Our western Wyoming mule deer herd is in crisis. The winter of 2016-17, advancements in hunting techniques, the selling of big buck coordinates, and unlimited resident tags have taken their toll on this herd. I believe that it is time to reduce the hunting pressure by 50% or more. If steps are not taken immediately, the greatest Wyoming mule deer herd will go down under our watch. I think that we should err on the side of caution when managing this herd. We have a mule deer crisis; let me explain why I feel this way.
There has been a noticeable decline in quality and buck numbers over the past few years. Anyone who has grown up here, hunted here for decades, or studied this herd on the winter grounds has noticed these declines. This is nothing new to mule deer herds across the west. The downturn in quality mule deer is something many of us have watched play out across the west in many places. Other historically high quality mule deer herds have hit the point of no return. Where I grew up, in southeastern Idaho, much of the world class mule deer hunting I experienced as a child is simply gone. The mule deer crisis exists because nobody has been willing to stand up and be accountable and demand change. Possibly due to selfish interests, either monetarily or in the form of over-the-counter tags. Children of southeastern Idaho have no idea how good the mule deer hunting used to be. It’s simply gone. I refuse to sit by and watch another world class herd go down. This is why I have decided to ring the bell and shout from the mountain top, “This herd needs our help!” Join me in doing all that we can to help preserve this amazing mule deer herd.
I have dedicated an incredible amount of time to watching this herd face many challenges. Environmental, ecological, animal predators, human predators, greed, technology and disease has contributed to this mule deer crisis. The numbers and trophy quality of the herd has steadily declined. There used to be over 500,000 mule deer in the state of Wyoming. That number dropped to only 364,000 in 2016. After the winter of 2016-2017 those numbers are certainly even lower.
The ability of the modern hunter to effectively kill game up to and beyond 1000 yards is a monumental game changer for the resource. Let’s not debate whether shooting at these extreme distances is right or wrong; the reality remains, the modern hunter is making these shots in the field. These advancements come at a price. Our game can no longer avoid the hunting pressure like in years past. The increased harvest capability is negatively impacting our hunting future in terms of quality and sustainability. This applies to residents, non-residents, DIYers and outfitters combined. There have also been huge advancements in gear, optics, communications technology, Google earth and overall knowledge. We are all responsible for this mule deer crisis.
Another major impact is the unregulated scouting of trophy animals and selling their GPS coordinates. These scouting services are not under a Forest Service permit or Wyoming outfitter’s license. This service adds a huge additional pressure to the finite number of mature trophy bucks in Western Wyoming. The mule deer numbers are shrinking fast!
I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. The hunting that I have experienced and shared with guides and clients is an amazing privilege. I have had the opportunity to chase, and be a part of harvesting, some of the biggest mule deer western Wyoming has ever produced. I have given my blood, sweat, and tears for our clients and the building of this business. Yet I am ready to give it all up, if necessary, to save this magical herd.
All of this is putting an unsustainable amount of pressure on our herd. Due to this very real mule deer crisis, the ever increasing negative impacts on the herd, it is time that we put the mule deer before our personal motivations and interests. It’s time we all take a step back and put the resource first.
Mule Deer Crisis in Area 135
Of all the many areas that make up Regions G and H, area 135 is in the worst shape of all. I believe it is imperative to separate area 135 from the rest of the high country units as far as its management. We should make 135 a stand alone unit with limited quota. Historically, hunters that had not filled their tags in other areas have moved to unit 135 as the season there was open later. This hunter shift in the past has crippled this unit. To make matters worse in area 135, the buck to doe ratio appears to be hovering around 10 bucks per 100 does currently. We all know what this means; does are getting bred on second cycles or not at all. Another byproduct of a buck to doe ratio that low is the bucks rut so hard and breed so many does that they end up in dangerously poor body condition going into winter. In addition to this, the winter of 2010-2011 produced a very low fawn survival rate. Unit 135 also has more road access than other units which causes increased mortality due to hunting pressure on the years when we have an early snowfall. That scenario played out again in 2016 when our snowfall came early in the year. It will take years for the herd in this area to rebound from this mule deer crisis. Let’s protect this until now before it’s too late. Thank God the commission listened to the concerns of a group of outfitters and a conservation group this year and linked the closing dates of all of western Wyoming’s high country units with area 135. This is the first year that all of the units have closed on the same day. Thanks to the WGF commission taking this step, area 135’s deer would be in far worse shape.
I have the utmost respect for the Wyoming Game and Fish and their monumental task of managing Wyoming’s unbelievable wildlife resource. I have attempted to work with the local Game and Fish many times. I also traveled to plead this same concern in front of the Game and Fish commission. Wyoming offers the best hunting in the west, it’s the Serengeti of the North American continent. The WGF is trying to do the impossible job of keeping everyone happy. It’s time to stop and revert to the original task of managing for the wildlife first. The time is NOW for a change in management strategy. The modern hunter comes to the field with more advantages for the hunt than ever before. The WGF cannot manage by the status quo any longer. Right now, the only management tools they have is shortening the season and cutting non-resident tag numbers. Both of those tools have already been maximized. If we have another bad winter as predicted, there are no options left for the WGF to use and the mule deer crisis will grow. We should not gamble with this tremendous, but delicate resource.
It’s time for a new strategy!
There is a law on the books right now that mandates that area tags be split, 80% of the tags to residents and 20% to non-residents for Mule deer and Antelope. The 400 tags that are currently allocated to non-residents is considerably below the number that would be required by law in light of the number of resident hunters that hunt this area. According to the WY Game and Fish, there are about 7000 resident hunters in region G each year. Under the current law, they would be required to issue 1400 non-resident tags. That additional 1000 hunters may very well destroy this unit. In court, the non-residents could demand more tags and would likely win. It would be a disaster to issue more non-resident tags. Our mule deer crisis indicates the herd cannot sustain the current number of hunters, let alone more tags.
Many have claimed that the easy answer to our over harvest is shortening the season. I whole-heartedly disagree and this is why: First, short seasons would create an opening week type of hunting pressure for the entire season. Also, outfitters would be forced to hire more guides and cover more area in a shorter time frame to stay in business. Instead of 4-5 guides we would have 8-9 guides in a camp. Not to mention, all tag holders for the year would be in the field at the same time creating a competition environment which would promote increased harvest. This has played out with the same results over and over again. Many of our neighboring states, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado, have failed at this management strategy.
The Next popular management strategy discussed to alleviate the mule deer crisis is a resident regional license. My first question is, “What happens if more hunters than we have currently from around the state pick western Wyoming?” We would need a cap on the number of licenses issued in regions G and H. Would this capped number be on a first come, first serve basis or by some other method? The current problem is that there are way too many modern hunters. This herd can not wait for another year or two to start protecting what is left.
Another idea that I have heard and would work, is to continue status quo with tags but change the legal weapon. This idea would require use of an open sights rifle, no scopes. This could actually solve many of our problems and we would put the “hunt” back in the hunter! The idea does not seem very popular at this time, however. I personally love this idea.
End The Mule Deer Crisis With a Limited Quota
Limited quota is the only strategy that would protect this herd and give the managers the tools to stop the decline. We would also need mandatory harvest reports of bucks killed. That is something that should be done now. In 2016 over 7000 residents hunted region G, with a combined harvest of over 3500 bucks. That is what the Wyoming Game and Fish can account for. The scariest part of this 3500 plus bucks killed, is that this number could be much higher because the Wyoming Game and Fish has no mandatory harvest reporting. These harvest numbers are generated from check stations and harvest surveys that are not mandatory. We all know that many of the bucks killed are not accounted for. There are more interesting statistics for 2016. The entire region G outfitting community took 89 mule deer hunters and harvested 43 bucks. The average for all non residents is below 50%. So of the total 3500 bucks killed non residents were responsible for about 10% of the harvest or 300 bucks. It’s very clear that if we are going to save this herd it will be by reducing overall harvest, by reducing the number of resident hunters in the area.
The only strategy that is sustainable long term is a resident and nonresident draw, or a “Limited Quota System.” In my opinion, we need to reduce harvest by a minimum of 50%, have mandatory harvest reports, keep our seasons at the traditional length (Sept 15th to October 14th) to spread hunters out, keep the 3 point or better regulation in order to save the young bucks, and develop an unlimited management tag for our youth. The youth tag could be for the many, 3-point mature bucks in the herd. These mature 3x3s and 2x3s are competing with the rest of the herd on the winter grounds and need to be harvested. Most of these big 3x3s and 2x3s are dying of old age. Our winter grounds are full of them. These bucks would keep our youth in the field as well as aid in the herd’s winter ground survival. This strategy would require that a resident preference point system be developed for deer and elk.
Many hunters, locals, outfitters and clients I’ve spoken to about this ask, “Why are you willing to do this? Why are you putting Mule Deer ahead of your business, Non-Typical Outfitters?” First, I believe that God gave us the responsibility to properly manage this resource and the herd needs our help now. I think we can all agree that this herd is in trouble, we do have a mule deer crisis. Second, I want to be able to pass this magnificent mule deer herd on to my kids and their kids in the future. I want to be able to tell the next generation, win or loose, I was willing to give up even my business, to help this mule deer herd.
I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. The hunting that I have experienced and shared with guides and clients is an amazing privilege. I have had the opportunity to chase, and be a part of harvesting, some of the biggest mule deer western Wyoming has ever produced. I have had many experiences with family, friends and clients that are incomparable. I have given my blood, sweat, and tears for our clients and the building of this business. Yet I am ready to give it all up, if necessary, to save this magical herd. My wife and I could stop hunting mule deer today and be completely satisfied with the memories of the past. We are also committed to fighting for the clientele that we have booked, many of them have become close personal friends. These clients have trusted us and hired us to help them fulfill their Wyoming hunting dreams. We don’t take this task lightly, we are fighting on their behalf. I am fighting for opportunities for future hunters, and most importantly, for the herd that has blessed me and my family over the years. We want to put an end to this mule deer crisis.
Arise, for it is your task and we are with you; be strong and do it. Ezra 10:4
Contact Wyoming Game & Fish About This Mule Deer Crisis
If you are interested in being part of the solution for this deer herd, please take the time to write a letter to each of the Wyoming Game and Fish commissioners. Click here for the contact information for the Wyoming Game and Fish Commissioners. This esteemed group of professionals and sportsman will decide the fate of this herd. They will hear your concerns. If you agree with a Limited Quota for residents, mandatory harvest reporting, continuing with the traditional seasons (Sept. 15-Oct. 14), an over-the-counter management youth license and making area 135 a stand alone unit please make that clear in your letter. I believe that these steps are the only solutions that give the wildlife managers the tools that they need to effectively manage this herd in this new modern hunting era.