Listen to this post
RBC I Nearly all wildlife in Rio Blanco County is doing quite well following a wet spring, and some species are doing so well that they may be contributing to the decrease in number of area mule deer.
Bill deVergie of Meeker, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said the deer is the only species of real concern as the winter and spring precipitation mixed with the sunshine have foraging conditions in excellent shape for all wildlife, including bears and mountain lions, “Which, along with the coyote, are a very real part, but only a portion, of the problem we are having with decreasing deer numbers.”
“Bears and mountain lions are doing very well this year as are all of the animals out there from skunks to elk to foxes and coyotes and even the raptors,” deVergie said. “After several dry winters, the precipitation this year is most welcome and is making a huge difference all around.”
And while a proliferation of bears, mountain lions and coyotes is a good sign for the environment, deVergie points out that the bears, mountain lions and coyotes combine to be one of the top three concerns regarding the decrease in number of deer throughout the West.
“The deer numbers have been down throughout the West for the past five years, and Colorado has continued to reduce the number of hunting licenses available,” he said. “We are all trying to figure out the pieces of the puzzle as to why because there simply isn’t one big trigger,” he said.
DeVergie said wildlife experts tend to point to three major issues regarding the decrease in the deer population: the weather, development and predation.
“We have had definite drought problems for many of the last several years and with the harsh, cold winters we have had, the survival rates have been down,” he said. “The snows haven’t been there in great quantity and with windy, cold winters, the animals haven’t been able to break through the crust and get to the forage.
Adult deer, he said, have been doing OK with their survival rate of 83 percent to 85 percent making it through each winter. The yearling fawns, however, have had winters where only 30 percent to slightly higher have made it through.
“When you are losing 15 percent of the adult deer and up to 70 percent of the fawns, the rate of survival isn’t there to increase the herds,” he said. “You need as many new deer as there were deer that died off naturally, and those numbers just haven’t been there when you consider the other two major factors.”
Development, particularly in areas that have served as breeding and foraging grounds, also adds to the decrease in deer, deVergie said.
“Development around some of the cities in the West, in the expanding industrial areas and in some of oil/gas developments are all cutting down on the natural habitat and foraging areas these animals have been using for centuries,” he said. “Development also means more people and more people means that there will be more run-ins between the deer and vehicles.”
deVergie said he would estimate that “several hundred deer are killed each year in Rio Blanco County alone due to collisions with vehicles.”
From mid-May to October, he said, the deer are heading up to the higher elevations and become less of a traffic hazard. But he said, there are still some collisions in the summer, but that as soon as the cold weather and snow return in October, the deer hurry back down and rush into the towns and onto the highways, which are often snow-free and where winter grasses are usually easier for the deer to obtain.
Regarding road-killed deer, deVergie said that by far the worst road in Colorado is State Highway 13 from Rifle to Craig and on to Baggs, Wyo., at the border. State Highway 64 between Meeker and Rangely is another of the worst roads, he said.
“We can’t put up fences; that won’t work,” he said. “It is up to the drivers in Rio Blanco County to be more careful between October and May; if we are seeing several hundred deer killed each year just within the county, there is a problem that we must all concentrate on solving.”
Predation is the third serious threat to deer numbers throughout the West, deVergie said.
“Predation plays a big part in the decreasing deer numbers but is the toughest factor to stop,” he said. “The three predators we look at with deer are the bear, the mountain lion and the coyote,” deVergie said. “The bears seem to focus on the younger deer and fawns, the lions tend to get the older deer and the coyotes are opportunists, they’ll take whatever they can get any way they can get it.”
deVergie also pointed out that Colorado is not alone with decreases in deer herds.
“This is true throughout the West,” he said. “Utah, Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico are also seeing decreases in the herds, but there is a growing effort to tackle the issue on a cooperative level.”
deVergie, who came to Meeker in 1991, said he has seen a decrease in the deer population ever since he arrived.
“Things have just plain changed since I got here,” he said. “We have many fewer sheep on the ranches around here and they used to eat the sagebrush. Now, we are finding out that we have older sagebrush for grazing and it isn’t as nutritional as the younger plants.
“These are all factors, but now we are seeing a cooperative effort by surrounding states to share their findings and concerns with us, and vice versa,” he said. “We are going to increase public hearings around this and other states to share concerns and someone, somewhere just might have a solution or a combination of solutions.”
He said there was a “deer summit” in Montrose in April and, as a result, participants will be focusing exclusively on the Western Slope and in particular on Northwest Colorado.
“We want more public input,” deVergie said. “The public has a big impact on all the wildlife in the state and we need more public participation. All of the Western states have done their surveys, and we are sharing those surveys and other information for the first time. Maybe by putting all our heads together, we can arrive at some kind of solution.”