A declining wildland deer herd

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[Editor’s Note: After a brief respite, longtime Daily Inter Lake columnist Warren Illi will once again be sharing his opinions and personal anecdotes on all things outdoors related. Illi can be reached at illiwa@bigsky.net.]

One of the major current conservation issues in Northwest Montana is our rapidly declining wildland deer herd. All hunters and biologists agree that our deer herd is down substantially from past years. But, there is substantial disagreement on the cause of that decline.

Hunter success ratios are down, which will eventually lead to fewer deer hunters, which will lead to reduced deer license sales. Since the Fish, Wildlife and Parks is primarily funded by license revenues, logic would dictate they would be seeking ways to arrest the decline in our deer herd and to increase hunting success. But, strangely, they seem almost oblivious to the issue and the probable causes.

Last winter I attended two public meeting about deer management. The first was a regular monthly meeting of Flathead Wildlife, Inc., a local sportsmen club. Fish, Wildlife and Parks requested they present a program on changing deer hunting regulations. That monthly sportsman club meeting normally has 20 to 30 members in attendance. But this meeting, to discuss deer hunting seasons and regulations, drew a standing room crowed of 60 people. Wildlife officials started the meeting with a half hour of pretty computer-generated charts and graphs that told the audience what everyone already knew, the deer herd was in a serious decline.

This crowd of hunters only wanted to know what Fish, Wildlife and parks was going to do about reducing the wolf population, which they felt was the primary cause of the deer herd decline. Wildlife officials wouldn’t acknowledge that predators could be part of the reason for the deer population decline. They blamed the decline on “tough winters.” Wildlife officials only wanted to discuss how to reduce hunter harvest to help the deer herd to recover. This meeting ended with most hunters going away disgusted with Fish, Wildlife and Parks deer management.

Two or three weeks later, a sportsmen organization known as Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife sponsored another meeting in Kalispell to discuss the deer herd decline. That meeting drew over 300 unhappy hunters. Most of those hunters attributed the deer herd decline on uncontrolled predators like the wolf and mountain lion. Wildlife officials, who manage these predators, refused to acknowledge that wolves and mountain lions were a major part of the problem. Again, they blamed “tough” winters.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Bugle magazine, in their November-December 2018 issue, had an excellent article on elk management from elk habitat research at the Starkey Experimental Forest located in Northeast Oregon. This where decades of cutting-edge big game research has taken place. I believe those research results are directly applicable to our deer and elk herds in Northwest Montana. That research has upended the long held biological management principle that deer and elk need dense coniferous forest cover for winter thermal cover and high-quality winter range habitat to survive tough winters. Instead, the article states, “That showed us nutritional well-being of elk is not determined by winter ranges, which has been the accepted paradigm for 70 years of our profession [wildlife management]. Instead, winter survival depends on the nutritional conditions that elk find on summer and fall ranges.” Later it discusses the need for high-quality spring forage for calf growth, survival and elk reproduction.

This research points out that dense forest canopies need to be opened up to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor to produce rich succulent grasses, forbs and small bushes which provide nutritious food for deer and elk. So, the greatly reduced level of harvesting of mature timber stands on the millions of acres of national forests that blanket the forested mountains of Northwest Montana, is likely part of the reason, perhaps the major reason, for the long-term decline in high-quality deer and elk habitat and deer numbers. Research has clearly shown that once deer and elk have nutritious spring, summer and fall forage, they will put on fat layers that allow them to survive tough Montana winters.

Actually, some of this recent wildlife research is really not all that new. When I arrived in the Flathead about 40 years ago, a young Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist told me that whitetail deer carry their winter range on their backs, meaning layers of fat, produced by nutritious spring, summer and early fall forage.

Now don’t think for a minute that I don’t believe that wolves and mountain lions aren’t adversely impacting our deer and elk populations. They are killing and eating tens of thousands of deer each year. But that is another topic for another column.

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A declining wildland deer herd

May 09, 2019 at 5:00 am | Daily Inter Lake [Editor’s Note: After a brief respite, longtime Daily Inter Lake columnist Warren Illi will once again be sharing his opinions and personal anecdotes on all things outdoors related. Illi can be reach...


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