2004 - Perpetuating an Idaho Icon

It has been said that “as goes the West, so does the mule deer,” because mule deer are intrinsically tied to the history and development of the West. During the last century, mule deer populations across the West have gone through highs and lows.

2014 is one of the highs for mule deer in Idaho. Several years of mild winters and plentiful summer forage have provided good conditions for rebuilding Idaho’s mule deer populations. Idaho Fish and Game managers are forecasting some of the highest population estimates in a decade going into the 2014 hunting season.

Ten years ago was a different story. A series of hard winters plus shrinking mule deer habitat resulted in declining deer populations. Research has long shown habitat as a key component influencing fawn survival and mule deer population trends. In 2004, Idaho Fish and Game established the Mule Deer Initiative (MDI), committing additional personnel and resources with the goal of improving habitat and increasing mule deer numbers.

A Little History

More than a century ago, mule deer weren’t numerous in most parts of Idaho, but as settlement increased and landscapes changed, mule deer numbers began to rise. Vast fires converted forests to productive shrub fields, fire suppression combined with grazing practices that promoted shrubs, and extensive unregulated predator control and limited hunting produced an environment ideal for mule deer populations to grow.  

However, more recent landscape changes caused mule deer populations to decline in many areas of the Gem State starting in the 1980s.  Notably, changing agricultural practicess, winter range impacted by fire, vehicle-wildlife collisions, human development on winter range, and loss of aspen habitat on summer range have all had a hand in the downward trend of Idaho’s mule deer populations.  

Ultimately, mule deer populatins can only increase through increased fawn production and survival, which is closely associated wtih habitat abundance, quality and connectivity. Habitat changes have lessened the ability of some areas to support derirable mule deer populations. Because of this, MDI is primarily focused on habitat.

Mule Deer Initiative

In 2004, Idaho Fish and Game launched the Mule Deer Initiative to protect and improve mule deer habitat, increase mule deer populations, and to increase hunting opportunities.  

For the most part, MDI has concentrated funding efforts on habitat projects on public and private lands in southeast Idaho where mule deer populations showed the greatest declines. Here,  Fish and Game’s staff have implemented mule deer projects on its Wildlife Management Areas and also worked with landowners on their private lands. Citizen volunteers have been an important part of the success in restoring mule deer habitat on public and private land.

The Mule Deer Initiative also promotes partnerships with a variety of agencies. Fish and Game has worked with Pheasants Forever partner biologists, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency to implement private land habitat improvements.  The department has also developed important relationships with the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Idaho Department of Lands to improve mule deer range on public land.  

Idaho’s landscape will undoubtedly continue to change, and with it, so will mule deer populations. MDI will continue to implement habitat projects on critical mule deer landscapes in an effort to perpetuate and improve populations of this icon of the West.  

The one critical component of mule population trajectories that we don’t have much control over is the weather.  The good news is that much of Idaho has had favorable weather conditions for mule deer survival and growth since 2011.  So, there’s no time like right now  to get out and enjoy mule deer hunting in the Gem State!