Location: Great Basin Rangelands ResearchTitle: The need to improve mule deer populations: habitat conversion
Submitted to: The Progressive Rancher
Publication Type: Popular Publication
Publication Acceptance Date: 2/17/2021
Publication Date: 3/11/2021
Citation: Clements, D.D. 2021. The need to improve mule deer populations: habitat conversion. The Progressive Rancher. 21(3):18-20.
Technical Abstract: In big sagebrush communities, wildfires are the primary stand renewal process. Excessive grazing reduced grasses and brought about the reduction in fine fuels to carry wildfires. The shrubs then became larger, more vigorous, and established in higher densities. This vegetation change was beneficial to mule deer herds throughout the West. Historically, wildfires in the northern Great Basin experienced wildfire intervals of every 60-110 years and mostly occurred in the late summer after the perennial grasses had flowered and dried out. The accidental introduction of cheatgrass and its’ subsequent invasion onto millions of acres of Great Basin rangelands has increased this wildfire interval to a reported 5-10 years. When cheatgrass moves in, wildfires that destroy shrubs follow. This scenario has played out all across the Intermountain West, which now is experiencing larger and more frequent wildfires at alarming rates. Ken Gray, retired Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist, and Tom Warren, retired Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation Operations Manager, both out of Elko, Nevada recognized the threat of wildfires to wildlife habitats in the early 1990s and started aggressive rehabilitation projects in northeastern Nevada. Wildfires were significantly impacting wildlife habitats, specifically mule deer transitional and winter ranges in which the mule deer populations in that region had significantly declined. In less than a decade their hard work started to pay off as the successful seedings became food plots to not just mule deer, but pronghorn antelope and elk as well. The initial establishment of these seedings reduced cheatgrass densities and associated wildfire threats and proved to provide significant forage for mule deer that resulted in a decrease in winter mortality of mule deer and an increase in the mule deer population. Another habitat conversion that has occurred includes the encroachment of pinyon-juniper woodlands into many habitats that have significantly reduced herbaceous and browse species and the recruitment of these species. This encroachment not only has crowded out herbaceous and browse species, it has also negatively impacted natural springs and meadows. An estimated 18 million acres of rangelands in various successional stages have been invaded, three times that amount that was present at the time European contact. When these pinyon-juniper habitats burn or are manually cleared they usually come return to perennial grass dominance and productive shrub communities. The improvement of habitats throughout the rangeland will benefit not only mule deer, but wildlife in general. When habitats are successfully treated and establishment of vigorous and nutritional plants occur it is not only important to practice proper grazing management, it is also important to protect from wildfires where appropriate but also conduct aggressive predator management as to allow these species to rebound without high levels of predation. In 1826, at the present location of Malheur Lake in east-central Oregon, Peter Skene Ogden wrote, “I may say without exaggeration, man in this country is deprived of every comfort that can tend to make existence desirable. If I escape this year I trust I shall not be doomed to endure another.” Resource managers attempting to restore Great Basin rangelands often focus their efforts on establishing plant species that are native, beneficial to wildlife, and represent pristine conditions. As the journals of early explorers note, pristine habitats and mule deer were apparently not compatible in the Great Basin.