Ray Grass: This is why there are far fewer deer — and tags — available for this weekend's big deer hunt

Published: Thursday, Oct. 17 2013 9:35 a.m. MDT

The Utah general season deer hunt will open Saturday with rather subdued hype. That is, compared to the days when schools and businesses closed, football games were canceled, canyon roads were clogged with campers and trailers, and finding a camping spot was more difficult than spotting a deer.

Utah’s deer count is less than half what it was back in the 1970s and 1980s. Harsh winters, loss of habitat, limited winter food supply, predators, highway accidents and hunting have taken a harsh toll on the deer. And, as a result, there are far fewer hunters.

One theory is that when the pioneers entered the valley there were few deer, but they came with lots of cattle. The cattle overgrazed the grasses thus making room for browse, the main food for deer. Now the browse has either been replaced by houses or eaten so grasses are making their way back. Deer don’t care much for grasses, but elk do. As a result, Utah’s elk numbers have risen.

One figure showed elk numbers jumped from 18,000 to 58,000 between 1975 and 1990. The current elk population in Utah is estimated to be around 68,000. The population objective, which is the estimated number of elk Utah’s landscape is able to sustain, is around 71,000.

This Saturday, roughly 60,000 hunters will pocket their deer tags and go in search of the elusive buck. About one in three hunters will fill those tags. The remainder will enjoy the mountains and the hiking.

This is a far cry from 1961, when an estimated 132,000 deer were killed and more than 200,000 hunters were afield. In 1985, there were more deer harvested — 82,552 — than there will be hunters out on Saturday.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is doing everything it can to revive deer numbers, but with limited success.

Wildlife officials, for example, estimate that the number of deer in the northern region “is below objective on most of the units.’’ Numbers are better in the central region, but in some units, “The picture isn’t quite as bright.’’ In the northeastern region, the overall number of deer “is well below objective.’’ In the southeastern region, biologists report good vegetation, good fawn production in the spring and “more bucks’’ seen in the northern areas, but in the southern areas, “the outlook isn’t quite as good." And in the southern region, deer numbers are growing and “most of the biologists think this year’s hunt will be better than last year’s.’’

The decline of the mule deer population isn’t isolated just to Utah, but over the entire West. Best estimates in California, for example, indicate the population has dropped from around 2 million deer in the 1960s to around 450,000 today.

Another argument is that hunters are going after the larger trophy bucks, and does will select the most mature bucks for breeding. The problem is the number of larger bucks is declining, which is resulting in fewer fawns being born. A good number of fawns — 70 per 100 does — was reported in some units in the southeastern region, for example, but in other units the count was only 50 fawns per 100 does.

Two mild winters have resulted in good fawn survival, but other factors, such as road kill and predators, have taken a serious toll on the young. The good fawn survival will result in a crop of yearling bucks in the field. As a result, most of the deer taken this weekend will be yearlings.

So, the question remains: Will Utah’s mule deer population ever recover to 1970-80 levels? It would take lots of money, a reduction in predators, a big push for expanded habitat, a strict management plan and a big helping hand from Mother Nature.

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