In what can only be seen as a search for answers, Colorado Parks and Wildlife earlier this year hosted a series of statewide meetings focused on the agency’s proposed Colorado West Slope Mule Deer Strategy.
The plan is looking for a suitable response to what has proven to be a West-wide decline in mule deer herds, a puzzling drop-off lacking any one clear reason.
Drought, habitat loss, competition from other wildlife and domestic livestock, energy and other development – all of these factors are playing a role in the decline of what certainly is one of the West’s most-fabled animals.
One of the key topics has been doe management, with hunters questioning why Parks and Wildlife still issues hunting licenses for does when herds are below desired levels.
“It’s counter-intuitive to many people to harvest does when deer numbers are down,” says Dean Riggs, CPW’s Northwest Region assistant manager. “But we use doe harvest, and all female harvest, to help improve our overall herd conditions. Our research has shown that managing only to increase the buck:doe ratio may not have the desired effect on fawn:doe ratios.”
It’s the competition principle, particularly when other factors, primarily weather and lack of quality habitat, create situations where adult deer, particularly older does no longer producing young, out-compete fawns for winter feed. Does that haven’t raised young are more able to survive hard winters than are does that have been expending energy by feeding young all summer.
Culling the older does, even in smaller deer herds, opens forage for fawns and does still capable of bearing young.
Research also shows that adult does, 2 years or older, have a higher survival rate than bucks.
Riggs also says doe harvest is useful when introducing youths or novice hunters to deer hunting.
“When we go to a landowner and ask for access for our special youth or women hunts, we rarely get turned down,” he says. “That opens doors for us to create more hunters.”
Research in the Piceance Basin indicates that when adult harvest rates are increased, overall deer density is reduced and fawn survival increased. “Research says that no doe harvest may not increase our deer herds,” Riggs says.
Parks and Wildlife state big-game manager Andy Holland says in certain areas doe harvest is no more than 1-2 percent of total harvest. “We issue very few doe licenses, but there still are some hunters who prefer to shoot a doe,” he says. “In areas where deer numbers are depressed, total doe licenses may be fewer than 10.”
Holland adds that deer in western Colorado have experienced the greatest declines despite some of those herds seeing the greatest reduction in doe licenses. “This indicates that hunting pressure and harvest is is not the primary factor in declining deer numbers,” he says.