Deer and Data
Data. We hear that word so much in the news or from our friends that its intended meaning almost fades into the background. The term is overused — but that shouldn’t pull from its value. Data has power, and those numbers, facts, statistics, observations and trends have a growing, pivotal place in modern wildlife management.

Tayler LaSharr, left, PhD student with the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, and Gary Fralick, Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist, collar a mule deer fawn as part of the Wyoming Range Mule Deer Research Project south of Bondurant.
Tayler LaSharr, left, PhD student with the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, and Gary Fralick, Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist, collar a mule deer fawn as part of the Wyoming Range Mule Deer Research Project south of Bondurant.

Today’s wildlife biologists can sometimes be described as dirt-under-the-nails data junkies. It’s a field-and-screen position now. Part of the time, the duty means roaming the hillsides, getting hands-on with animals, taking biological samples and measurements and affixing collars. The other part is in-office, inputting numbers, locations and information into complex computer programs and then processing it. The goal is to understand more about the animals and leverage each piece and point to improve management, strengthen populations and ultimately refine projects — like habitat restoration or hunting seasons — for the betterment of wildlife. 

The technology wildlife managers use to collect data surpasses anything one could have imagined decades ago. One example — wildlife collars. Collars are affixed to creatures from burrowing owls to moose and are used to track their movements. The technology has scaled up in unimaginable ways — sending millions of points a year through the airways to databases accessible by experts anywhere. That access trumps the very high frequency — VHF — telemetry technology that required a biologist to seek out animals individually, listening for increases in the radio frequencies. 

These advances create more opportunities for studying wildlife — and getting answers. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is capitalizing on these technology and data advances in an effort beyond anything undertaken before in Wyoming for one species — mule deer. Populations have been declining throughout the west, and Game and Fish is striving to learn more about their day-to-day lives and what impacts their success using data as the main driver. The Mule Deer Monitoring Project is a five-year, state-of-the-art study that seeks to collect much more information, monitor herds and analyze outputs in new ways to enhance the conservation of the state’s most iconic ungulate. 

The current state of mule deer
Game and Fish knows a significant amount about mule deer and what impacts their overall success from decades of research and data collection, and have tailored management strategies as a result. Mule deer can be found throughout Wyoming and are one of two deer species in the state — the other is white-tailed deer. Mule deer are recognized by their big ears, black-tipped tail and beamed antlers. Hunters apply for competitive licenses to pursue muleys. In 2021, 19,000 hunters filled their freezers with mule deer meat — and went home with plenty of memories of chasing the stately animal. 

Mule deer are extremely dependent on habitat — thereby also the weather. Good habitat with high-quality forage is key for bulking up to survive Wyoming’s harsh and long winters. Mule deer thrive in salt-desert shrublands to alpine tundra, depending on the time of year. Extreme weather conditions take their toll on the species. Drought cycles are a main threat — reducing the amount, timing and quality of forage and the availability of water sources. The most extreme impacts on the population happen when two or more stressful climatic events coincide. An example is summer drought followed by a cold winter with prolonged, deep snow. During these harsh conditions mule deer are unable to accumulate sufficient fat reserves and enter the winter in poorer conditions. When female mule deer enter winter in poor body condition they are less likely to produce offspring that will survive to adulthood. One way to battle the variability is to create habitat resiliency. This is why Game and Fish and partners prioritize projects for habitat restoration, investing $10.5 million in 2021 alone on improvements statewide. 

Mule deer have physical adaptations to cope with Wyoming’s variable climate — migration being the hallmark strategy. These historic routes and summer and winter ranges in Wyoming have been well-documented in many herds. Understanding migration and reestablishing connectivity to key habitats is top-of-mind for Wyoming's conservation strategy for mule deer.
A mule deer doe with snowflakes fallingSummer drought followed by a cold winter with prolonged, deep snow can have a negative impact on mule deer numbers. (Photo by Wes Uncapher)
“We know quite a lot about the regular and seasonal movements of mule deer. Wyoming is leading the way in mule deer conservation with understanding migration movements and wildlife crossing projects because they ensure the pathways deer rely on stay intact. That’s what we know is key for their betterment, and we can pinpoint those locations based on decades of study and millions of data points monitoring their movements,” said Angi Bruce, deputy director of Game and Fish.

A major threat to mule deer is chronic wasting disease. CWD has been detected in most herds throughout Wyoming. Mule deer are the most identified species in the state for the disease, and CWD can have population-limiting effects in areas where prevalence of the disease is high.

Mule deer populations have fluctuated through time but in the last 30 years have declined to a point that is worrisome to wildlife managers and the public. 

“Those who appreciate mule deer are concerned that they’ve seen fewer mule deer over the last several decades. Their observations are accurate and reflective of the documented decline,” said Game and Fish director Brian Nesvik, in his March 2022 column for Wyoming Wildlife.

According to Game and Fish’s 2018 Mule Deer Initiative report, mule deer crested their maximum abundance during the 1950s and 60s. Those high numbers are acknowledged today as unsustainable “and likely exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of the landscape resulting in widespread over-use and degradation of key habitats,” said the report’s authors. 

The most recent population peak in Wyoming was in 1991 when about 578,000 mule deer inhabited the state. By 2016, mule deer declined 31 percent to an estimated 396,000 animals. In 2021 the estimated number of mule deer was around 330,000. 

There are 37 recognized mule deer herds in Wyoming. A herd is defined by Game and Fish as “a distinct population of mule deer having limited interchange with other herds.” The mule deer that comprise each herd tend to remain in certain regions of the state, and use traditional birthing areas, summer habitats, and winter ranges from year to year. Those that migrate depend on the same migration corridors year after year. Resident herds — ones that don’t move between summer and winter ranges — rely on important year-round habitats that are available locally. Herd sizes vary from a few hundred in the smallest herds to tens of thousands in the largest. Game and Fish then divides each herd into one or more hunt areas, and sets hunting quotas and seasons specific to the management of each. 

A new approach
Even with the bulk of information on mule deer and tested management strategies, there are no quick fixes for the decline in mule deer populations. But, Game and Fish believes that new tools and technologies could offer more robust data to inform the future management and prosperity of mule deer.

Enter the Game and Fish Mule Deer Monitoring Project. The groundbreaking initiative seeks to collect more information on mule deer than ever before — and interpret that data faster and in a more immediately usable way. This year, the Game and Fish Commission funded $2.5 million for the study, which is a collaborative effort between Game and Fish, the University of Wyoming — including the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources and the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit — and the Wyoming State Veterinary Lab. 

“The time to look into this problem is now,” said Embere Hall, who holds a doctorate in ecology and is the Game and Fish science, research and analytical support section supervisor. “There is a clear, biological concern and a public concern. We have the resources and the ability to better understand declines through new technology and tools that will provide managers with the best information available.”

The project is groundbreaking for Wyoming. Hall described it during a presentation to the Commission in March 2022 as “fundamentally overhauling how we monitor mule deer and provide the department with better information on the effects of our management actions.”

Project parts
The monitoring project looks at six areas considered critical for mule deer management: abundance, composition, data management, survival, herd health and harvest management. 

A main component of the monitoring project is to inform one of the most rooted and important questions for mule deer managers — how many individuals are there in a herd? Understanding the abundance, as the study terms it, is the cornerstone of management. To bolster abundance data, Game and Fish plans to increase surveys significantly, scaling up from surveying one herd a year to eight surveys annually. These surveys are done by flying over herds and collecting information on the numbers seen. 

“Wyoming’s landscapes are complex, so it is difficult to count every deer. But, abundance surveys deliver reliable information on how many mule deer are in a herd. By increasing flights, managers will be able to collect the same high-quality information in multiple herds across the state,” Hall said. 
For much of the other components of the monitoring work, wildlife managers are narrowing in on five focal herds — some of which have never been intensely studied or were selected in hopes of answering a specific question. Those focal herds are the Laramie Mountains, North Bighorn, Sweetwater, Upper Shoshone and Wyoming Range. The herds are geographically spread out across the state. This gives the department the chance to learn about herds that experience very different habitat conditions, weather patterns, disease dynamics and predator communities. 

“We haven’t studied herds this way in the Laramie Mountains or North Bighorns,” Hall said. “Also, we selected the Sweetwater herd near Lander because despite high fawn production, populations are still declining and we want to know why. Our monitoring will also continue to study Wyoming Range deer through the work led by Dr. Kevin Monteith with the Haub School, to build on data for that important herd.”

In addition to abundance, the monitoring project will look closely at the composition of the focal herds. Composition means the number of male, female and juvenile deer in the herd. That will be done through aerial counts, trail cameras and ground surveys to gather fine-scale data. 

A large number of data in the project will come from collared mule deer. That data will be key to learning a lot about the day-to-day lives of these animals. In each herd, 80 does, 30 bucks and 100 juvenile — 6-month-olds — will be collared beginning in the late fall of 2022 through February 2023. That represents more than 1,000 collared mule deer — more than ever before in one study. 

That volume is one aspect that makes this project different from others because of the massive outputs of data. And, the increased availability of this data is new, too. Because of a partnership with the University of Wyoming, the data will be quickly available to wildlife managers in a usable way. 

Leading the way with data processing is Jerod Merkle, who has a doctorate in biology and is the Knobloch Professor of migration ecology and conservation within the Department of Zoology and Physiology at the University of Wyoming. His role is to take the volume of data, analyze it and return it to the department. He says this level of data is pivotal in Wyoming’s approach to big game management.

“We will be getting millions of location points from these collars. It’s an unprecedented look into habitat use and movement that we have never had at this scale,” said Merkle.

The collar data system is sophisticated and automated, sending weekly reports to biologists with the movements of the collared deer. With this data, Game and Fish will be able to see where deer go and where they stay, what habitat they use and where they avoid, giving biologists the opportunity to dig into the why. Additionally, collar data will help measure herd performance, assess causes of mortality, evaluate harvest strategies — like licenses and seasons — update maps of seasonal ranges and more. 

“We can pinpoint how habitat projects for mule deer may be benefiting them,” Merkle said. “We’re getting closer and closer to understanding the birth-to-death effects on mule deer.”
Alpine-Check-Station.pngHunter harvest surveys will be a key component to Wyoming Game and Fish Department's Mule Deer Monitoring Project.
The quick turnaround on the synthesized data reports is a boon for biologists who often had to process thousands of data points themselves, which takes time. With this monitoring project, the clarity of the data and the immediacy is key, especially for the survival component of the work. With the goal to learn what impacts their survival — whether it be habitat, disease or predators — biologists also will follow up as quickly as possible on mule deer deaths. When a mule deer dies, biologists will get an alert with the location so they can go to the site quickly, document the cause of death and potentially collect the carcass for more testing. 

“We’re hoping to be able to gather more information about how mule deer die — if it was a collision with a vehicle, malnutrition or predation, for example,” Hall said.

Two focal herds will be a testing ground for cutting-edge necropsy protocols to learn more about mule deer deaths. This is thanks to a collaboration between UW and the Wyoming State Veterinary Lab. 

The vet lab also will participate in the study by monitoring disease. Leading this is Jenn Malmberg, a doctor of veterinary medicine with a PhD in pathology. Malmberg will pilot an ear-punch test for CWD, which is a new testing method for the fatal disease that doesn’t require the animals to be dead before testing. The current testing protocol for CWD is with a lymph node sample, with the bulk coming from hunter-harvested deer. 

The last piece of the project will look at the hunter harvest surveys for mule deer. Harvest surveys aren’t mandatory in Wyoming, but a representative sample of licensed hunters are asked to respond to a survey annually so Game and Fish can learn about hunters. Survey questions ask how many days they spent in the field and if they harvested — or not. It’s one of the most critical tools Game and Fish uses when setting hunting seasons and allocating licenses. The Mule Deer Monitoring project expands on that survey by adding a “nonresponse bias.”

“Since our harvest surveys are not mandatory, some hunters do not respond. Essentially, what a nonresponse bias does is account for those nonresponses and explores if people who don’t respond to the survey have similar hunting behaviors as those who do respond,” Hall said.

The other component is offering an increase in elk licenses in areas where elk and mule deer compete for resources. This targeted management is meant to reduce elk and then study how deer respond on the landscape. 

What’s next?
Game and Fish and partners will hit the ground running in the late fall. The first task will be deploying collars and then beginning the intensive surveys. The data will start rolling into biologists’ email inboxes soon after.

“Kudos to Game and Fish on this collaboration to make sure the data components of the mule deer study are top notch for field managers,” Merkle said.

Throughout the first year, Game and Fish plans to update the public quarterly on what they are learning. 

“It’s a truly exciting and collaborative effort, and we’re grateful for the investment in learning more about mule deer,” Hall said.

Value of data science education
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s partnership with the University of Wyoming is part of a broader vision for Wyoming’s future. Championed by a number of new programs, UW is making big strides toward training a workforce in data-oriented careers while becoming a national leader in digital research, education and service. New and ongoing efforts include:
  • The Wyoming Innovation Partnership is part of a broader effort with the state to develop a resilient workforce and economy by increasing data science skills and fostering collaborations between state entities and, ultimately, local partners.
  • The School of Computing provides the university and Wyoming with the computational tools, skills and approaches to spark innovation.
  • Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center continues to advance the knowledge and application of geographic information science and technology through research, education and service.
  • The National Institutes for Health-funded Wyoming IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence program is helping build Wyoming’s biomedical education and research infrastructure, including data science initiatives that facilitate collaboration related to wildlife diseases.
These efforts will facilitate cutting-edge solutions that support and enhance Wyoming’s economy in our increasingly digital society. Likewise, look for these programs to provide new data science majors, minors, certificates and graduate programs that will bring new ideas, opportunities and tools to keep Wyoming’s wildlife populations healthy and abundant.
— Jerod Merkle, Knobloch Professor of migration ecology and conservation, within the Department of Zoology and Physiology at the University of Wyoming.

Wyoming Mule Deer Initiative unites stakeholders 
Working to reverse the trends in mule deer decline has been a Wyoming Game and Fish Department top priority for more than a decade. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission formally adopted the Wyoming Mule Deer Initiative in July 2007. It took several years of groundwork before it was implemented statewide in 2015. The initiative was established to identify the most pressing issues facing mule deer, establish management goals and objectives and recommend implementation strategies to combat the problems mule deer face. The MDI has made significant strides to identify the factors contributing to mule deer population decline and uses the best available science to direct partner and Game and Fish dollars to the most impactful projects. 
“The MDI program has brought diverse stakeholders together who all care about the future of mule deer in Wyoming,” said Ian Tator, Game and Fish terrestrial habitat program manager. “This program illustrates the power of partnerships, long-term planning and sticking with a vision centered on a better future for mule deer.”
The Commission has invested more than $3 million in the last seven years toward MDI work. These dollars have been matched by outside funding for a total of more than $21 million. To date, MDI has funded 68 projects designed to enhance habitat for mule deer and support their migrations. 
Game and Fish and partners are committed to working together on crucial habitat work aimed at enhancing millions of acres of mule deer habitat. These projects include treating invasive grasses that displace the native species deer depend on, constructing wildlife-safe crossings along highways and enhancing aspen stands for improved summer and winter range habitat. Seven mule deer herds representing 25 percent of the state’s mule deer population benefit from this work.
The MDI intends to continue improving mule deer management by engaging with the public to further develop management recommendations. These efforts will support future conservation and management of mule deer in Wyoming. 
—Breanna Ball, WGFD
Photographer Info
Vic Schendel

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