Wildlife biologists are mapping mule deer habitat from Mexico to Canada and identifying specific regional problems to try to stem the deer's decline across the West.
An estimated 2.3 million mule deer roamed the diverse landscape stretching from the Pacific Coast to the Great Plains and the deserts of the Southwest to the mountainous terrain of the Northwest Territories in the 1950s and '60s, but their numbers have dropped sharply, the biologists reported.
In Nevada, mule deer populations dropped from about 149,000 in 1993 to 109,000 a decade later, said Gregg Tanner, big game chief for the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
The Mule Deer Working Group of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies hopes to reverse the trend by identifying and mapping habitat and recommending how best to manage it.
"One thing we recognized early on, a lot of work done on mule deer has been done on a small scale," said Jim DeVos, research chief for the Arizona Game and Fish Department and chairman of the working group of wildlife biologists.
The biologists from Western states and Canadian provinces formed in 1998 to address mule deer management problems and promote cooperative research. The group is meeting Thursday and Friday in conjunction with the annual Mule Deer Foundation convention in Reno from Feb. 13-15.
The three-year mapping project, DeVos said, will allow biologists and others to identify the key problems in the areas where mule deer live. It's expected to be completed this spring.
Biologists hope the information that will be made available on a Utah State University Web site will be used by property owners, land managers and urban planners to enhance and protect critical mule deer habitat.
Also, the group is starting to develop broad guidelines for managing mule deer habitat.
"There are a zillion habitat guidelines that have been written," he said. "But they're pretty darn site specific."
Effective habitat management, experts said, needs to recognize the social and political forces in the West, including population growth and natural resource development.
"There has to be a balance struck somewhere," said Terry Cloutier, president of the Reno-based Mule Deer Foundation.
"Everyone has their own little interest and a lot of time wildlife tends to bite the dust. "If there were simple answers, we'd have had it all solved years ago."
Experts said there's no one cause for the deer's decline. They suffer from the same problems that plague other wildlife species - human encroachment and development, habitat changes, predators, diseases and climatic changes such as drought and severe winters.
"Although some states have started to rebound from the pits of despair in the 1990s, still many states are continuing a downward trend," DeVos said.
"Wild fire, particularly in central and northern parts of the state, have very seriously negatively impacted prime sagebrush communities and mule deer habitat," Tanner said of Nevada.
"What we're seeing right now, a lot of factors don't allow mule deer numbers to rebound to the same numbers they once did," DeVos said. "Climate controls the direction mule deer are going in. But habitat condition controls the amplitude, or the peaks and valleys that occur in the population."
In forest environments, experts said fire suppression hurts deer habitat because it disrupts the natural rejuvenation of the grassy plants and shrubs called forbs that deer feed on. It also increases the intensity of fire when it does occur, leaving a moonscape terrain that can take decades to recover.
Without fire, the habitat is dominated by trees that may offer shelter but provide little food.
In other places like the Great Basin, massive fire destroys the delicate sagebrush ecosystem that is then taken over by invasive weeds such at cheatgrass, which then provides fuel for more fires.
DeVos said the Bush administration's Healthy Forest Initiative approved by Congress will help rehabilitate deer habitat.
"If we continue to be so far apart in our positions that no progress can be made, nature will continue to have these catastrophic fires and our arguments will continue and the forests will burn," he said.
People also consume deer habitat, and though population growth is expected to continue, some experts say protecting deer habitat on a large scale can minimize the negative effects.
DeVos said the mule deer working group is teaming up with other conservation organizations to promote common goals.
"The push for working with endangered species and multi-species management has kind of left the broadly distributed mule deer on the tail end of land use planning," DeVos said.
"Sage grouse and mule deer occur in the same habitat throughout an awful lot of land. Sage grouse have declined markedly.
"What we're saying is, mule deer and sage grouse are suffering from the very same habitat degradation. Instead of working independently, together we can combine forces - do good for sage grouse, do good for mule deer."
On the Net:
Mule Deer Foundation: www.muledeer.org
Mule Deer Working Group: www.muledeernet.org/mdwg.htm
Nevada Department of Wildlife: www.ndow.org