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Winter surveys suggest a bright future for Utah deer

Deer being lifted in helicopter for research assessments
Steve Grey
Over 730 deer were captured, collected and tagged in the 2021 winter field season for deer assessments across the state of Utah

The ongoing drought across the west has had a significant impact on the health of deer populations in Utah. Annual winter deer surveys in Utah are revealing that despite the drought, these big game herds are fattening up.

Every December in Utah, a team of wildlife scientists travel across the state to gauge the health of deer herds. Over the last few years and with the drought this past summer, many Utahns and especially hunters are anxious to hear how the deer are doing this winter.

Utah’s Division of Wildland resources Big Game Coordinator, Covy Jones explains the main factors that determine the success of deer populations.

“It's complicated. Soil moisture is obviously important. These are driven by how fat these animals are and how fat they are, is driven by how much nutrition is on the landscape, and how much nutrition is in each individual plant on the landscape. And that comes from moisture, and probably more importantly, timing of moisture," Jones said.

Kent Hersey, Big Game Projects Coordinator of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources coordinates the big game captures and research projects of Utah deer herds.

“So we divide the state up into 30 different management units.....we go helicopter net gunning, that allows us to catch all across the unit and cover large areas very quickly. So we try and get roughly 20 does on each unit and 20 fauns on each unit to give us a good sample. And we spread that out across the whole state," Hersey said.

Hersey further explains the impact this past year’s record breaking drought had on the deer. Because of the high mortality rate of fauns, many have the advantage to store more fat for the winter since they are no longer nursing.

“We see really low production this year...often that faun will die shortly after birth, just because they're either too small for that doe isn't producing enough milk to sustain that faun and a good growth..But with this year, the one thing that's kind of cool and in good news for deer is that we actually got some good monsoon rains across the state, which we haven't had for many years," Hersey said. That provides a second wave of green forage and good quality forage in the summertime that these animals can take advantage of. We actually saw really fat deer coming into December this year, across the whole state...hopefully that means good production this coming spring.”

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.