 6,600 to 7,000 acres a year,” he said.
The works involve a mix of public and private land. Some of them focus on private lands that have been taken out of agricultural production under the federal conservation reserve program. Balzer said many times grasses have been planted on this land to stabilize the soil, but this has prevented the growth of shrubs that provide better fodder for deer. In some cases, such as when the land is no longer part of the CRP program and a landowner must decide what to do with the land, Parks and Wildlife can get involved to help establish a sagebrush overstory that provides better forage than introduced grasses, he said.
Much of the habitat improvements focus on seeding and other improvements for wintering and transitional range, such as reducing pinon-juniper growth to make way for forage growth deer friendly.
Parks and Wildlife also worked with the BLM to reseed about 20,000 acres that burned during the 2020 Pine Gulch Fire which burned about 139,000 total acres north of Grand Junction.
Balzer said that while elk are more forage generalists, able to move around a lot and take advantage of available forage, including plenty of grass, deer tend to be more selective in terms of winter range than they use. They move up to the same range every year and can’t seem to move away from it in cases where there isn’t enough snooping available.
The ongoing drought is making matters worse. When shrubs cannot get enough moisture to recover from drought, it can impact deer returning each winter to feed on these shrubs, affecting their ability to make it to spring.
“Drought is a very big problem. It’s a tough problem,” Balzer said.
Despite what Welder has seen in terms of mule deer decline over the years, he believes land like that outside Meeker remains some of the best wildlife habitat there is thanks to the lack of development.
“Hopefully it will be a great environment down the road. We will see,” he said.