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Serving: KS

Major study searches for cause of mule deer decline

Slideshow: Once common in Kansas, mule deer are now rarely seen in eastern Kansas.

Ranchers and hunters remember mule deer in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas. By 1990, they were mostly non-existent.

Once common in the pasturelands of the Red Hills and Smoky Hills of central Kansas, mule deer are now “you’ll never guess what I just saw” rare.

Wildlife officials now consider Kansas’ mule deer range the western one-third of the state, basically from Hays to Coldwater and westward. Even within that region, populations are down considerably from 20 years ago.

Kansas biologists are certainly aware.

“There’s a lot of concern about mule deer,” says Levi Jaster, big game program coordinator at the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “We’d like to know why they’re retracting their range to the west. There’s a lot of concern if our management is correct. Is there something we can improve on?”

The department, with the assistance of K-State, area landowners and several conservation groups, is in the final stages of a $2.8 million study of whitetail deer and mule deer in western Kansas. A major reason for the study is to learn more about mule deer on the High Plains.

Population dynamics

Here’s what’s already known:

50-year decline. Steve Belinda of the Mule Deer Foundation, a conservation group dedicated to the species, says mule deer have been in general decline in America for the past 50 years.

Range and numbers have been in long-term decline in Nebraska and Oklahoma, states that best resemble mule deer habitats in Kansas. Belinda says Oklahoma’s mule deer population has seen some short-term improvement recently, though.

Fawn survival. Kansas whitetails often have two fawns per doe each spring. Mule deer generally have just one.

Fawn survival rates are generally lower in mule deer. Early information from the study shows about 25% of mule deer fawns survive, compared to 45% of whitetails.

Reduced hunting. Opportunities for hunting Kansas mule deer have had to be reduced. At the insistence from western Kansas landowners and others, Wildlife and Parks stopped offering second permits that allowed hunters to shoot mule deer does in addition to primary “buck” permits. (Depredation permits are available, from local KDWPT biologists, for localized crop damage by mule deer.)

Most western Kansas landowners can easily get a permit that allow the taking of any deer on their property or within their deer management area. Resident archery and muzzleloader hunters can shoot mule deer with permits purchased over-the-counter or online.

KDWPT has reduced the number of firearm permits that allow general residents to harvest a mule deer. Non-resident permits that allow mule deer harvest have also been reduced.

Impact of drought. Kansas mule deer populations seem to be greatly impacted by years of drought. Some years, western Kansas landowners have reported they’ve seen no fawns when conditions were dry. Jaster says it’s the same with area whitetails, if not worse. Drought is largely blamed for localized population crashes in both species about 10 years ago.

Chronic wasting. Chronic wasting disease has infected mule deer in many parts of western Kansas. “Almost everywhere we find mule deer, we have found chronic wasting disease,” Jaster says. “That’s not good.”

Anecdotal evidence says Kansas mule deer populations do best in regions with large amounts of Conservation Reserve Program lands. Knee- to waist-high grass seems ideal for raising fawns.

Looking for answers

The field work portion of the on-going study on western Kansas whitetail and mule deer ends in early 2021. It will take time to formulate all of the information gathered.

Here’s some background on the study:

Excise tax funding. The study is funded by federal excise taxes placed on hunting and shooting equipment. Wildlife and Park’s contribution, which is sizable, comes from fees charged for hunting licenses and permits. No state general fund money is involved.

Comprehensive study. This is by far the most comprehensive study deer study ever done in Kansas. Much of the field research is done by students studying wildlife biology.

The study is broken into two areas, one within Scott, Gove, Lane and Logan counties and the other in Norton, Graham, Sheridan and Decatur counties.

Specially trained helicopter crews first used nets fired from guns to capture deer in February 2018.

The goal is to keep GPS collars on 60 whitetail and 60 mule deer. Half of the collared deer are to be bucks. Collars signal if the deer has died. Replacement deer will be captured and collared the following winter.

Following fawns. All does captured are pregnancy-checked by ultrasound. Those pregnant have a transmitter placed in the birth canal. It exits with the fawn during birth and signals biologists of the fawn’s location. The fawns are then collared as well.

Landowner permission has been granted any time researchers have gone on to private lands for any reason.

It may take months to formulate all information gathered from the study.

Pearce writes from Lawrence.

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