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Mule Deer Numbers on the Upswing

Seeley Swan Pathfinder
April 8, 1999

by Mike Thompson,
FW&P Wildlife Biologist
Game Range Ramblings column

I never told you about one man's reaction to FWP's use of deer and elk decoys for catching poachers. He said he'd like to see how many wardens he could catch with a donut shop decoy.

I can't say whether he'd catch any wardens, but I know at least one wildlife biologist who would follow that decoy wherever it went.

So, we were eating breakfast pastries at the Wagon Wheel in Drummond when some of the local early birds struck up a conversation with my pilot and me. "What are you counting today?" asked one of them.

"Mule deer," Ron replied, with a sip of tea. (I love it when my pilots go on health kicks.)

"Where are you counting deer?!" another perked up, obviously with a strong personal interest in the topic.

"From Bearmouth to Drummond to Helmville, north of the Interstate and west of the Drummond-Helmville Road," I explained.

"You're not seeing much are you?"

"Fourteen-hundred," I replied quietly.

At times like this, you never know whether 1,400 mule deer would qualify as a surprisingly high number of animals, or "not much," but as the seconds of silence and poker-faced staring accumulated, it became increasingly clear that 1,400 was probably at least 1,000 more than our new acquaintance might have predicted.

I'll be forever grateful that my remarks killed the conversation before anyone could ask where we would be surveying next. Because I would have hated to try and explain why we would be counting the same 1,400 deer we counted two days earlier, and why we would be back in another two days to count them a third time.

We might have needed to buy our lunches elsewhere.

But, the results of this exercise turned out to be very interesting indeed. The largest difference between any two of the three counts was only 19 deer. I never would have predicted such consistent results across about 60 square miles of broken terrain. And, I wouldn't bet we'll do as well next year.

Why not? Well, for one thing, mule deer live to confound biologists in helicopters. Often, only one white butt will attract our attention to a particular patch of sagebrush, and after one or two other deer stand up and bound away, I'm ready to record my count. But, now there are six deer where only three were visible before, and aren't those deer legs protruding from beneath that juniper costume?

Heaven help you if you find over 100 deer in a single group, as we did on a couple of occasions. It will make you appreciate elk, which can be herded into small groups by a skillful pilot, and then counted at your leisure (if thick, forested cover isn't a factor). But, mule deer scatter to the four winds upon the helicopter's first approach. And, once a mule deer has been counted, it instinctively bounds ahead or doubles back to mix with uncounted groups. So, by the time you've finished with a group of 100, you don't know whether you counted the last 20 once, twice or three times. Don't even think of going back for a recount. You'll only find a dozen or so where a hundred stood before.

During the third survey, we spotted one deer standing in a small clump of a few fir. We were lucky to catch a glimpse of that deer, and I thought we might roust another one or two when we hovered. After 30 deer filed out of that cover, I was really beginning to doubt whether this survey would be comparable to the previous two surveys. We were finding deer in smaller groups than we had in the previous flights, but this was balanced by the fact that we observed 130 groups of deer, compared to 98 only two days earlier. In the end, the totals were virtually the same.

Are we good or were we lucky? Well, I think we can take credit for some of our success. We selected a favorable survey area, an ideal time period when deer were concentrated on early greenup, and an exceptionally skilled and experienced pilot.

I attribute the rest to clean living and La Nina.

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