2017 Deer Update: How Are Mule Deer Doing?

mule deerAt the 2017 North American Deer Summit last week, Jim Heffelfinger of the Arizona Game and Fish Department reported on the status of the mule deer across the American West.

Mule deer went through tough times in the 1990s, and populations declined in many areas. More than 20 years later most people still think mule deer numbers are down, “but actually there’s good news,” said Jim. “Mule deer populations have been trending up, and are stable or increasing slightly in most states.”

Jim pointed to Utah, Idaho and California as bright spots, with herds on the slight rise. But he did acknowledge that the winter of 2016 was brutal in parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, where there should be a “little dip” in deer numbers this year.

In the West, mule deer face unique challenges, such as expanded housing, energy and road development in herds’ migration routes and wintering areas; limited and changing water supplies; and changes in habitat and food sources. Major predators of the mule deer are the coyote (on fawns) and mountain lion.

Jim is particularly positive about the herds and the number of big, mature bucks in his home state of Arizona. “The big bucks are here in any given year.” Arizona manages their mule deer so conservatively—drawing a tag is tough—that there are always big deer on public ground. Also expect lots of huge public-land bucks this fall next door in New Mexico, where again pulling a tag is the biggest challenge.

2017 Whitetail Report: How Are The Deer Doing?

sd sioux falls buck 2008I recently returned from the 2017 North American Deer Summit, a two-day event where the top deer biologists and scientists in the nation gather to discuss the health of our herds and the future of hunting. First on the agenda: How are whitetail deer doing across the U.S.?

QDMA biologist Kip Adams kicked off the discussion with some good news. After several tough years (2011-2014) when winters were harsh in some regions and big outbreaks of EHD  killed substantial numbers of deer in other areas, things are looking up for America’s most popular and widespread game animal.

Kip pointed out that the buck harvest is up 4% (hunters in America shoot some 2.7 million bucks every fall). Furthermore, the percentage of bucks 3.5 years of older in the harvest has never been higher.

It took a while but hunters as a whole have finally embraced the idea of letting small bucks walk in hopes that they will the opportunity to shoot a mature, big-racked deer next season or the next. “I’ve been monitoring this issue for many years, and hunters’ attitudes on letting young bucks grow have definitely changed,” said Kip.

Also, 10-15 years ago, if a state wanted to implement antler restrictions in order to save immature bucks, hunters would scream. Today, more hunters than ever, a strong majority, support antler restrictions that let 1- and 2-year-old bucks walk and grow.

But there are threats to deer herds and deer hunting, including predators and lack of access to good land for hunting. But it all pales to the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease. 

CWD, which has now been documented in more than 20 states, is a contagious neurological disease that affects deer. It causes a spongy degeneration of the brains of infected animals resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior (drooling and stumbling), loss of bodily functions and ultimately death.

A large portion of the 2-day deer summit was devoted to the CWD threat, and I’ll cover that more in future blogs. But here’s the most disturbing thing.

Consider that CWD has been documented in both mule deer and whitetails in Wyoming for at least 40 years. For those 4 decades the deer herds survived and grew in many locations, causing some people to be skeptical of the CWD threat.

Consider me one of those early skeptics. I have hunted in Wyoming many times, and on every hunt, I have been amazed at the number of deer I have seen. Some of the strongest herds in America. How could there be so many deer out here if CWD is such a big deal?

Studies from CWD-prevalent areas in Wyoming the last couple of years have shown noticeable drops in deer numbers, perhaps 18% in places. This is the first time that CWD has been directly linked to population declines. The big worry as CWD spreads across the country: Once herds are infected with CWD, maybe it takes several decades for substantial numbers of deer to start dying and populations to diminish?

There are still many questions and a lot to be studied and learned about CWD, but Kip Adams and all the other scientists at the summit echoed the same sentiment: CWD is the biggest threat to deer and deer hunting in 2017 and maybe ever. All hunters must get engaged on this issue and be informed.

CWD aside for now, the outlook for the upcoming season is good across North America. “For the most part, last winter was fairly mild in most areas, and we’ve have lots of moisture this spring,” said Kip. “The 2017 hunting season is setting up to be a good one.”     

Can a Whitetail Buck Have Two Home Ranges?

sioux falls south dakota buckNinety-nine percent of bucks have a home range of a mile or so where they spend 95% of their time year-round. The boys venture out of their core areas once in a while, especially during the November rut, when they often leave for days or weeks on doe excursions. But they eventually come back home where they feel safe and comfortable.

Of course there is the rogue buck.

Researchers with Pennsylvania’s Deer-Forest Study monitored GPS-collared Buck 12783, which had 2 distinct home ranges.

buck home ranges

Source:Penn State College Agricultural Sciences

In the image above, his main home range is the eastern (right side) mass of blue. To the west is a “vacation home” that he used for 2 years.

The researchers believe that in June 2014, the buck took off on a 1.5-mile trek and found the western core range, which for whatever reason looked and felt good to him. He went back home (“to think about it” say the researchers) for a while. Then on October 22, he traveled back west to core area #2, where he stayed put for more than 3 months.

On February 1, 2015, Buck 12783 left his temporary pad and returned to his main home back east. In March he ventured back over to area #2 and looked around, but decided to go back home for the summer. The buck then returned to his vacation home on November 3, where he stayed until the first of December.

Throughout summer and fall 2016, Buck 12783 (now 4 years old) stayed home, perhaps for good. “I think he’s getting older and maybe outgrown the follies of his youth,” say the researchers.

How unusual was this buck’s behavior? Very. “It’s the only time we have ever seen a buck exhibit (more than one) home range,” the researchers said. “Typically bucks have a core home range that simply expands during the rut. Add Buck 12783 to the list of 1 Percenters– those rare adult deer that exhibit 2 distinct home range areas.

My theory: Had Buck 12783 figured out that core range #2 was a better place to find does to breed? The first year he moved over there on October 22 and the second year on November 3, just before most does would come into estrus. Did he find #2 a better sanctuary for eluding Pennsylvania’s army of hunters? Was is it a combination of doe availability and hiding? I think that’s quite possible.

We can never learn too much about the fascinating whitetail.


You Can Shoot a 20-Year-Old Whitetail Doe

matt ross old doeMost of us who shoot a 5- or 6-year-old doe with bow and arrow think we’ve done something, and we have. A doe that lives that long in the wild is crafty, one of the smartest deer in the woods.

Imagine a doe that lives 10 or 15 years longer yet!

This Instagram post from wildlife biologist @MattRossqdma caught my eye:

Camel Doe…throwback to the absolute oldest deer I will ever kill. September 18, 2002. She was easily in her late teens, if not older…my friends said she looked just like a camel. She tasted fine to me!

Matt went on to say that he based the New York doe’s age on his experience of having aged thousands of jawbones from the Northeast over the past 15 years, “including many that I have also gotten cementum annuli analysis on.”

“Plus, the overall appearance of the doe was pretty rough,” he noted. “Cataracts, both ears missing significant portions of the tips, etc.” She was skinny and boney, hence the camel look.

This begs the question: What is the lifespan of a whitetail doe? In captivity does have been documented to live 18 to 25 years (14 years for a buck).

What about the wild whitetails you hunt? Recent data from Pennsylvania confirms 3 does to have lived at least 13 years, maybe longer.

While I wouldn’t hold my breath, you could conceivably see an old, skinny doe that resembles a camel sneaking toward your stand this fall. That would be pretty cool.

Weird Whitetail: Deer with White Eyes

canadian white eye deer

A few years ago a Canadian hunter sent me this…

Mike: I thought this would be right up your alley since you like cool and unusual deer stuff. That is what makes your web page so great.

I harvested this buck outside of Dryden, Ontario. He had white eyes! His eyes where not fogged over with cataracts or anything, and I can assure you he was not blind. They were just white, devoid of color. His hide was not piebald, although it was a little lighter than some. But except for the eyes, the deer was normal looking and acted normal.

Have you or any of the blog readers ever seen this type of eye coloring on a deer? Thanks, Bryan

I’ve never seen a deer with white eyes, but I did a little research and here’s what I found out.

white eyed deer

The white-eyed deer was most likely suffering from what is known as “ocular albinism,” a melanin-related deficiency that affects some humans and animals. Melanin in the eyes is the agent that is responsible for most human and animal eyes being brown. A lack of melanin in the eyes, which this buck likely had, results in ocular albinism and the white eyes.

white eye deer mount use