As in other Western states, Oregon’s mule deer populations and hunting opportunities for them have declined since their peak during the 1950s-70s. ODFW is embarking on an ambitious program to fix some of the problems limiting mule deer populations.
The Mule Deer Initiative’s (MDI) goal is to bring mule deer numbers up to the population management objective (the number of animals considered compatible with habitat and primary land uses). MDI efforts will begin in five wildlife management units (Heppner, Maury, Murderers Creek, Steens Mountain and Warner) and later expand to other parts of eastern Oregon.
Changes on the landscape in the past few decades have resulted in less forage for mule deer:
- Invasive plants like cheatgrass and medusahead rye have replaced bitterbrush, sage-brush and other forage
- Less fire and less logging have led to fewer early succession forests and rangelands, which provide important browse, forbs, and grasses for deer
- Junipers have encroached on shrub-steppe habitat, crowding out nutritious plants
- Stands of aspen trees have declined
- Some of the best mule deer habitat in Oregon has been permanently lost to development, particularly on low-elevation winter range
Severe winters and drought
Mule deer populations never rebounded from severe winters and dry summers in the 80s and early 90s. Deep snow and ice keep deer from reaching food and increase their vulnerability to predation. Drought sends deer into winter with fewer fat reserves.
|These photos taken in roughly the same spot in 1970 and 2008 in the Murderer’s Creek Basin show a dramatic change in the plant community from a bunch grass/bitterbrush steppe (excellent nutrition for mule deer) to an annual grass/juniper savanna (little to no nutritional value for mule deer).
- Photo by ODFW -
Some predator populations, including cougars and coyotes, have grown in the past few decades. The extent to which predators affect mule deer populations varies with the circumstances surrounding each herd at any particular time.
Off-highway vehicle (OHV) trails and cross country travel have increased exponentially in the past few decades, and can displace mule deer into unfamiliar or less productive habitat. New roads through migratory routes leave deer vulnerable to vehicle collisions.
Law enforcement is essential to protecting mule deer from poaching and ensuring compliance with other wildlife protection laws. A recent study documented that as many deer are taken illegally as legally in central Oregon.
Much of this work is already going on, but ODFW will commit additional personnel and resources to the following actions.
- Improve winter and summer range by restoring habitat
- Protect important mule deer habitat from development
- Thin junipers, restore aspen communities
- Contain, reduce and eliminate spread of invasive weeds
- Treat forest stands to encourage growth of young, nutritious plants
Restoring mule deer habitat will benefit other wildlife species too. The actions being taken by the MDI are recommended by the Oregon Conservation Strategy for the long-term conservation of all the state’s native fish and wildlife and their habitats.
- Implement cougar target areas (in Steens Mtn, Warner beginning late 2009)
- Continue coyote control in winter range and fawning areas
- Encourage more public hunting of predators
|Law enforcement is essential to protecting mule deer from poaching and ensuring compliance with other wildlife protection laws.
- Photo by ODFW -
- Increase law enforcement presence in eastern Oregon
- Increase penalties for poaching of mule deer and incentives to turn in poachers
- Work with local courts to increase enforcement of mule deer hunting violations
- Permanently or seasonally close roads to protect winter range and fawning areas
- Continue working with ODOT to minimize deer/ vehicle collisions
- Increase signing and enforcement of Travel Management Areas
Improve precision and accuracy of harvest surveys, composition counts, and population models considered when developing regulations
- Monitor disease outbreaks and prevalence
- Be vigilant to keep new diseases from entering Oregon
Representatives from the Mule Deer Foundation, Oregon Hunters Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, federal land management agencies, tribes, county government and private landowners helped ODFW plan the MDI and will continue to be involved in on-the-ground efforts to restore mule deer populations.
Fast facts about Oregon’s mule deer
- The estimated 2009 Oregon mule deer population of 216,154 is below the statewide management objective of 344,900 animals.
- Mule deer (found east of the Cascades) and black-tailed deer (west of the Cascades) are the same species but different sub-species of deer.
- Deer have a smaller digestive track than elk or cattle, so their forage needs to be of higher nutritional quality.
- Mule deer breed once per year, in late fall, and does generally produce two fawns.
- In 2008, about 70,000 people went deer hunting in eastern Oregon, generating almost $22 million for the economy.
- Ranches, farms and other private lands provide winter range and other important habitat for mule deer.