Despite harsh winter, deer survival is good statewide; DWR seeks input on big game permits

Image of a mule deer in Utah. | Photo courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY — While winters with heavy snow can be hard on deer and other big game animals, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologists said that adult deer survival is currently at 92 percent statewide. Given the health of this population, as well as other big game, state officials have released their recommendations for the 2019 big game hunting permits.

Photo of a mule deer in Utah. DWR biologists are recommending a slight increase in the number of general season buck deer permits available for hunts in Utah in the fall of 2019. | Photo courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News

According to a press release from the DWR, biologists typically track deer survival rates from Dec. 1 to Nov. 30. While they are currently only about a third of the way through their survival monitoring year, the majority of deer deaths occur during the winter.

Kent Hersey, DWR big game projects coordinator,  said the highest survival rates are in Southern Utah, with average rates in central and southeastern Utah. Northern Utah has below-average survival rates, with the highest mortality rates in the Cache and Kamas/Chalk Creek areas.

“This is an above-average mortality year for the northern third of the state, but we have had worse,” Hersey said in the press release. “For the Cache County area, we have had much worse adult survival, but the Cache fawn mortality rates are well above average. For the area around Echo Reservoir, adult mortality appears quite high and this is concerning.”

While the majority of deer deaths occur during the winter when it’s hard for them to find food, winter-related deaths can still occur through April, Hersey said. However, as the temperatures increase and the snow melts and vegetation starts growing, the deaths start to decline.

So why doesn’t DWR feed deer during winters with a lot of snow?

While providing feed to deer and other big game animals may seem like a good solution for  preventing deer deaths, it can actually cause more harm than good.

Feeding with alfalfa hay or other feed can be damaging to the natural habitat, due to the large number of deer that congregate to one small area, according to DWR big game coordinator Covy Jones. It can also increase disease concerns, as well as increase fawn mortality, since herds congregated in one area for food will kick out the younger animals.

And suddenly introducing a higher-nutrient feed when the deer have adjusted to a low-nutrient feed during the winter can kill them.

“They are ruminants and have a bacteria in their gut that digests the feed,” Jones said. “Because of that, it can take weeks for them to adjust from a diet of low-nutrient woody vegetation to high-nutrition forbs and grasses. When a diet change occurs too quickly, some deer can die in the process.”

DWR does have a policy to provide feed for big game animals during extreme winters, but the specific criteria necessitating feeding wasn’t met this past winter.

What should I do if I see a dead deer in nature?

A dead mule deer in Utah | Photo courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News

If you are hiking or camping and see a dead deer, leave it alone. If it is a buck deer, note that it is illegal to harvest the antlers if they are still attached to the deer – even when the animal is already dead.

If you see evidence that suggests the deer was illegally killed, get a GPS coordinate if possible and report it to the UTiP Hotline at 1-800-662-3337 as soon as you can. Try to avoid disturbing the carcass as evidence may be present that could lead to the identification of those responsible.

“Be a good witness. Leave the area undisturbed and contact the UTiP Hotline at your earliest opportunity,” said Lt. Wyatt Bubak with DWR law enforcement.

Proposals announced for 2019 big game hunts

Besides reporting on deer populations, DWR officials also recently sent out their recommendations for the 2019 big game hunts, and they are asking for the public’s feedback.

Jones said that the recommended number of hunting permits each year is based on a few factors.

“There is always an opportunity vs. quality debate when it comes to managing wildlife, but for us, biology and the health of the herd always come first,” Jones said in the DWR release. “As a result, plans are an essential part of effective wildlife management.”

In addition to deer, several big game populations are doing quite well in Utah, and biologists are recommending an increase in permits for several hunts this fall, including for doe deer and for buck and doe pronghorn.

Image of a pronghorn in Utah. | Photo courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News

Pronghorn

Utah’s pronghorn management plan was revised in the fall of 2017, and the populations are doing well. Biologists are recommending an additional 115 doe pronghorn permits, as well as several additional doe pronghorn hunts, and an additional 180 buck pronghorn permits.

Data collected in Utah and other states suggests that, excluding bucks that are taken by hunters, survival rates for pronghorn bucks are relatively low (typically less than 80 percent). The data also suggests that buck pronghorns attain most of their horn size by 2 years of age.

“Due to the lower survival rates and because most of their horn growth occurs by two years of age, it doesn’t make sense to manage for older animals,” the DWR release stated. “Now that we are managing for younger animals, we can offer more hunting opportunities this fall, while still providing a quality opportunity for hunters.”

Buck pronghorn permit numbers were also increased in 2018.

Permit recommendations

The following are the total number of permits that DWR biologists are recommending for Utah’s 2019 big game hunts, with last year’s numbers provided for comparison.

  • General-season buck deer: 90,450 (90,650 in 2018)
  • Premium limited-entry deer: 184 (184 in 2018)
  • Management buck deer (including “cactus bucks”): 74 (71 in 2018)
  • Limited entry deer: 1,144 (1,133 in 2018)
  • Doe deer: 2,720 (1,955 in 2018)
  • General any bull elk: 15,000 (15,000 in 2018)
  • General spike bull elk: 15,000 (15,000 in 2018)
  • Cow elk: 9,635 (10,753 in 2018)
  • Youth any bull elk: 500 (500 in 2018)
  • Limited-entry bull elk: 2,951 (2,876 in 2018)
  • Buck pronghorn: 1,061 (883 in 2018)
  • Doe pronghorn: 760 (645 in 2018)
  • Bull moose: 97 (84 in 2018)
  • Cow moose: 38 (34 in 2018)
  • Bison: 223 (254 in 2018)
  • Bison (archery only): 21 (20 in 2018)
  • Desert bighorn sheep: 69 (56 in 2018)
  • Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep: 56 (39 in 2018)
  • Mountain goat:126 (121 in 2018)

New hunts proposed

File photo of a hunter with a harvested buck mule deer. Location and date of photo unspecified. | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News

Several new hunts were also proposed to help manage doe deer, cow elk and doe pronghorn populations.

Biologists recommended adding five new doe deer hunts in 2019 to help address declining range conditions in certain parts of the state and to help reduce deer depredation on private lands. They also recommended adding 18 new cow elk hunts and eight new doe pronghorn hunts.

A new rule amendment was also proposed that would allow handgun-archery-muzzleloader-only hunts for big game. Weapons used in these hunts would have to meet current specifications in the rules, including additional pistol specifications. No scopes would be allowed on the weapons used in these hunts.

Hunter orange would not be required on these hunts if they occurred outside an area where the any weapon general-season bull elk or any weapon general-season buck deer hunts were occurring.

“There has been a desire from local hunters to have hunts using less technology,” Jones said.

If approved, this type of hunt would be added in a future management plan. It won’t take place during the 2019 hunting season, according to DWR officials.

Give feedback

All of the proposed changes can be viewed on the DWR website.  After reviewing the proposals, the public can give feedback via email or by attending one of the DWR’s upcoming Regional Advisory Council meetings.

Email addresses for RAC members are available on the DWR website. The group each RAC member represents (sportsman, non-consumptive, etc.) is listed under each member’s email address, and the public should direct their feedback to the RAC member in their area who represents their specific interest.

The dates, times and locations for the upcoming RAC meetings are as follows:

  • Central Region: April 9 at 6 p.m. at the Public Library at 45 S. Main St. in Springville.
  • Northern Region: April 10 at 6 p.m. at the Weber County Commission building at 2380 Washington Blvd. #240 in Ogden.
  • Southern Region: April 16 at 5 p.m. at Beaver High School at 195 E. Center St. in Beaver.
  • Southeastern Region: April 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the John Wesley Powell Museum at 1765 E. Main St. in Green River.
  • Northeastern Region: April 18 at 5:30 p.m. at the DWR Northeastern Region Office at 318 N. Vernal Ave. in Vernal.

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