Tuesday, May 8, 2012

California Deer Population Decline Blamed On Loss of Habitat

Did you ever read a News Story that just made you shake your head because you couldn't agree with it? 

It was recently reported that the State of California is saying that there are only about 445,000 Mule Deer left in California.

To some folks, that sounds like a lot, but according to the California Fish and Game, if you realize that almost half a million deer are spread over the entire state - which is some 99 Million acres big - then one can see how they can be pretty spread out. With only 445,000 deer over such a large area, some say that that is part of the reason that the deer population is dwindling in California. Deer are simply having problems finding other deer to reproduce with. The decline in the deer population has been almost too small to see on an annual basis, but, since 1990, California has lost half its deer population - again, according to the state Department of Fish and Game. In 2010, it was reported that the California deer population has plummeted over the past two decades - by 46 percent - if the yearly count of bucks killed by hunters is a proper measure.

According to the recent report in the news, it stated that because deer are a popular hunting species - that it is that reason that they are intensively managed by Fish and Game. Supposedly, the state gathers vast quantities of data when a hunter reports a kill. Of course, I can't help but wonder how many hunters don't report their kill to Fish and Game. 

To me, it sounds a little more like someone's wishful thinking than what's really taking place. But reality doesn't matter to the state of California because Fish and Game's claim that all kills are reported to them is what they say they use as a way of knowing that there are problems with the demographics of the remaining deer population.

While I disagree and see deer in many places that they were never able to be, many in California Fish and Game see a supposed widespread deer decline. They say the deer population is on the decline mainly for one reason - the loss of habitat. 

For example, between 1990 and 2000, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 75,000 acres per year were converted to low-density housing across California. A recent report from the Sacrament Bee newspaper says housing data showed a similar trend over the past decade, at least until the recession began. The rate was even greater prior to 1990.

My concern has been that this loss of land has eliminated great farmland essential to producing food for you and me. Fish and Game's concern is that the land conversion to urban sprawl eliminated food and migratory corridors vital to deer. Either way, we're losing vital land to housing development and strip malls.

"You can't have a good migratory deer population when their wintering ground is covered in residential development for humans," said Craig Stowers, Deer Program manager at Fish and Game. "They're competing for the same resources we need, and they're losing."

Part of the reason that I'm having so much trouble with this story about a decline in mule deer here in California is because of the story of white-tailed deer across the country.

White-tail deer were found throughout much of the United States when the Europeans first arrived and settled here. Their range extended from the Eastern coast to modern-day Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas. European settlers described the great abundance of white-tail deer in their early accounts of America.  They seemed everywhere!

By the beginning of the 20th century, much of the white-tail deer's former range was wiped out and destroy completely. Commercial hunting and deforestation are said to be the primary causes of this eradication. In response to the declining deer populations, hunters encouraged state officials to manage the remaining white-tail deer. Most states came up with much stricter hunting regulations while at the same time started deer reintroduction programs.

By the 1940s, white-tailed deer were restored in much of the former range. Today, deer are found in all of their former range and are extending their range westward to areas that they were never found before.

If you want to know how important white-tail deer are to America's economy, understand that they are an extremely vital economic resource. They bring in $10 Billion a year in generated funds from hunting and wildlife watching.

Believe it or not, recent land-use changes have also encouraged an increase in whitetail deer. Due to habitat loss and fragmentation, many large carnivores have been displaced. With the loss of natural predators, such as wolves and mountain lions, white-tail deer have become abundant in many parts of the United States - even in places where white-tailed deer were never seen before.

With increasing suburbanization, deer have more suitable habitats available for them. Deer may move seasonally from open canopy vegetation to forests. Low-density residential areas often provide this open canopy and forest edge habitat. Gardens and landscaped lawns provide plants for deer to feed on, and forest patches give deer places to hide - even though they have nothing to fear because hunting is banned in those areas.

Because deer are increasingly found in habitats near humans, especially in urban settings, they are often described as a nuisance. It is estimated that deer cause over $1 Billion in damage each year. This includes damage to city and private property, landscaping, and crops. A single deer may consume a ton and a half of vegetation in one year. And yes, deer are associated with a risk to people because they carry ticks with Lyme Disease and cause thousands of car accidents each year.

By living in the suburbs, deer also pose management problems. Simply put, since it is illegal in most cities and towns to discharge a firearm within city limits, the fact is that hunting cannot be used to regulate deer populations in these habitats.

It's not only urban deer that's the problem. Even in rural landscapes where deer may be hunted, these animals are said to over-graze and damage forests, reducing the potential for marketable timber.

Overall, deer are a wildlife management success story. The one aspect that sours the success story of the return of white-tail deer in America is that the economic and ecological damage that they bring with them is something that Cities, Counties, and Fish and Game Departments must address when planning their future.

In California, the species in question are mule deer and black-tail deer. Both species are lumped together in Fish and Game's 2011 population estimate of about 445,000 deer statewide, that's a drop from 850,000 in 1990. That, my friends, is a loss of almost half the California deer population in just over 20 years. And that, to me, is really hard to believe knowing the success of the white-tailed deer in other parts of the country.

The loss that the California Fish and Game is describing is incredible all by itself. And honestly, it is tough to believe for a few reasons. But one that many people in the cities across California can attest to - the population of deer in and around the California cities and urban areas have seen a marked increase in the number of mule deer and black-tail deer mainly - like the white-tail deer around the nation - because hunting is banned in those areas.

But even though that's what many see as taking place, the state who manages its deer herds according to zones defined by habitat and deer behavior says that of the 45 zones in California, only about 6 have deer populations held steady or increased slightly since the 1990s.

According to them, these are generally found in some of the least populated areas of the state. Also, according to the Fish and Game folks, all the other zones have declined significantly.

Like those in the San Francisco Bay Area, city folks might tell you of the many deer they now see alongside the highways and freeways, in the hills, in the parks, and even grazing on school grounds around the state. 

Rural residents might tell you that many of us see deer all the time on our property, in our orchards, in our gardens, eating our rose bushes, crossing roads, and even as road-kill. But the Fish and Game folks say there simply aren't the numbers that there once was.

Researching this story, I spoke to quite a few farmers, ranchers, hunters, and just folks who live in these areas in the Sierra Mountains, along the Sacramento delta, and in the San Joaquin farmlands. They see a lot of deer. They see more deer than ever. They see what I see - there is a lot of deer out there. That's why I have a problem with the claim that their numbers are in decline.

According to the State of California, everyone who I spoke to is wrong. According to those in the know there, it's all about habitat.

Deer require a particular type of forest habitat called "early seral." This means they prefer to eat the tender, nutritious, young vegetation that surges for several years after a land disturbance like a forest fire. These days, the problem for rural residents is that deer primarily find this kind of food in the gardens and landscaping of new homes that tend to go with new rural housing development.

Fish and Game believe that natural sources of this deer food have been largely eliminated by a century of fire suppression in forests - the same problem that has caused forests to become overstocked with small, young trees that they say now pose an enormous fire risk.

Land management agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service are now reversing themselves as they now say that they have made an error in excessive fire suppression.

For folks like me who live in the forest and big tree country, the problem of excessive fire suppression and not allowing more fires is not one that we see as a "problem." I don't want anyone to allow fires. I know really well that they are used to clear old growth and keep huge fires from happening, but I've also seen what happens when people lose control of "control burns."

And yes, though the overly dense forests pose a massive wildfire risk, I'm sorry to say that I simply don't trust the Forest Service to maintain their so-called "control burns" to the extent that they don't get out of hand and threaten the many people and homes which have cropped up in and near forests.

It's a "double whammy" for deer, said Stowers. Much of their habitat has been eliminated by rural development - and the habitat that remains is poor quality.

"If deer numbers are poor, they are a real canary in the coal mine, so to speak," said Randy Morrison, California regional director at the Mule Deer Foundation, a conservation and hunting organization. "They are a real bellwether species for a given habitat. And our habitat is not healthy, no question about it."

Complicating the problem is that when a wild-land fire does occur, there is often a rush to remove the burned trees and replant them with seedlings. Often this comes with herbicide spraying to prevent other plants from competing with the seedlings. This impulse eliminates the natural forest regeneration that would support deer populations. 

And according to some, it's not just deer. A study was conducted last year by PRBO Conservation Science, which examined conditions after fires on the Plumas and Lassen national forests. They found that dozens of songbird species benefit from the same kind of post-fire habitat that emerges when a burned area is left alone.

"It's a hard sell," said Craig Thomas, executive director of the environmental group Sierra Forest Legacy. "People look at burned trees, and they say, 'Oh God, let's get the green ones back.' The early seral habitat could be really diverse and beautiful if we thought about it as a valuable thing. Deer suffer when we don't think that way."

There is another point here, deer are an iconic species for hunters -- and the population decline has not gone unnoticed among hunters. Mule and black-tail deer are California's primary big-game hunting species. Yet, as most hunters know really well, it has become increasingly difficult to find them during hunting season.

According to Fish and Game data for California, the state-wide hunter success ratio for deer hunters in 2010 was 15 percent. That means about four out of five hunters who purchased a license and deer tag from the state and attempted to take a deer for their family -  failed to bring any home.

In Colorado, by comparison, the hunter success rate for deer in 2011 was 43 percent, according to that state's Department of Wildlife. "Our deer numbers are down to a point where success is definitely limited, which has been very discouraging to many hunters," Morrison said.

Mule deer and black-tail deer inhabit about 75 percent of California. They thrive on the edges of forests, where they can find the underbrush and grasslands they prefer and still find places to hide from predators. 

The males grow multi-pronged antlers, which, along with the promise of venison, is a primary reason they are the state's most popular game mammal.

To some, part of the problem is that Hunting Regulations may be complicating matters.

Stowers said, "regulations need to be adjusted to encourage a larger doe harvest."

Morrison agrees and says, "it would be appropriate in some areas - and hunters would support it - if the doe harvest was carefully monitored to avoid harming breeding success."

Some people blame the deer decline if there even is a decline - on mountain lions and other predators, which primarily feed on deer.

The claim is that a state law that bans mountain lion hunting, passed by voters in 1990, has allowed the mountain lion population to grow almost completely unchecked.

One problem that Fish and Game has with its relating the increased mountain lion problem to the decline in the deer population is that there has not been a thorough study of the state's mountain lion population in many years. There are no formal monitoring programs in place.

And yes, as everyone knows, if a state or federal agency doesn't spend a million or so taxpayer dollars on one study or another - they act as though they don't have a clue as to what's going on around them.

Of course, some reports skirt around the issue, hinting that even mountain lions are running out of deer to eat and turning to other food instead. If true, then maybe that's why ranchers are reporting more and more mountain lion attacks on their cattle and sheep. And yes, mountain lion sightings in urban areas are on the rise in California?

Mountain lions are something that both lawmakers and developers don't want to address for fear of poisoning the well when planning a new housing development. It's pretty hard to sell homes to families, especially those with small children, if they know that the lack of deer in the area has now made the mountain lion population look for other items to eat instead.

Randy Morrison, unlike myself, doesn't buy the mountain lion part of the equation and believes it's all about habitat. 

It seems that people interested in this are leaving out another factor for the deer decline if there is one. Deer and other wildlife poaching is big business across the country. And yes, California is not exempt from that problem. 

Fact is, the illegal sale of California wildlife and wildlife parts generates an estimated $100 Million a year - second only to the illegal drug trade, according to California Department of Fish and Game officials.

The taking of deer illegally in California is happening everywhere in the state. Incidents of poaching in California State Parks have been on the rise for over 10 years. No, National Parks like Yosemite National Park are not excluded from the places where poachers are harvesting deer in the numbers.

It is a growing problem in California. Proof of this is that citations and arrests have increased by 600 percent compared to 10 to 12 years ago.

So no, I can't agree with the notion that it's only about habitat.

Poachers are pulling in big dollars for taking illegal deer. Mountain lions, bobcats, black bears, and coyotes are known to feed on deer. I know firsthand that many hunting groups have claimed there are too many predators because of hunting restrictions on mountain lions and coyotes.

And of course, knowing the story of the resurgence of the white-tail deer - along with the increase in mule and black-tail deer in the urban areas of California, if there is really a decline taking place - makes it so that I just can't accept that it is solely due to loss of habitat.

I really believe it's a combination of factors and only partly to do with the loss of habitat.  And yes, like many, I too hope that the mule deer and black-tail deer of California can prevail in the same way that white-tail deer did in other parts of the country - through adaptation.

Tom Correa


  1. Sounds to me like F & G has merged with EPA. The deer are snacking at my house. I just want to be able to harvest the few tomatoes left. I think they don't like eggplant, so I'm ok there. Everything else is on the menu. Maybe I should move that Deer Crossing sign on my dirt road. :)
    I'm afraid to buy a new Honda. All three had/have dents in them.
    Beats living in the city, I suppose. Good post.

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    You might try adding a video or a pic or two to grab
    readers excited about everything've written. Just my opinion, it could bring your posts a little bit
    more interesting.

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  3. The picture is a Whitetail deer.

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