Monday, February 01, 2010

MONTANA NEWS: Statewide, Mule Deer Numbers Decline

It’s tough to be a mule deer in Montana these days.

The big-bodied deer draw lots of hunting pressure all over the state, although not always the same hunters. For the past three years, mule deer numbers have been declining and state Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials are trying to turn the trend.

In western Montana, poor mule deer numbers are tracking equally poor white-tailed deer populations. But the two species are regulated differently, with more liberal either-sex hunting opportunities for whitetails. That puts the focus on the other predators: wolves, mountain lions and bears, according to Region 2 wildlife program manager Mike Thompson.

While wolf predation has been getting most of the attention lately, Thompson said lions shouldn’t be discounted. The agency increased its lion hunting quota last year to see what impact extra cat hunting might have. That data should be coming later this spring, when hunting regulations might see further lion focus.

Montana’s wolf quota filled quickly in the two western hunting districts last fall. Wildlife managers are studying the results of the hunt over the winter as they await a federal court ruling on the wolf’s threatened species status. That decision will either allow or prohibit a 2010 wolf hunting season.

Habitat is another concern, according to Thompson’s counterpart, Jim Williams, in Kalispell’s FWP Region 1. Mule deer are less common in the northwest, but no less treasured.

“The country is so rugged – all these alder-choked basins – but you can kill some beautiful old bucks,” Williams said. “It’s a brutal physical hunt. A lot of big bucks die of old age.”

They don’t die by wolves so much because their high alpine haunts don’t overlap with the packs’ preferred whitetail zones. But those areas have seen decreasing snowpack and increasing forest invasion over the past decade, which reduce the forage mule deer desire. The downward deer trend still needs more research to figure out the trend drivers, he said.

Lions and two-legged hunters are the main challenge in the eastern plains, according to hunters there.

“We’ve got zero wolf impact,” said Red Bone Outfitters owner Bud Martin of Zortman, near the popular Missouri Breaks hunting grounds. “All the predation impact here is mountain lions. Around the Little Rockies (mountain range), a mountain lion hunt is just a 10-minute jog.”

Martin said he’s seen a particular lion increase (and mule deer decline) on the C.M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, where federal regulations prohibit mountain lion hunting. But he also laid some responsibility on FWP hunting policies, which he said ran down western deer herds and encouraged excessive numbers of hunters to head east.

“That’s why people come to eastern Montana to hunt,” he said. “They get tired of hunting where success rate is 2 or 3 or 4 percent. And so every fork-horn mule deer out here gets blasted.”

FWP state wildlife program manager Quentin Kujula noted mule deer have always been helped and hindered by their local situations – whether its predators, weather or the species’ own up-and-down population cycle. Lions in the eastern part of the state are a relatively recent factor, he said, but one to watch.

FWP biologists also acknowledge that liberal license sales in past years have hurt deer populations. That was the rationale behind proposals eliminating over-the-counter doe tags in most of western Montana and dropping the eight-day either-sex period of the 2010 hunting season.

Those changes, and other reductions to mule deer license availability, will go before the FWP commissioners at their Feb. 11 meeting.

Source: The Missoulian

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