A unique and collaborative partnership among the Muley Fanatic Foundation, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, and the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit to seek a better understanding of pressures facing mule deer and their interactions with elk in an ever-changing environment.
Mule deer are an integral part of the outdoor heritage of western North America, a relished species of pursuit among big-game hunters throughout the country, and a key component of the landscape of the West. Nevertheless, mule deer populations have declined and failed to grow across much of their range during the last few decades, with a number of factors potentially contributing to those declines. Coincident with waning populations of mule deer, populations of elk have burgeoned throughout much of their range through growth in abundance and range expansion. The opposite trajectories of these two species that overlap throughout much of their range have spawned the hypothesis that competition between elk and mule deer may contribute to declining mule deer populations. Quantifying the net effects of competition on nutritional condition, survival, productivity, and ultimately population growth is a difficult endeavor and one that has not been adequately addressed. To better understand factors regulating growth of struggling mule deer populations, and identifying what, if any, effect elk have on mule deer is key to knowing what management and conservation actions will enhance mule deer populations, while maintaining robust elk populations in the future.
In few places are these questions more prevalent than for the south Rock Springs mule deer and elk herds in southwest Wyoming (mule deer: Herd Unit MD424, HA101 and HA102; elk: Herd Unit EL424, HA30, HA31, and HA32). This region harbors some of the most sought after mule deer and elk hunting in the state of Wyoming. While elk have been above desired levels during most of the last 2 decades, the mule deer population remains about half of the desired population level. In an effort to address the underlying reasons for failed growth of this and other mule deer populations in the West, a non-profit organization (Muley Fanatic Foundation), a management agency (Wyoming Game and Fish Department), and a research entity (University of Wyoming) have formed a key partnership to conceive and execute the Deer-Elk Ecology Research (DEER) Project. The goal of the project is to identify the factors regulating growth and distribution of mule deer in this high-desert ecosystem, while simultaneously developing a better understanding of the ecology of elk and their interactions with mule deer. The DEER Project will take a novel and integrative approach to investigate key questions that continue to be a concern for mule deer populations including, effects of harvest, habitat condition, drought, predation, and competition with elk. The DEER Project will be the first of its kind to explore all of these key factors in tandem, and will be done so through a unique partnership that unites hunters, conservationists, managers, and researchers to the benefit of the Icon of the West.