Colorado Parks and Wildlife is working on a strategy to combat declining populations of mule deer, the most common deer species on the Western Slope and a symbol of the American West.
Colorado’s statewide deer population was estimated at 390,000 in 2013, down from roughly 600,000 in 2006.
“Deer populations fluctuate naturally in response to changing environmental conditions, but the most recent decline in the state’s largest deer herds is atypical and has reduced these herds well below population objectives,” reads the most recent draft of the plan, on which locals had an opportunity to comment at the Colorado West Slope Mule Deer Strategy Summit in Glenwood earlier this month.
“We wanted to hear what the public had to say, and I’m pleased with what they come up with,” said Ron Velarde, Northwest Regional Manager for CPW.
People can still comment on the draft, available online at tinyurl.com/cpwmuledeer, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org until the final proposal is submitted to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, which Velarde anticipates will be in November or December.
After that, CPW will work with organizations including the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to implement the seven outlined priorities and hopefully begin a long road to recovery. Depending on funding, it could take a few years or a decade.
“This is something that’s not going to be fixed tomorrow,” said Velarde.
Part of the problem is that cause of the population decline isn’t immediately apparent. It could be disease, predators, habitat fragmentation, roadkill or recreation. Most likely, it’s a combination of several factors.
There’s also the possibility that the mule deer is a canary in the coal mine.
“It might be an indication that there’s something else wrong in the habitat,” said Velarde.
No matter the cause, mule deer are an important element of the state’s economy. Archery season begins Saturday, and rifle season for mule deer runs Oct. 18 through Nov. 16. Hunters make a big impact on rural Colorado, buying gas, staying at motels, eating at restaurants and shopping at sporting goods stores. And they’re just part of the story.
“It’s not only about hunting,” noted Velarde, “Watchable wildlife brings millions of dollars to the state of Colorado.”
The Western Slope is at the heart of that, with what Velarde asserts are two of the largest migrating mule deer populations in the nation – one in Moffat County and another that roams Flat Tops as far as the Piceance Basin. That’s worth protecting, both as a resource and for their own sake.
“They’re an iconic species for all of the West,” said Velarde.