How many hunters have wished for the “good ‘ole days” our grandfathers and dads talk about?  Those tales of the mule deer boom in the mid 1900’s leaves us wishing we could be there with an open sight 30-30 lever action in our hands, a rifle that dropped more mule deer during that time than any other.

Mule Deer populations past and future

Hunters and wildlife managers alike often use these historic population numbers as a target for future population goals.  Using this historic data as a future population goal is often unattainable on today’s landscape.  Some think if we had it in the past we can have it in the future, but it’s much more complicated than that.  The landscape is DRASTICALLY different than it once was.  Another fact to consider is that animal populations are never constant and are always oscillating within some sort of equilibrium based on human and natural factors.  It is reported in the 1800’s that mule deer populations were relatively low while in the next century we recorded some of our highest population numbers.

Changing landscapes

Since European settlement we’ve had a heavy influence on the landscape and mule deer habitat.  Not to say it wasn’t influenced by native people before us because research shows that Native Americans used fire extensively to manage vegetation and create conditions that favored hunting.  Since settlement we have altered habitats and ecological processes to a much larger, dynamic, and more permanent extent.

Habitat fragmentation is an example of how the landscape has changed for many big game herds today.  What once were large connected landscapes are now cut off by highways and development.  Migration corridors that were open are now non-existent.  Mule deer are either cut off from migrating to historical habitat or are left with marginal remnants of past habitat.  Also those highways and developed areas that were once usable habitat are lost forever.

rural development

Aerial view of rural development in Wyoming that has fragmented habitat and changed mule deer use. Photo credit

Fire suppression is another way we have changed the landscape.  In the 20th century wildfire (natural and man-made) became taboo and we immediately did all we could to put the inferno out.  We are learning that fire is an important ecological process and by past suppression we have changed how habitat and ecosystems function.  For example, wildfire is necessary to clean up forests undergrowth and promote aspen regrowth.  Aspen stands are some of our most ecologically diverse and most productive wildlife habitat eco-types.  Because of fire suppression aspen stands are being choked out by conifer and failing to regrow.  Also, juniper trees have taken over millions of acres of sagebrush habitat critical to mule deer populations because of fire suppression.  Junipers become so dense they’re the only vegetation on the landscape over time which reduces the value of mule deer habitat.  Fire used to periodically clean these trees out.


Repeat photo showing juniper encroaching onto mule deer habitat.  Also note in the lower part of the photo a highway bisects the landscape and native rangelands are now irrigated pastures. Photo credit


Invasive species have become a huge issue with the global world we created beginning in the 20th century.  We started moving things and introducing them into places they never existed, both on purposeful and by accident.  Invasive plant species like cheatgrass have taken over millions of acres in the West, much of it mule deer winter range.  Cheatgrass has little value to wildlife and takes over native vegetation wildlife use.


Cheatgrass has taken over this mule deer habitat near Elko Nevada.  Photo credit Famartin / Wikimedia Commons

Mule Deer Tomorrow

With all this said it’s amazing the resiliency these big game animals’ possess given the circumstances.  Although we will never recreate the landscape that led to record mule deer numbers in the mid to late 1900’s, it’s not all gloom.  Millions of acres of mule deer habitat is being restored, for example in Utah the Watershed Restoration Initiative alone has restored over 1.5 million acres since it’s inception with a special emphasis on mule deer habitat.  In many places across the West populations are up due to mild winters, wet springs, and the tireless efforts of sportsman, wildlife managers, and conservationists.  Furthermore many wildlife managers are working to restore large healthy landscapes to something it once resembled to benefit all wildlife, including mule deer.  Restoring and protecting important habitat will be the key to maintaining robust future populations and having healthy habitat will allow populations to rebound when declines happen due to natural events like weather.

lop and scatter

lop and scatter after2

These pictures show a habitat restoration project where juniper trees were cut and limbs scattered to restore and protect important winter range habitat.  The top picture is before and the lower one after.  Photo credit Utah Division of Wildlife

Of course this article is a simplification of a much more complex scenario but the point is that although we may never see the mule deer populations of the past, we have the opportunity to improve and protect landscapes for our own future mule deer boom.

Read about hunting a MULE DEER PREDATOR


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