Commentary

Nevada’s mule deer ‘problem’: It’s not what they say

March 29, 2021 6:10 am

Habitat, not predators, is the major factor determining mule deer numbers in Nevada. (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Are coyotes and mountain lions the reason Nevada’s mule deer population rests well below historic high levels?  Or is it the changing landscape and habitat in this most arid of states?

You’ve probably guessed the answer.  Here’s some of the story.

In the 1800s when wagon trains, explorers, miners, and prospectors were traveling and living in Nevada, the only ungulates (hoofed animals) present in significant numbers were pronghorn (antelope) and bighorn sheep. Deer were scarce to absent.

In the early 1900s, mule deer were imported to Nevada by railroad and turned loose in eastern Nevada to serve as meat for mining camps. Deer hunting was probably a motive, too.

While bighorn sheep are the “Apple of their Eye”, mule deer are the “meat and potatoes” of Nevada’s ungulate species. Deer hunting has a long tradition, from “feeding the family” to trophy mounts or severed heads to hang from a wall. The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) depends on deer hunting for predictable income. Deer tag sales easily outnumber those of other game species.

Purchasing a hunting license (NDOW has no limit on license sales) allows the licensee to apply for a deer tag. The chance of obtaining a tag depends on how many hunters apply and how many deer tags are available. (The process of deciding who gets a deer tag is called a tag draw…a kind of lottery.)

Recently, the number of hunters applying for a deer tag (residents and out-of-state applicants combined) is in the range of 60,000 to 80,000. Tag numbers are approximately 20% of the estimated mule deer population for the year (low 90,000s in recent years) or about 18,000 tags. The odds of getting a deer tag are 25-30%. 

Deer numbers have fluctuated dramatically, twice exceeding 200,000 animals, in the mid-1960s, and the mid-1980s. Since then, mule deer numbers have steadily declined to present levels of just over 90,000.  

(Note: Mule deer numbers have also declined elsewhere around the West.)

Nevada’s deer hunters became concerned as they witnessed the persistent decline of herd numbers during the 1990s. Erroneously believing that coyotes and mountain lions were responsible, a few sportsmen and a Las Vegas legislator convinced the 2001 Nevada Legislature to enact a $3 “predator fee” to “save Nevada’s deer herds.”  

The law added a $3 surcharge to all game tag applications (NRS 502.253) received by NDOW with the money dedicated to a predator management program which originally included  lethal options (killing coyotes and mountain lions), research, habitat work, and public education. None of the four choices originally weighed more heavily than another.

In 2003, NDOW and the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners (NBWC) began regular contracting with the U.S. Department of Agriculture/APHIS/Wildlife Services (WS) for the killing of coyotes and mountain lions, so-called projects targeting specific areas of the state. The naïve expectation was that mule deer numbers would increase with the killing of lions and coyotes. That did not happen.

(Note:  WS is a federal program dedicated to protecting agriculture and domestic livestock producers. WS kills well over a million animals and birds every year. Its name suggests a misnomer.) 

By 2015, mule deer numbers had declined by 30,000 animals from FY 2000 levels. NDOW and NBWC were criticized as being “predator friendly” (not killing enough coyotes and mountain lions). The Republican controlled Legislature enacted a requirement (NRS 502.253 4. (b)) that NDOW/NBWC spend 80% of all predator fee monies on lethal projects regardless of demonstrated need. 

(Note: Predator fee revenue is approaching $1 million/year.)

In 2017, the Nevada Legislature repealed the 80% lethal mandate, but the bill was vetoed by Gov.  Brian Sandoval, supposedly because of a party-line vote.

How well has this “war” on coyotes and mountain lions worked out for mule deer?  NDOW project data from FY 2000 – FY 2020 provides a clue:

  • Spent:  $4, 454, 726
  • Coyotes killed:  10,381
  • Mountain lions killed:  207
  • Mule deer numbers (NDOW annual estimates):  
    • FY 2000 – 133,000
    • FY 2010 – 107,000
    • FY 2015 – 99,000
    • FY 2020 – 92,000

(Note:  Every year in Nevada, approximately  8,000 to 10,000 coyotes and  200 mountain lions are killed from all causes of mortality.)

Hiring WS to kill coyotes and mountain lions is costly. Based on rough estimates from specific projects targeting coyotes and lions (comparing money spent versus number killed), NBWC is willing to pay these costs:

  • Approximate cost to kill one coyote: $500 – $600
  • Approximate cost to kill one mountain lion: $2500 – over $10,000+

In 2004, Tony Wasley, then NDOW mule deer biologist, published a comprehensive 70-page monograph regarding the history and status of mule deer in Nevada.  His concluding sentence in the summary reads as follows:

We must actively protect existing mule deer habitat while we create and restore new mule deer habitat because the reality remains that as mule deer habitat goes, so goes the mule deer. 

Six years later, Kelley Stewart, Ph.D., UNR Natural Resources and Environmental Science Department, and Wasley, (then an NDOW biologist; now NDOW Director) co-authored a paper entitled, “Effects of Predator Removal on Mule Deer Populations in Elko County, Nevada.” They looked at data from two areas:  Granite Range (north of Gerlach) and Ruby Mountains (south of Elko) where multi-year predator killing projects to benefit mule deer occurred.  

While their paper was never published, it was presented at two scientific meetings. They were unable to show a benefit for mule deer in either area.

Both authors made similar comments regarding lack of effectiveness of predator control for mule deer enhancement in an interview with Tom Knudson, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, published in the Sacramento Bee in 2012.

What did sportsmen get wrong with the $3 predator fee and the 80% lethal mandate?  The answer is habitat, not predators, is the major factor determining mule deer numbers in Nevada.

Why does it matter that this pointless killing of coyotes and mountain lions is taking place as you read this piece? The answer is it amounts to unwarranted and unnecessary destruction of public property which, under most circumstances, is a crime. 

What could be done to benefit mule deer?  

Suppose NDOW/NBWC took $500,000, annually, from predator fee revenue, matched it 3:1 (one state dollar gets three federal dollars) with Pittman-Robertson federal excise tax funds and provided NDOW’s Habitat Division with $2 million every year to use for critical habitat restoration or important research.  How could that not be more useful for mule deer than the existing failed predator management strategy?

What if the $4 million+ spent so far killing coyotes and mountain lions had been converted (via 3:1 match) to $16 million and spent on habitat improvements over the past 20 years?  Would mule deer numbers look the same today?

(Note:  Pittman-Robertson federal excise tax dollars cannot be used for predator killing.)

Coyotes and mountain lions do not belong to sportsmen, NDOW or NBWC.  According to NRS 501.100, wildlife belongs to all Nevadans as part of the Public Trust Doctrine (which NBWC recognizes by policy statement). 

The Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners, as trustees of Nevada’s wildlife heritage on behalf of all Nevadans, should ask the Nevada Legislature to remove the 80% lethal mandate. With added flexibility, programs for mule deer enhancement based on science and sound data instead of erroneous ancient stereotypes could be implemented with a higher likelihood of success.

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Don Molde
Don Molde

Reno-based Don Molde is president of the Nevada Wildlife Alliance, and has actively participated in the state Wildlife Commission's deliberations for over four decades.

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