How and why officials are counting mule deer in east Idaho

Living the Wild Life

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A coyote hunting along the edge of the South Fork of the Snake River near the Byington boat launch headed for the thick brush as the sound of a helicopter’s blades reached us. A near-mature bald eagle left its perch to hunt up river as the non-nature sounds filled the canyon.

Landing on the snow covered parking lot, Paul Atwood, wildlife biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, climbed out of the whirly bird to visit with me while the rest of the crew refueled the machine.

“After last year’s hard winter the deer numbers are down a little,” Atwood reported as we shook hands. “And with the lack of snow this year, many are still high along the top of the ridges. We saw about 500 deer in two hours and will fly the canyon until we get 700 counted and then we will head for the Teton River canyon for this afternoon.”

Atwood’s crew were making a mule deer ratio survey in the Palisades Population Management Unit (PMU) to determine what the ratio of bucks and fawns to does are in that area. After observing 700 deer in each PMU and getting the ratios, those ratios are applied to the whole population of deer taken in the last population count taken when all the deer are on their winter range.

Timing is critical in taking the ratio survey as it needs to be done before the bucks start dropping their antlers which begins in January. Fall general hunt regulations are based on these ratio surveys taken late in December.

The Palisades PMU survey conducted last Tuesday showed for every 100 does, there were 30 bucks and 77 fawns of the estimated 4,476 mule deer from the Byington boat launch to the Wyoming state line. This area takes in most of hunt units 64, 65 and 67.

The Reno Point/Little Lost River PMU shows only nine bucks but 75 fawns per 100 does in the estimated population of 5806 deer.

“The PMU’s west of the freeway (Interstate 15) have less cover for the bucks to hide in during the general hunt so those hunts are more successful,” said Atwood. “More cover generally means less success but more bucks survive the general hunt and we get more large bucks over four points in them.”

One area of concern for Atwood is the Tex Creek PMU which had 10,257 deer with a ratio of 18 bucks and 67 fawns per 100 does in this year’s survey. The 2016 Henry’s Creek fire, which burned over 50,000 acres, destroyed a lot of winter range used by those deer during the winter.

“The fire has changed where these deer will end up as much of the winter feed was destroyed,” Atwood said. “Where the deer have wintered in previous years there is not much there to support them. We will have to see where they go as the snow gets deeper.”

Other units counted in December were the Teton River/Sand Creek PMU with 24 bucks and 67 fawns per 100 does and Unit #50 PMU with 17 bucks and 49 fawns per 100 does.

There are no ratio surveys taken on white-tailed deer in this region and the elk ratio survey will start the first week of January to determine the health of their herds.

So as you are enjoying the great outdoors and the beating sound of helicopter rotors interrupts you, it may be a team of Fish and Game personnel doing critical work for the wildlife and the future hunters.

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