GILLETTE, Wyo. — In mid-January, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department will begin aerial captures of mule deer in the North Bighorn Mountains as part of the new statewide Mule Deer Monitoring Project.
Mule deer in Wyoming and throughout the West have declined in recent decades. The most recent population peak in Wyoming was in 1991, when about 578,000 mule deer inhabited the state, but by 2016, numbers were reduced to an estimated 396,000 animals.
The Mule Deer Monitoring Project, initiated by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, seeks answers as to why this decline has happened and identify potential solutions. It is being conducted in partnership with the University of Wyoming’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit, and the Wyoming State Veterinary Lab. Through various methods, the project will collect data on five focal mule deer herds around Wyoming for the next five years.
In addition to increased ground and aerial population surveys, just over 1,000 animals will be fitted with GPS collars. Of those, 210 will be collared in the North Bighorns deer herd. The North Bighorn deer herd encompasses Deer Hunt Areas 24, 25, 27, 28 and 50-53. Captures will take place on the east and west side of the northern Bighorn Mountains.
Captures are scheduled for mid-January 2023. As with past research, animals will be netted from a helicopter by a professional wildlife capture crew, fitted with a GPS collar at the capture site and released. Captures will take place on both public and private land.
The goal is to place GPS collars on 80 does, 30 bucks and 100 juveniles. The collars will collect and store a location every two hours, resulting in many thousands of data points that will be downloaded and analyzed when the collar is retrieved. A less detailed summary of movements will be sent weekly by the onboard computer to researchers via email.
The Mule Deer Monitoring Project is separate from, but will build on, the current study of the North Bighorns herd that began in March 2020. The current North Bighorns study, using data from 140 GPS-collared deer, is identifying mule deer movements, evaluating seasonal range and habitat use, identifying habitat improvement and conservation opportunities as part of a University of Wyoming student’s graduate work.
The Mule Deer Monitoring Project will look more comprehensively at six areas of mule deer management: abundance, data management, survival, herd health, harvest management and composition of herds, which is the number of buck, does and juveniles.
Data gathered in coming years from the Mule Deer Monitoring Project will help wildlife managers better measure herd performance, assess causes of mortality, evaluate harvest strategies, update seasonal range maps and more.
Throughout the process, Game and Fish plans to periodically update the public on what they are learning.