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Deer herds suffer during Utah's worst drought year

Covy Jones

Wildlife in Utah are suffering in response to record-setting droughts across the state.  One species of particular interest is mule deer, whose populations are in decline.

Within the last year, Utah has experienced the worst drought conditions ever recorded. There has been increasing concern for how this water crisis is affecting Utah’s natural ecosystems, particularly with our mule deer herds.

Mule deer have a very dynamic and intimate connection with Utah’s landscape. Their health directly affects the health of other animals, like their natural predator the mountain lion. Mule deer rely heavily on the spring bloom and late summer monsoons in southern Utah to produce enough food for them to survive in the winter. During a drought, vegetation becomes scarce, which in turn hinders a deer’s ability to fatten up for the winter.  

“Everything you want in a healthy population is how fat are these animals? How much fat can they gain during the summer? And the fatter they are, in the summer, coming up into fall and then going through the winter, the higher the likelihood of survival, but it's not just their survival. It's their offspring,” says Utah’s Division of Wildland resources Big Game Coordinator, Covy Jones.

Every December across the state of Utah, Jones and a team of scientists conduct assessments on mule deer populations: “We catch them from a helicopter, we net get them... And then we do a body assessment. And we take total ingested body fat and certain metrics.”

These same deer are then recaptured in March to measure how much body fat is lost through the winter.

Although data suggests that since 2016 there has been a dramatic decline in deer populations, the Utah Watershed Initiative has placed water guzzlers around different areas to reduce drought impact on Utah's deer. 

 “There is some hope on the horizon with the timing of the moisture this year. I anticipate the mule deer will be in better body condition this winter when we catch them.”

For more information on how mule deer are affected by the drought visit here.


Colleen Meidt is a science reporter at UPR as well as a PhD student at Utah State University. She studies native bees in the Mojave Desert and is particularly interested studying the conservation status of the Mojave Poppy Bee. In her free time, Colleen enjoys photography and rock climbing in the canyons.