Sunday, 25 March 2012 21:47

What happened to the mule deer?

Reprinted from the Las Vegas Review Journal

By Vin Suprynowicz

In 1988, hunters bought 51,011 deer hunting licenses in Nevada and harvested 26,784 mule deer.

In 2008, the Nevada Department of Wildlife sold 16,997 tags. Hunters bagged only 7,025 deer.

That's a huge decline. Where are the deer?

Oddly enough, whatever the problem is, it seems to affect only mule deer -- the species that generates most of the Department of Wildlife's revenue, when you consider that Uncle Sam matches deer tag revenue three-to-one.

Bighorn sheep populations are up. Antelope tags and harvests doubled over those same 20 years. Elk tags skyrocketed, from 182 to 2,723, with the elk harvest growing from 91 to 1,315.

It's hard to believe all those other species could thrive if the problem were drought or wildfires or fences or roads cutting off migration routes.

A state biologist says the apparent decline is due to cherry-picking 1988 as a starting point -- a wet year and a high point for the state's deer herd. Just six years earlier, for example, 23,053 hunters took only 11,954 deer in 1982. Current deer populations and harvests are only "slightly below" the historic average, according to Tony Wasley, the Nevada Department of Wildlife's expert on mule deer.

But a prominent hunting advocate, along with current and past members of the state Wildlife Commission, disagree. They paint a more ominous picture of a Californian re-appointed to head the agency as a political favor by Gov. Brian Sandoval after that same director, Ken Mayer, had been fired by former Gov. Jim Gibbons precisely for failing to take concrete steps to bring back a deer herd whose numbers have plunged so badly they may now be overestimated in pursuit of lucrative deer tag revenues.

They worry Mayer may have kept from his 27 years with California Fish & Game -- a state where mountain lions are experiencing a population explosion because they're no longer hunted, except when they take a jogger -- a reluctance to thin out predators, including lions and coyotes.

"For over two decades, NDOW has used 15 different excuses for Nevada's mule deer decline," argues activist Cecil Fredi of the group Hunter's Alert. "For the past few years, NDOW has used the habitat excuse. This is an excuse they can use for several more decades until their retirements kick in. It's hard to blame habitat when elk and deer occupy the same areas. Elk numbers have increased dramatically over the past two decades while deer numbers have dramatically declined," Fredi says. "The reason for this decline is that the main source of food for the mountain lion is the mule deer.

"Most biologists (but not NDOW's) believe that a lion will eat a deer a week," Fredi writes in a recent report with the attention-getting headline, "Nevada's deer will never recover." Fredi's main contention is that the state Department of Wildlife refuses to acknowledge any predator problem.

I called deer hunter and Wildlife Commissioner Scott Raine -- the immediate past chairman of the commission -- in Eureka, where he runs the town's only grocery, to ask him if Fredi's account is accurate.

"That's exactly correct," said Raine. "The mule deer population has just been crashing like a bomb in the past decade. They say, 'We don't know why it's happening, but it must be habitat.' When in doubt, blame the habitat. When you start talking about predation control, they don't even want to consider that part of the equation."

Gerald Lent, the now-retired Reno optometrist who chaired the Wildlife Commission for two years and served as vice chairman last year, but was not reappointed by Sandoval, recalls the commission approved spending $400,000 for predator control on mule deer and sage grouse. "Director Mayer fought against all these. He called the feds and shut down the sage grouse study."

Why would Mayer do that? "I don't know," says Lent. "He said the predator project to save the deer he wouldn't go along with. I think he's from California, where they outlaw predation projects."

I tried to reach Mayer for a response. He didn't return my calls, but delegated Wasley to answer my questions. Biologist Wasley says the very fact his position was created 2½ years ago demonstrates the department's commitment to maintaining the species.

"We have several predator control projects ongoing, and have spent millions of dollars in that arena," Wasley argues. "When we have removed a considerable number of predators, we have not been able to show any positive impact on game populations."

Lent has a different recollection. Under state law, "$3 per hunter is supposed to go to predator control. It's $300,000. So we put it into Area 014 west of the Gerlach Desert," Lent remembers. "The project was started in 2005 by (U.S.) Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services. From 2005 when they started, up till now, in the smallest deer management area in the state, they've taken probably 45 lions out of there, killed them. In 2005, the deer population was 850. This is out of NDOW's own book. Right now they estimate 1,400 deer there in 2011 -- that's a 65 percent increase in deer population. ... Right across the road in Area 015, that area is going down, down, down. There's no lion control in there. The lions kill a deer a week."

Mr. Wasley responds, "There was no significant difference in the area Dr. Lent is referring to in comparison to areas where there was an absence of predator control."

I asked Lent is he believes NDOW is inflating the numbers of the current deer herd, which state officials put at about 109,000. "Absolutely," he said. "They cannot prove the deer went up 2 percent from 107,000 to 109,000. The deer tag money is matched three-to-one federally. It's their cash cow."

He went on: "We had a predator conference that we had on the agenda. Ken Mayer brought in his buddies he used to work with down in California, and they basically said predation by mountain lions had no effect on the deer population, and that's not true. See, you can't hunt mountain lions in California, and I think that philosophy comes over the mountains."

Mr. Wasley defends the department's current estimate of 109,000 mule deer in Nevada, arguing that number is arrived at by tripling the deer seen from helicopters in aerial surveys. "So for somebody to suggest that it's as small as half of our published estimate, that would suggest that what we're seeing is close to 70 percent of the deer in the state, which simply is not the case. If the numbers were that small, we would begin to see hunter failure. ...

"I'm not under any constraint," Mr. Wasley says. "The director hasn't come down here and told me, 'We're not gonna kill lions, we're not gonna kill coyotes.' If there was a way that I knew we could increase mule deer, I would do it today, for selfish reasons. I love mule deer. I love to hunt mule deer. ... If there was something we could do to create more opportunity for Nevada's deer hunters, we'd do it."

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and author of the novel "The Black Arrow" and "Send in the Waco Killers." See www.vinsuprynowicz.com.

Published in Online Articles
Monday, 19 April 2010 06:03

Declining Deer Herds Spark Debate

Declining western deer herds have biologists, sportsman groups and environmentalists clashing over whether mountain lions and coyotes are largely to blame and should pay with their lives.

On one side are those who believe the number of deer predators should be reduced through targeted hunting programs. Others say factors such as the loss of natural habitat and wildfires are the issue.

Published in 2010 Online News
Tuesday, 01 July 2008 00:00

Governor Jim Gibbons Keeps His Word

Unlike former Governor Kenny Guinn, Governor Jim Gibbons kept his word to Nevada’s deer hunters. Governor Gibbons’ appointments to the Wildlife Commission have been instructed to bring back our deer. A small group wanted to have their people reappointed to the Wildlife Commission. The governor must have realized that if they hadn’t done anything for our deer while they were serving  three years on the Wildlife Commission, then there was a strong indication that they had no intention to move forward on this very important task.  Leading is not about popularity.  Leading is doing what is best and that is what Governor Jim Gibbons did with his appointments to the Wildlife Commission. Here is a brief history of the people Gibbons has appointed to the Wildlife Commission.

 

Gerald Lent was appointed as a sportsmen’s representative from Washoe County. He has also served on the Washoe County Advisory Board. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology. No one has spent more of their own time and money for sportsmen in our state than Gerald Lent. He has been responsible for the passage of many bills that have benefitted every sportsman in the state.

 

Tom Cavin will represent the sportsmen from rural counties. He has Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife Management and is a charter member of the Nevada Wildlife Record Book Committee.

 

Grant Wallace represents farming and lives in Esmeralda County. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Systems Management from Cal. Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and is a member of the Esmeralda County Wildlife Advisory Board, as well as an avid hunter.

 

Mike McBeath was appointed as a sportsman representative from Clark County. He is currently a member of the Clark County Advisory Board to Manage Wildlife.

 

These new commissioners will bring with them fresh ideas which are long overdue. Jim Gibbons is to be commended for his new appointments.

Published in HA Newsletter 33
Tuesday, 01 July 2008 00:00

Editorial-2008

Good times are coming for the people who are concerned about the loss of our deer. The newly appointed Wildlife Commissioners have been told by Governor Jim Gibbons to bring back our deer. It won’t be easy nor will it be quick. Let’s review who was responsible for the loss of these deer and why it happened.

 

Published in HA Newsletter 33
Tuesday, 01 July 2008 00:00

Clint Bentley…Gone At Last!

Sold out the sportsmen right to the end

 

For the last six years, HUNTER’S ALERT has told you how bad Clint Bentley has been as a Wildlife commissioner. He should never have been appointed to the Commission. HUNTER’S ALERT isn’t going to waste any more ink and paper on his many past failures to represent sportsmen.

 

It should be noted on his way out that he needs credit for the following: as chairman of the Heritage Committee, he approved of giving a student funds to do a study in another state! Heritage Fund money is supposed to be used for Nevada projects. The state of California will now ‘benefit’ from the $30,000 Mr. Bentley pushed to be approved as part of the total $171,122 funding for a 10 year project to find out why there are almost no deer left in the California Mohave Desert. Our government removed the cattle ranchers from this area. They had previously been maintaining water sources, which of course dried up because ranchers weren’t around to maintain them. One might think that instead of spending the $30,000, Mr. Bentley might have realized that your average 4 year old could tell you that if cows can drink, so can deer. No ranchers = no water = no deer.

 

The next giveaway was even worse. He pushed the approval of giving $40,000 to start a 4 year mountain lion study. This was just the tip of the iceberg.  The proposed project is to pay a graduate student to get a doctorate by giving the student a total budget of $472,040 to complete the study, including paying a salary and “fringe benefits” of $87,600 to the student. This project will include genetic analysis of 700 lions in Nevada (these 700 lions alone will kill at least 36,000 deer in the state each year). Nice study, Mr. Bentley, unfortunately your subjects have just consumed most of our deer population. Your study may be a success, but the deer will be dead.  What (or who) will your lions eat then?

 

And finally, in his last meeting on June 28th, he voted to make the wolf a big game animal in Nevada. Great! That’s just what Nevada hunters need, more predators! The mountain lions have decimated our deer.  All we need is for wolves to start killing elk, livestock and the small number of deer we have left. Clint must be really popular with the Nevada ranchers.

 

It is quite apparent that Clint Bentley had not done any due diligence on any of these issues. Just on the wolf issue, he would have realized that the wolves have pounded the elk herds in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. It’s so bad in Wyoming that in 88 percent of the state, wolves are classified as predators like coyotes and can be killed without regard for fair chase rules, seasons or bag limits. Nevada should have followed Wyoming’s lead on this issue. But Clint’s answer to predator control was to build another water hole for the sheep. With that way of thinking, no one will miss Clint as a Wildlife commissioner. If it hadn’t been for former Commissioners Tommy Ford and John Moran who were responsible for getting Bentley on the Wildlife Commission, Clint wouldn’t have had the chance to sell out the sportsmen for the last 6 years.

Published in HA Newsletter 33

A rebuttal to Dave Rice’s article which appeared in the Reno Gazette Journal, January 25, 2008

 

I read with interest your article in the Reno Gazette Journal, January 25, 2008, concerning Nevada's declining deer population.

I do not know whom the NDOW expert, Biologist Mike Cox is, but he is a long way from knowing or telling the "real story" of what went on during the big deer years in Nevada. If he thinks that the main reason for the decline of Nevada deer herds is the overall condition of habitat, he either does not know what he is talking about or he is creating "smoke and mirrors” for NDOW.

I ran the operational Predatory Animal Control program throughout the State of Nevada for the U. S Fish & Wildlife Program, during the 1970s and 80s, as the Assistant State Supervisor.  I believe I have on-the-ground and in-the-air understanding of what went on during the big deer years in Nevada.  There were three full-time Government Mountain Lion Hunters employed year-around hunting lions.  Coyote and mountain lion numbers were kept under control.  Deer tags, for Nevada hunters, were unlimited in number and were available for over-the-counter purchase at hunting-license dealers statewide.

In 1972, a big change occurred in the Animal Damage Control business throughout the west.  President Richard Nixon banned the use of toxicants in the government control program by executive order.  (He was soliciting the environmental vote that was just starting to emerge.)   With the loss of toxicants and nothing to replace it with but a few trappers, coyote numbers began to rise dramatically. Throughout the state of Nevada, deer numbers fell to 96,000 by 1976. Predation upon livestock by predators was a serious problem. In the late 70s, political pressure by the livestock industry and their representatives in Washington, D.C. brought about a dramatic increase in the Federal budget for Animal Damage Control.

The federal government began to appropriate large sums of money in order to prove that coyote numbers could be controlled by what they liked to call "non-toxic methods.”  This program increased use of aircraft, both fixed -wing and rotor-wing, to shoot coyotes from the air and additional trappers on the ground to replace the controversial use of toxicants.  (This was meant to look good to the environmentalist.)

At that time, there was a large, domestic range-sheep industry, operating throughout the state of Nevada.  Domestic sheep acted as a "buffer species" to deer for predatory animals.  Predators, largely, lived on domestic sheep, which were much easier to kill than mule deer.  The Ruby Mountains, in Elko County for example, had over 50,000 domestic sheep that summered on this mountain range in the 1970s.

In the early1980s, wild-animal longhair fur prices went sky high and private trappers were out in force. There were large numbers of coyotes and bobcats harvested by private trappers since fur prices were at an all time high.  Gas was around $1.25 a gallon. Coyote varmint callers were out in force.  All of the private trapping and shooting plus the concentrated government effort to control predator numbers began to pay off.  By the year 1988, the mule deer population responded to these concentrated predator-control efforts and mule deer numbers statewide were quoted by NDOW at 240,000.  NDOW was busy patting themselves on the back for what a masterful deer management program they had in place throughout the state of Nevada.  They credited the quota system for deer tags, which was put in place in 1976, and favorable weather conditions, relatively mild winters during that period, for the large increase in deer numbers, but never once did they mention the dramatic decrease in predator population numbers brought about by private hunters and trappers and the federal government program.

Now then we move forward in time, the range sheep industry began to disappear due to labor problems, government regulations, land use changes by public land administrators, imports, etc. Therefore, control efforts in and around range sheep herds decreased.  Cattle numbers began to decline.  Longhair fur prices fell, gas prices went up, vehicle prices went up, predator hunting declined, and soon predator population numbers began to come back.  Today the Nevada landscape is filled up with coyotes, bobcats, and mountain lions with some prowling the alleys of towns and cities.  Predators have a "free-roll" statewide.

So what do you think has happened to our deer population?  It has steadily gone down-hill with the decrease in predator control efforts and will continue to do so unless there is a dramatic decrease in predatory animal population numbers. NDOW has blamed the mule deer decline on overgrazing by livestock, poor habitat, too many fires, too cold, too wet, too dry, not enough snow, too much snow, etc. They are in denial when it comes to the overall effect that predators have on our mule deer and upland game bird population numbers in the State of Nevada.

In 2007, NDOW reported, there were 114,000 mule deer in the State of Nevada. Looks to me like we are almost out of deer. I wonder, what are the coyote, bobcat, and mountain lion numbers statewide in 2008???

I would solicit your printing this in your column

Thank you,

James "Mike" Laughlin

Supervisory Wildlife Biologist (Retired)

Bachelor of Science Degree- Wildlife Biology- Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

 

Ed. Note: Of course, the Reno Gazette-Journal did not print the rebuttal.

Published in HA Newsletter 33

In the 2001 Legislative session, HUNTER’S ALERT, working with Nevada Hunters Association and Assemblyman Jerry Claborn were successful in passing Assembly Bill 291. This bill enacted a $3.00 predator fee for every big game tag that hunters applied for. It should be noted that no other so-called sportsmen’s organization helped in the passage of this bill which was desperately needed to restore our deer.

 

This bill provides over $300,000 a year for predator control. The original intent of the bill was to do predator control to bring back our deer. However, former governor Kenny Guinn’s appointments to the Wildlife Commission, Tommy Ford, John Moran, Clint Bentley, Jack Robb and Jim Jeffress decided to do more sheep projects than deer projects. The reason for this is that the Wildlife Commission was stacked with sheep club members. It shows that they could care less about people who want to hunt deer.

 

To them, it was more important for 150 people to hunt sheep than the 35,000 hunters who want to hunt deer. I guess nobody in the sheep club hunts deer. Nothing like being a selfish bunch! NDOW has refused to do any predator control on its own. So with the money provided by sportsmen, they farm it out to Wildlife Services.

Published in HA Newsletter 33

Reprinted from The Nevada Rancher, June 2009

How free of politics is science? During a legislative hearing, the idea of not allowing laymen—in this case the nine members of the Nevada State Wildlife Commission—to have mandatory authority over a “professional biologist” was debated.

Published in HA Newsletter 34

Out with the old, in with the new was in order for the Wildlife Commission appointments.  The last of former Governor Kenny Guinn’s appointments to the Wildlife Commission have finally run their course. For Nevada deer hunters, that’s a good thing. Former commissioners David McNinch, Dan Swanson and Ron  Lurie did nothing to bring back our deer.  Quite the contrary. Most predator control projects to benefit deer were opposed by them.

Published in HA Newsletter 34

Reprinted from Reno Gazette Journal,

June 24, 2009

At the May meeting to set tag quotas, the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners voted 7-1 to support the recommendations of Elko-based Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist, Tony Wasley to issue 987 doe mule deer tags in areas 101, 102 and 104A, which encompass all of the Ruby Mountains north of Harrison Pass.

Published in HA Newsletter 34
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