What happened to Montana's mule deer?

State to undertake mule deer management changes

montana mule deer populations, montana living magazIne, state FWP mule deer study

A pair of mule deer browses in the Whitefish Mountain Range. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)

What happened to Montana's mule deer populations?

Once a staple of fall hunting, mule deer have declined in numbers, and Montana's wildlife agency wants to know why.

In response to declining mule deer populations, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is embarking on research efforts to look into the declines and engage hunters about their attitudes on mule deer management and hunting.

Mule deer numbers have typically been tracked over large areas using aerial surveys and declines can be attributed to winterkill, short-term habitat changes, predation and other factors.

“We’ve worked hard to be adaptive in our mule deer management over the past few decades,” Brian Wakeling, FWP’s game management bureau chief, said. “However, some of the data we’re using to guide decisions needs to be updated, and it’s time to start testing our old assumptions and make sure our efforts are in line with the expectations and desire of hunters.”

Part of the effort Montana biologists are undertaking has involved an expansive public opinion survey, which was sent out to 5,000 randomly selected resident hunters this past winter. The survey was nearly identical to one conducted in 2011.

And the results were very similar as well. The survey results show continued support for current mule deer management in Montana, including season length, timing and the opportunity to hunt mule deer every year.

However, the survey also indicates that some hunters are looking for changes. For instance, when presented with the question of hunting bucks every year or hunting them once every several years, about 60 percent of hunters preferred the ability to hunt mule deer bucks every year, which is generally the current framework in Montana. However, nearly 40 percent of hunters would choose to hunt mule deer bucks once ever several years if it meant having the opportunity to harvest a mature buck.

To help FWP better understand hunters and their attitudes about mule deer hunting, FWP held listening sessions in northwest and northeast Montana this spring. These listening sessions were conversations with the public about mule deer management, allowing FWP staff to answer questions and hear more feedback on the current state of mule deer hunting and management in Montana.

These listening sessions will rotate through FWP’s administrative regions every other year, so if you didn’t have the opportunity to attend one in your area this year, you should be able to next year.

Other efforts FWP is starting in the coming years may include more radio collaring efforts to track numbers and mortality, habitat research, and other population modeling efforts.

“Overall, we’re looking to do additional mule deer research and monitoring across the state that will give us data we can use in communicating with the public and in setting regulations, and managing habitat and predation,” Wakeling said. “We know hunters around the state are concerned and the research we’re starting on will help us ensure our management decisions continue to be sound moving forward.”

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