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Deseret Morning News archives
Deer forage for food in January 1952, when they were so numerous that they caused problems for farmers and ranchers by eating their hay and nibbling on orchards.

Logic would suggest that the best of times for Utah's deer were back when there were few people, no homes or roads, hunting equipment was crude and not very efficient, and the only competition they faced in the search for food would have been from other deer.

So much for logic.

Truth is the best times for Utah's deer were back in the 1950s and 1960s, a century after pioneers entered the valley, bringing with them herds of cattle and sheep that, based on practices at the time, overgrazed the available grass.

The predominant big-game animals when pioneers entered the valley were elk and bighorn sheep. There weren't many deer. The hillsides were covered with grasses back then, which are good foods for elk and sheep, but not for deer.

"Deer numbers erupted under an unusual set of circumstances," explained Jim Karpowitz, former big-game coordinator and now director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and author of Utah's deer management plan.

Mule deer were common but not abundant back when pioneers entered the valley. Unrestricted hunting, in fact, nearly wiped out what deer Utah held. Lawmakers responded by closing hunting between the years 1908 and 1913, then after 1913 only bucks were fair game.

Overgrazing turned what were lush fields of grasses into a barren wasteland, which allowed browse and forbs, main foods for deer, to grow.

The deer responded. Numbers increased rapidly. In contrast, elk and sheep numbers fell just as quickly.

To control the rapidly expanding deer herds, Utah went to hunting both does and bucks in 1951. Hunters, in fact, were allowed multiple permits to hunt multiple seasons. Deer were numerous and big bucks common.

These were the "good old days" often relived by grandpas when they talk about past hunts.

The highest number of deer ever harvested in a single year in Utah was in 1961 when 132,000 were taken. By comparison, around 25,000 deer were harvested last year. It was in 1961 that deer numbers began to fall.

To slow the falling deer numbers, Utah went back to buck-only hunting in 1975.

One of the best buck-only hunts at the time was in 1985 when 82,552 bucks were harvested. The highest number of hunters afield was in 1983 when 228,907 bought licenses.

Following the harsh winter of 1992-93, when thousands of deer died from starvation, Utah set a cap on deer licenses of 97,000. This covered all three deer hunts — archery, muzzleloader and general rifle.

That limit remains in place today. Aggravated by the drought, Utah's deer herds have struggled over the past decade. Biologists believe conditions this past year were such that deer numbers increased slightly.

Statewide estimates are that Utah's deer population is around 320,000. Long-term objective is 426,000 deer.

The single most important element in the recovery plan for deer is to improve habitat. The encroachment of civilization and the continual building of homes, shopping centers, parking lots and roads continue to shrink available winter habitat.

A meager supply of food in the winter, the prolonged drought and, among other things, predators are all reasons for a lower number of fawns being born each spring, which in turn keeps deer counts down.


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