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Project Gains New Insights into Mule Deer Declines

Mountain lion predation on adult mule deer, coyote predation on fawn, along with elk populations consuming deer food and prolonged drought have made it increasingly difficult for mule deer in the Greater Little Mountain Area to find their own place. (NPS)
Mountain lion predation on adult mule deer, coyote predation on fawn, along with elk populations consuming deer food and prolonged drought have made it increasingly difficult for mule deer in the Greater Little Mountain Area to find their own place. (NPS)
June 9, 2020

GREEN RIVER, Wyo. -- Five years of comprehensive research into why mule deer populations have declined dramatically over the past few decades is nearing the finish line.

Kevin Monteith, associate professor at the University of Wyoming, has been studying the impacts of drought, coyote and mountain lion predation, and competition with elk for food in the Greater Little Mountain Area in southwestern Wyoming.

"We're working really hard to understand to what degree each one of those players is operating so that we can know better which one of those we can push or pull on from a management perspective to create a better scenario for deer in that system," Monteith said.

Unlike other habitat fractured by human development, mule deer in this mostly untouched high-desert system are able to access summer and winter ranges, but they still have not been able to thrive. Monteith said he hopes what his team can learn in this pristine setting will help wildlife managers take steps necessary to accommodate deer in other parts of the mountain West.

Technological advancements not available even five years ago have given Monteith's team detailed data to work with. GPS satellite tracking helps researchers find and collar fawn in the field just hours after birth. DNA of fecal samples have identified some 200 different food types foraged by elk, compared with less than two dozen by mule deer.

Monteith said the new tools have revealed a multitude of previously unseen events, which helps paint a clearer picture of each deer's unique story.

"So this gives us the power to expose some of those pieces, connect the dots," he said. "On day one, where it's born, the condition and circumstances of its mom, and watch it grow and develop ideally all the way until it hits adulthood."

The Deer-Elk Ecology Research Project is an exhaustive undertaking compared with other mule deer studies, and through a broad grassroots effort, supporters have so far raised all but $190,000 of the $1.3 million needed to complete the project.

The research was spearheaded by the Muley Fanatic Foundation. For more information visit muleyfanatic.org.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - WY