Wildlife managers have millions of dollars in new money at their disposal to collect data on the movements and deaths of mule deer statewide, a species that is in prolonged decline in Wyoming and across the country. all of the West.
Ultimately, data derived from GPS collars on more than 1,000 animals and increasing deer population assessments will be used to help identify pilot projects to eliminate the number of large carnivores that eat muleys. The data could also shed light on where the Wyoming Game and Fish Department will strategically reduce herds of elk, which compete with their smaller and less adaptable cervid cousins for habitat.
In late March, Director of Game and Fisheries Brian Nesvik told members of the Wyoming Wildlife Task Force that he did not see large-scale predator control as a silver bullet to turn the corner of the game. mule deer numbers, which have plummeted statewide from a high of over 500,000 in the early 2000s to just over 300,000 today. But it could be a useful tool in some places, he said.
“We know that we share our deer herds, in some places, with large carnivores,” Nesvik said. “Are there ways to make prescriptions and adjustments to wildlife management that, at a localized level, will provide more opportunities? In other words, share less deer resources with large carnivores.
Other pilot projects will target elk, which have thrived and evolved in the opposite direction of mule deer, growing from around 90,000 animals in the early 2000s to more than 110,000 today. Research by University of Wyoming ecology professor Kevin Monteith provides enough justification to test the use of hunters to reduce elk herds — a decline in mule deer could react favorably, Nesvik said.
Monteith, earlier in the same meeting, presented preliminary results of a study of ungulate competition south of Rock Springs in the Little Mountain area.
“Those [deer] that are further away from the elk gain more fat over the summer,” Monteith said. “Those [deer] that live closer to the elk gain less fat over the summer.
“It is certainly very compelling evidence that there is potential competition between deer and elk given this relationship,” he added.
According to Game and Fish spokeswoman Sara DiRienzo, specific pilot projects aimed at helping mule deer by killing elk and large carnivores are still in the planning stages and have not been identified. But the large carnivore species the department has focused on are primarily black bears and mountain lions, Nesvik said.
“There was no edict to create a war against mountain lions and black bears,” he said. “It’s not that.”
As for other predators: wolves in Wyoming are managed near the lower limits required by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, for now grizzly bears are protected from hunting by the Endangered Species Act and coyotes can already be killed without limit. throughout Wyoming.
Experimental predator control and elk reduction projects are just some of the possible outcomes of the infusion of mule deer research funds that the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission approved at its March 24 meeting in Cody. The state agency’s seven commissioners approved a special allocation of $2.36 million for the five-year study, called the “Mule Deer Monitoring Project.” In total, however, $5.7 million is expected to be invested in the project, according to Game and Fish documents.
This project represents a separate effort of the 15-year-old Wyoming Mule Deer Initiative, which focuses on improving habitat, adapting hunting seasons, and developing science to try to conserve herds of deer statewide.
Millions of data points
There are three main expenses for the new mule deer monitoring project, said Embere Hall, who oversees Game and Fish’s science support, research and analysis unit. First, the state will strengthen its investigations into the abundance of mule deer herds. Currently, she says, the state agency counts only one deer herd per year, but the new funding will bring that total to seven or eight of Wyoming’s 37 recognized mule deer herds.
“So over the five-year proposal,” Hall said, “we will have gotten a really robust estimate, potentially for every herd in the state.”
Another important component will be looking closely at mule deer mortality factors from five “focal herds” that will be selected across the state – this is the part that will help most inform predator control pilot projects. GPS collars will be used to monitor a total of 100 deer, does and fawns from each herd, and when they die, biologists and wildlife technicians will rush to the site to try to determine the cause.
Analyzing and presenting data is the third major expense. On that front, Game and Fish is teaming up with University of Wyoming quantitative wildlife ecologist Jerod Merkle. About every three months, he told WyoFile, the approximately 500 mule deer wearing GPS tracking collars in the five focal herds at any one time will produce 1 million location points.
“We’re going to take the millions of data points that are going to be collected and turn them into something that can be used by field biologists and managers,” Merkle said.
The raw data will be sorted, analyzed, and presented with apps and other means by Merkle’s lab, the university’s new school of computer science, and the Wyoming Innovation Partnership. It’s a unique collaboration, he says.
“We’re trying to build all of this data science expertise at the University of Wyoming,” Merkle said. “And here, we’re connecting that directly to the state’s wildlife management needs.”
Of course, it remains to be seen whether wildlife managers can use the large-scale data on Wyoming’s mule deer to help the species make a comeback. Habitat quality, drought, and harsh winters—factors often beyond the control of wildlife managers—usually drive mule deer populations.
“I think it gives the department, managers and the public the best tools we can have to understand how our management actions are influencing people,” Game and Fish’s Hall said. “Will it, in a snap, bring us back to populations consistent with what we had 30 years ago? Probably not, but it may give us the information we need to take the best steps in that direction.