Mule deer numbers in the Bitterroot Valley’s trophy district are well down from their historic highs, but a recent survey found encouraging numbers of bucks and fawns.
The Bitterroot’s new Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist, Rebecca Mowry, completed the annual post-hunting season mule deer survey in hunting district 270 last week.
The aerial survey, completed via helicopter, had to be pushed over a two-day period due to windy weather one morning and a heavy dose of fog the next.
“We like to be able to do it in one fell swoop, if possible,” Mowry said.
This year, she counted a total of 886 deer, which was down a bit from last year’s 938.
“That’s not a whole lot of difference,” she said.
Some of the difference might be due to having a new biologist on board or weather conditions that keep deer hunkered down in places where they can’t be counted. There’s always some variables in the surveys from year to year.
Like everywhere in the West, mule deer numbers have been dropping over the past few years. While there are a lot of theories on what’s driving that regional decline, there are no definitive answers. Some of the suggestions include fragmented habitat, climate change’s impacts on native vegetation and predator issues.
In the early 1990s, biologists counted as many as 2,500 mule deer in HD 270. More recently, mule deer numbers in the hunting district peaked at 1,757 in 2009. Numbers have been dropping ever since, with a low point of about 700 in 2012.
Mowry did find good numbers of both buck deer and fawns.
The buck/doe ratio from last week’s survey stood at 40.5 bucks per 100 does.
Mowry said that’s the highest buck/doe ratio in the district since 2007. Since the deer were beginning to drop their antlers, there may have been a few buck deer that weren’t included in the count.
“The helicopter pilot said he was seeing buck deer with only one antler last week,” she said. “We saw a buck with one antler and another without antlers. Still, we did see more buck deer than we’ve seen in the last three years.”
Mowry saw a number of very large bucks too.
“Some of those bucks were monsters,” she said. “They were really big.”
This year’s fawn crop was faring well. Mowry counted 56 fawns for every 100 does. Last year, the survey found slightly better numbers at 59 fawns per 100 does.
“I used to work in Texas,” Mowry said. “If we saw numbers like that, we knew we were doing pretty well. … The deer that we saw all looked pretty healthy. They were pretty fat.”