Mule Deer Winter Kill States: What should we expect?
Many of us who live, or hunt in the intermountain west realize that this past winter was a tough one on many of our big game animals; particularly mule deer and pronghorn antelope. Areas that are susceptible to winter mortality were hit hard with record snow levels and reports from game managers are pointing to a significant mortality, especially in old and young age classes. So taking the numbers we've been presented, let's look at what we can expect this coming season in winter kill states.
Wildlife managers in Idaho and Wyoming were stating that we saw upwards of 90% mortality in fawns, 60% mortality in deer 7 years old or older, and a 25% loss across the board. Extrapolated out, that means we roughly lost 35% of our herds in some of these hard-hit areas. While that is a significant loss, let's examine how that will affect hunting for mature age class animals.
What happened to the BIG Bucks?
We can classify deer by Boone and Crockett score, but a more accurate assessment would be to classify mature animals by age class. In the Mule Deer world, we're looking at 4+ year old animals, and likely the majority of big bucks lie between the ages of 4 and 8 years old.
If we look that mortality percentages, this shows we likely lost more than half of bucks that were 7 and 8 years old.
The Good News:
The good news is that this is not the first time we've seen significant winter mortality. In fact, as recently as 2011 we likely saw winter kill that was very similar to what we saw last winter. We typically see winter events with significant deer mortality every 6-8 years. These Mule Deer populations are adapted to rebound quickly and have been for centuries.
While we're looking on the bright side, let's mention a few other positives. Prior to this past winter we saw a number of very mild winters that allowed the animals to come into this winter in very good condition.
More good news is that most mule deer populations were in decent shape (relatively) before this winter with a good amount of 2-5 year old deer. This population segment likely saw the lowest winter kill rates, so we can expect them to come back this year and provide some pretty good age class for the next few hunting seasons.
Keep in mind Darwinian Theory, that the strong survive through natural selection (survival of the fittest). While we will see significant loss, the bucks and does that survive the harsh winter are the strongest animals in the herd. That often equates to a drop in harvest over the years following a severe winter, but often times the percentage of mature animals in the harvest is statistically higher.
The Bad News:
The bad news likely lays in the upcoming forecast for 3- 5 years down the road. In addition to losing almost all of our yearling bucks and does, we will also likely see reduced recruitment this year due to the harsh winter. This means that we'll see a gap in 0 and 1 year old deer that will go forward through the next 5 years and become more evident when this weak age class reaches 4.5 - 5.5 years old. We'll likely see a 50-60% reduction in mature bucks over those years.
We also don't know what to expect for the upcoming winters. If we see another bad winter next year, or the year after that, it will compound what we're currently seeing.
So what should we expect?
Expectations for this upcoming season should be taken in stride. We'll likely see a decent number of mature bucks this season. For every 10 bucks we saw that were 1-6 years old, we'll see 7 or so this upcoming season. So stay optimistic, put in the work, I think you'll have a good season!
We're interested in hearing what you're seeing in your part of the woods? Do you think the Mule Deer Winter Kill was as bad as reported? Leave a comment below and let us know!
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