Mule Deer Initiative

About Idaho’s Mule Deer Initiative

Idaho, like other Western states is experiencing overall declines in mule deer populations, although in some areas, mule deer numbers are stable or increasing.  Because mule deer are important in Idaho, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) has committed additional personnel and resources to improving habitat and increasing mule deer numbers.  The Idaho Mule Deer Initiative was created in 2004 and is a statewide effort, but particular effort will be made across eastern, southeastern, and south-central Idaho.

The MDI has three basic goals: 

  • Protect and Improve Habitat
  • Improve Mule Deer Numbers
  • Increase Hunter Satisfaction

While these three goals are listed separately, they are not mutually exclusive of each other.  Hunter satisfaction can be increased in one of two ways; 1) increase deer populations, or 2) manage the deer hunting season framework to better accommodate the various types of deer hunters identified in the statewide mule deer management plan (2008). Ultimately, mule deer populations can only increase through increased fawn production which is closely associated with habitat abundance, quality, and connectivity.  Because of this MDI is a primarily habitat based initiative.  Habitat is a key component influencing mule deer populations.  Habitat changes have lessened the ability of some areas to support desirable mule deer populations. 

MDI is More Than Mule Deer

Due to the large size of a mule deer’s home range and the fact that a majority of Idaho’s mule deer are migratory, mule deer habitat management requires the improvement of numerous habitat types and the maintenance of landscape permeability, or the ability deer have to travel across the landscape.  As a result, managing for mule deer benefits numerous wildlife species across the state of Idaho.     

Wildlife Vehicle Collisions (WVCs)

WVC’s are increasing every year in Idaho.    The primary reason for this is because the miles of roads and traffic volumes on these roads are increasing annually.  Idaho has been keeping WVC data since 1902, and since that time has collected over 22,000 WVC’s across the state.  Of these 22,000 entries, over half (53%) of the reported animals have been mule deer.  In 2011 the reported number of deer killed equaled 10% of that year’s deer harvest.  The WVC’s involving deer in 2011 had an estimated cost of nearly 8 million dollars.  WVC reporting is getting better each year, with 43% of the reported 22,000 WVC’s being from 2011 and 2012.  What makes this data even more alarming is that studies in Utah are finding that we are only detecting half of the actual WVC’s out there for big game.    WVC’s are a huge problem in Idaho, and not just for mule deer, there have been 80 different species reported since 1902.  IDFG and ITD are currently working together to increase WVC data collection efforts and identify WVC hotspots.  Once these hotspots are identified IDFG and ITD will work cooperatively to mitigate these locations.           

MDI Priority Habitats

Private Lands

Private lands, specifically those enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), support many mule deer populations throughout different times of the year.  We are actively seeking opportunities to enhance private lands and benefit mule deer and other wildlife.

MDI Farm Bill Conservation Biologists

MDI cooperatively funds three positions that provide technical assistance and funding opportunities to landowners who are enrolled in federal programs such as CRP and State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE), or are interested in managing their properties for mule deer and other wildlife species.  SAFE is an USDA program focused on improving habitat for Columbian sharp-tailed grouse. This program improves private lands for both sharp-tailed grouse and mule deer.  The MDI biologist positions use various partnerships and federal program funding to accomplish habitat projects that would otherwise not be possible.  MDI farm bill biologist positions have enabled the program to increase the number of acres improved from a few hundred per year to thousands annually.  This is critical, because in order to increase mule deer herds within Idaho it is necessary to improve habitat at a large/landscape scale.    This new direction for the MDI program is helping IDFG to achieve this goal. These positions are cooperatively funded through; IDFG, Pheasants Forever (PF), US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Intermountain West Joint Venture.

Sage Steppe

Sage steppe communities are composed primarily of sagebrush, but contain other important vegetation components that mule deer utilize such as bitterbrush and an abundant forb community.  Sage steppe is an important habitat type throughout the year for mule deer, particularly in the winter months.  Sagebrush and bitterbrush are important components of mule deer winter range that provide forage, security and thermal cover.  Sagebrush and bitterbrush are critical food on winter range because they are nutritious, available (above the snow), and can slow the depletion of fat reserves over winter. The MDI program has worked to improve sage brush through shrub plantings (over 1 million shrubs since 2004), sagebrush aerial seeding efforts, and working with federal and state land management agencies to improve sage steppe.  MDI is also cooperating with the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), an NRCS program established to improve sage steppe habitats for both sage grouse, but also benefits mule deer.


Riparian areas are some of the most rare and diverse habitats in Southern Idaho.    Mule deer utilize riparian habitats for forage, water, shelter, and fawning areas.  These habitats are important every year to mule deer, but are particularly important in drought years.  MDI is currently working with land management agencies (USFS, BLM, NRCS) to improve riparian areas through better grazing management practices such as fencing and offsite water developments. 

Quaking Aspen

Aspen is considered a keystone species and an indicator of ecological integrity and biodiversity.  Aspen communities play a large role in mule deer ecology from gestation through adulthood.  While winter forage has often been considered the limiting factor of mule deer, it may actually be summer range nutrition that plays a more critical role in mule deer populations.  Recent studies have investigated the effects of nutrition on mule deer production and concluded that summer forage has the greatest impact on mule deer populations.  Nutrition affects juvenile survival, age of first reproduction, pregnancy, fawn birth weight and adult survival.   Lactation is the most nutritionally demanding part of the annual nutritional cycle for does, leading researchers to conclude summer nutrition may be more important to population growth than winter nutrition.  Aspen communities have long been described as critical summer habitat for mule deer, because they often contain a rich diversity of forbs, grasses, and shrubs that provide cover and forage.  Many years of efficient fire suppression have led to a decline in aspen forests and an increase in coniferous forests. Because aspen communities are second in plant diversity only to riparian areas, MDI is actively involved in working with land management agencies to increase aspen communities to benefit mule deer and other wildlife. 












What's New

Growing the Future

The excursion not only produced bitterbrush seed to help grow mule deer habitat, it also has the possibility of growing a couple of future mule deer biologists.

Southeast Idaho Habitat Improvements: And the Partnerships behind it.

In the Southeastern portion of Idaho, upland bird hunting is an outdoor pursuit that a majority of the hunting population participates in and values greatly. This drive to create better habitat for a whole gamut of species has driven local wildlife groups to contribute to a couple of great wildlife conservation based positions. Currently we have two Pheasants Forever-Mule Deer Initiative biologists on the ground working in partnership with private land owners, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA), the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV) to manipulate agricultural ground for the cause of producing quality habitat. This in turn produces more mule deer & upland birds to hunt.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a program meant to set aside land to benefit soil erosion, water quality and wildlife. They are 10 year contracts where the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Farm Service Agency (FSA) pays landowners to install and maintain grass/forb cover on the acres enrolled. Each county is allowed up to 25% of the farmable ground to be enrolled in CRP. To be eligible for CRP you need to meet the cropping history requirements, erosion criteria, and ownership criteria. There are signup periods for CRP. Contact your local USDA Service Centers to see if your land will qualify. Currently Idaho has approximately 648,000 acres enrolled in CRP. Read More!

The Eastern Idaho Aspen Working Group will be sponsoring a workshop and tour on July 16-17, 2013.

The Eastern Idaho Aspen Working Group will be sponsoring a workshop and tour on July 16-17, 2013. Speakers include aspen experts Dale Bartos (USFS) and Paul Rogers (Western Aspen Alliance). There will be a panel discussion regarding the various perspectives on aspen management. Quaking aspen habitats are extremely important to mule deer in the state of Idaho throughout their life cycle. Come and learn more about this important habitat type.

Mule Deer Survival Update May 2013

Every year IDFG biologists collar track mule deer does and fawns within Population Management Units (PMU's) across Idaho to determine survival rates. This website will try and post monthly updates for you to follow. Here is a summary of survival data through the end of May 2013.

Mule Deer and Aspen

Aspen communities have long been described as critical summer habitat for mule deer, because they often contain a rich diversity of forbs, grasses, and shrubs that provide cover and forage. Unfortunately, aspen communities are steadily decreasing within the state of Idaho. The Bridger-Teton Forest, in the analysis carried out in their last Forest Plan, identified the need to treat about 2,000 ha (4,900ac) of aspen annually to maintain aspen stands currently occurring on the forest. This situation is similar across the various forest districts within Southeastern Idaho.

Mule Deer Fawns are hitting the ground, if you find one let it be!

Mule deer fawns are being born across Idaho from this week through the middle of June.  A majority of the fawns will be born sometime around June 10th.  So what does this mean?  Well, if you encounter a mule deer fawn, chances are it will be alone and appear abandoned.  This is not the case!  Mom intentionally leaves the fawns alone to remain still and reduce scent to the area, a predator avoidance strategy.  So if you happen upon a mule deer fawn that appears helpless and abandoned, leave it alone, it is the fawns best chance for survival.  Fawns turned in by people typically die in rehab

MDI Community Shrub Planting Effort within the Mustang Fire in GMU 21

On April 19th IDFG staff and volunteers partnered together in the Salmon region to plant sagebrush on important mule deer winter range.  Twenty-nine IDFG staff and volunteers worked together to place 1,500 Wyoming big sagebrush into the rocky ground.  It was a hard day of work fighting the rocky soils of the Salmon area, but we had a hard working group of volunteers.  The Donnelly Gulch project area is an important winter range for a majority of GMU 21's mule deer herd.  The volunteer effort was coordinated through IDFG and the Salmon Valley Stewardship (

MDI Shrub Planting in GMU 74 to Help Restore Mule Deer Winter Range

MDI staff along with the landowners family and friends, and a local boy scout troop spent their Saturday planting 4,500 bitterbrush and sagebrush seedlings. The scout troop planted around 1,700 plants, the remainder were planted using a tractor pulling a tree planter. Fortunately, it rained prior to and following the planting, which will hopefully increase plant survival.

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