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  • Writer's pictureJared Oakleaf

Purveyors of Snake Oil Find Cottage Industry in Western Wyoming Mule Deer

Updated: Nov 29, 2018

Some hunters believe that a limited quota tag system will solve all their problems. In fact, there is so much faith in limited quota systems, I am surprised it hasn't been flown to gain world peace.

The issue de jure is Western Wyoming mule deer. The demagogues claim a mule deer "crisis". Their solution, no surprise here, is to limit the number of resident hunters. As the villain in the Stephen King novel, Needful Things, says:

“Ladies and gentlemen, attention please! Come in close where everyone can see! I got a tale to tell, it isn’t gonna cost a dime! (And if you believe that, we’re gonna get along just fine.)”

Limiting resident hunting in Western Wyoming will not improve mule deer populations. Also, this sacrificial tag allotment system will not improve hunt quality. A snake oil by any measure.

The biology of mule deer is clear: limited buck harvest will not grow populations.

The irony of the matter is that most of the discussion seems to vacillate on bucks, not does. The fact remains, healthy moms and fawns grow populations. The essential component to population growth is the continued replenishment that occurs when fawns make it to adulthood. This means that mom needs to be healthy enough to support her young, both in utero and with lactation.

To digress, let us entertain what limited quota hunting can do for deer. A limited buck harvest can increase buck to doe ratios in deer herds. Limiting harvest can also increase the amount of older age class deer. In the best-case scenario, these positives are still incumbent upon fawn recruitment. In Western Wyoming, a reduced harvest will increase the number of bucks that fall to the most prolific killer of them all. In the winter of 2016-2017 he overstayed his welcome, as he does every 3-7 years. He goes by the nom de plume ‘old man winter’.

Yes, in the human world, it takes two to tango; it is more like 1.09 in the deer world. Pregnancy rates among mule deer are high, and remain so, even with a low buck to doe ratio. Research indicates, that a buck to doe ratio as low as 9 bucks per 100 doe maintains the high fertilization rates. Buck to doe ratios in Western Wyoming, currently sit at 29 bucks per 100 doe, hardly a “crisis”.

Mule deer are especially influenced by weather cycles. Both drought and severe winter can leave the females in poor condition. Poor doe condition results in a massive suppression of fawn recruitment. This cycle occurs across entire regions or states. The good news, when weather is right, mule deer boom. In Western Wyoming, mule deer seem to be especially yoked to weather, with ‘old man winter’ being the greatest regulator of deer. Yet, as mule deer population data has shown, in Western Wyoming, what goes down will return.

So, a buck harvest, is not bad for a population. In an ideal world, managers could increase buck harvest in preparation for a hard winter. This would increase forage for does and reduce the amount of postseason death. Unfortunately, managers do not have a magic 8-ball that predicts weather. This reality requires biologist to keep herds robust relative to the capacity of the land. Managing for a robust population does not always compliment marketing schemes that pimp giant bucks or unrealistic expectations. However, a robust population is the only effective tool to limit the take of ‘old man winter’.

A limited quota tag system for residents will not improve hunter satisfaction.

Another trick to sell snake oil is to convince you to buy a virtue in which you already own. In this instance, the virtue is hunter satisfaction or hunt quality. The demagogues claim a diminished hunt quality in Western Wyoming. Their only solution, reduce resident hunters by 50%. The truth always makes a wicked bed fellow to sensationalized scare tactics. Hunter satisfaction in Western Wyoming has been very high in the last five years.

In 2016, 70% 0f Western Wyoming mule deer hunters were satisfied with their experience. It is very likely that this level went down in 2017, but this too is cyclic. Until 2017, hunter satisfaction in Western Wyoming has increased each year since 2011. During this time, we enjoyed favorable weather patterns that bolstered deer populations. Hunter satisfaction cycles with the deer that cycle with the weather.

Converting resident mule deer to limited quota has little benefit and great cost.

I am always willing to make sacrifices for the betterment of the herd. I have volunteered countless hours to support ungulates within this state. A high stakes sacrifice should have a chance at an equally beneficial return. Limiting resident tags has no return on the sacrifice.

Limiting the number of residents that hunt bucks will not be effective because it does not address doe to fawn ratios, the true growth commodity of deer. It also does not limit the take of ‘old man winter’, who does not give a damn about the convoluted tag allocation system. He will continue to kill deer. In short, mule deer population cycles continue regardless of buck harvest by hunters.

Moreover, history has shown that despite population trends, limited quota areas do not go back to over-the-counter. The scenario has played out elsewhere. The same people who pushed for limited quota will continue to push for less tags. The pressure on managers continues to build. Managers relent, and the number of hunters falls into the single digits. Now tag auctions and scouting services become an even bigger business. The do-it-yourself hunter finds themselves shoulder to shoulder in the few remaining areas in which they can hunt. Residents cannot draw a tag. This Beehive State reality, is not one I want for Wyoming.

Wyoming Game and Fish is the premier wildlife agency, in large part, because of the opportunity it affords the commonwealth. We residents are especially endowed. One of the prizes for being a Wyoming resident is the privilege of hunting mule deer in Western Wyoming-a world-renowned mule deer area. The biology shows that this is a renewable privilege. To maintain this prize, we do need to support habitat. We don’t need to partake in doses of ‘limited quota quackery’.

Please do not change the hunting seasons in Wyoming without clear biological evidence that it is needed. I ask other hunters to join me in asking the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to make decisions based on biology and data, not hyperbole.

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