This article first appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Oregon Hunter Magazine.
MDI: Five-Year Check-In
Back in 2009, ODFW made the commitment to try and do something about Oregon’s declining mule deer populations. It’s a problem across the West, blamed on many factors: habitat, predation, changing weather patterns, disturbance from ATV’s and poaching.
ODFW chose five units to focus on—Heppner, Murderers Creek, Maury, Steens Mtn, Warner—and called together local sportsmen, private landowners and natural resource agency personnel to develop a plan for each unit.
The cooperation continued once work began. “The most amazing thing about MDI was the cooperation we got. Federal land agencies, county governments, private landowners, sportsman organizations like the Mule Deer Foundation and everyone got on board,” said Craig Foster, district wildlife biologist in Lake County for the Warner Unit. “The very fact that ODFW made mule deer a priority got a whole bunch of people involved. We leveraged that to do good things for deer.”
|Mule deer in Warner Unit.
- Photo by Max Corning -
Habitat work: Within MDI units, more than 266,000 acres of habitat were treated for a cost of more than $18 million (87% of those funds came from cooperators, including from work benefiting threatened sage grouse). See the table for more information. Natural resource agencies like USDA National Resource Conservation Service, U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management were large contributors to habitat work, improving more than 195,000 acres and contributing more than $12.7 million in habitat work.
Predator control: ODFW saw elk calf survival recruitment rates roughly double after cougar target areas in Heppner and Ukiah, and hoped to repeat this success for mule deer in Warner and Steens Mtn. ODFW removed 28 cougars in Warner and 60 in Steens. This amount did not meet original targets (56 for Warner, 80 for Steens) as cougars become more difficult to catch as their populations declined. Mild weather also added to the challenge. While ODFW did not detect an increase in overall mule deer numbers in Warner and Steens, hunter success rates climbed, more mature bucks were taken and post-season buck ratios improved.
Regulation, TMAs, enforcement, disease: MDI efforts included increased OSP enforcement in all MDI units; seasonal closures of the Schneider Wildlife Area to reduce disturbance to wintering mule deer in Murderers Creek; reduced tags in Warner and Maury; controlled archery seasons in Warner, Maury and Steens.
New survey method: When the MDI effort was started, ODFW recognized that its traditional “trend” population surveys, which looked at the same route each winter, were not accurate enough to measure a change in deer populations. As part of MDI efforts, the department implemented a more rigorous, statistically-based method called quadrat sampling. The method involves flying all deer winter range in a unit and then sub-sampling several randomly chosen one-square mile areas. Like any survey method, quadrat sampling depends on a winter concentration of deer for accurate measurements. But mild weather in 2012 and 2013 left deer scattered. “We were finding deer at 7,000 feet in the dead of winter while sampling,” says Foster. ODFW is now working to meld the best of traditional and quadrat surveys to try and reduce count sensitivity to weather conditions.
Results at five-year mark: The MDI process was very successful at identifying the problems affecting deer in specific areas and implementing an effort to address those problems. Some of the actions worked on the first try and some will need modifications. Wildlife managers were not expecting huge changes after just five years and the new survey methods were not conclusive in showing an increase in deer numbers. “We expect it will take time for deer to respond to habitat changes,” says Foster. “But in some MDI units, locals are telling us they are seeing more deer.”
Improving mule deer populations will be a long-term effort. “It took a long time to get to this spot and it will take a long time to turn the ship,” says Ronald Anglin, ODFW wildlife division administrator. “There is no silver bullet. It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of investment over time.”
Anglin says continued MDI work depends on ODFW’s budget being approved, which includes a fee increase for hunting licenses and tags. “ODFW is depending on the fee increase to be able to maintain programs and to expand the MDI effort into additional units in eastern Oregon,” he said.