Join Date: Nov 2004
Deer herds in your State?
California Game & Fish Magazine
Are California Deer Losing Ground?
In the heyday of Golden State deer hunting, more than a million deer roamed the state. Today, half that many live here, but can the habitat support any more?
By John Higley
The hike up the steep Eastern Sierra mountainside was strenuous and cold, but it didn't matter. By the time the first rays of sunlight illuminated the slope, we were so busy looking at deer that we forgot about the temperature. It was a memorable sight indeed. We saw deer on migration trails in the low sagebrush above and below us. In bunches. With a borrowed .30/06 equipped with open sights, I shot a buck at 75 yards. It was my first buck ever - and, boy, was I excited!
It was the 1950s, and even though we didn't know it then, my pal and I were experiencing California's best days of deer hunting. Department of Fish and Game data show that the statewide deer population of the late 1950s and early 1960s was estimated at about 1 million animals. Now, less than 50 years later, Golden State deer number half that amount.
Hunters, of course, would like a simple answer to such a drastic decline, but deer herd dynamics is a complex subject that generates thousands of pages of documentation each year. There are, however, some enlightening ways to discuss these issues in an abbreviated forum.
The California deer story began years ago, during the Gold Rush. With rapid settlement came unbridled timber harvest, slash fires, uncontrolled wildfires and other disturbance to the landscape that transformed vast new acreage into prime deer habitat. That deer numbers didn't escalate faster than they did was partly the result of unregulated hunting for meat and hides, which proved more lucrative than mining for many gold seekers. In 1880, according to one report, upwards of 35,000 deer hides were shipped from Redding alone.
Things had to change. The institution of a six-week deer season in 1893 was followed a lowered bag limit, first from three then to two bucks, by 1910. A hunting license was required and wardens enforced the regulations. The state's deer herds finally began to grow.
By the 1940s, biologists were predicting a deer population crash as vast numbers of deer nibbled themselves out of house and home. As it turned out, the biologists were dead on albeit decades early.
There was so much concern about the burgeoning deer population that in 1956 hunters were allowed to take one deer of either sex during the last days of the season. By all accounts, it was a bloodbath: 38,000 does and 70,000 bucks were killed that year, leading many hunters to fret over whether the herds would recover.
Their concerns were short-lived. Thanks to recruitment of young bucks beginning the following year, the buck harvest in 1959 climbed to 76,000; in 1960 it reached 83,000. Truly, it was a good time to be a deer hunter, and about 405,000 Californians enjoyed the privilege.
Things since have gone downhill.
As with the diverse reasons behind rising deer numbers, there are many complex reasons for the declines of the last four decades. Most obvious in some areas was the condition of the habitat due to excessive browsing. The Tehama County (Zone C-4) deer herd, which once numbered 50,000 animals, literally starved in the 1970s. Today, the herd numbers just 22,000 and is stable.
There are other factors. Some hunters are quick to blame predators such as mountain lions, coyotes and even bobcats. "Certainly they all have a role," says CDFG biologist Dave Smith, who has spent his 30-year career working with deer, "but predation is something deer have lived with forever. True, predators might keep a herd down for a time after it's been knocked back for one reason or another, but they have never been known to cause the initial decline."
National phenomena usually account for rapid, significant deer losses. The severe winter of 1992-93 saw fully half of northeastern California's mule deer starve to death, their food buried for months under several feet of snow. Wildlife photographer Steve Guill counted 69 dead or dying deer on one depressing day trip to a wintering area on the border of zones X-1 and X-2. Other mule deer ranges suffered similar losses.
Even more insidious is the continuing loss of nutritious forage plants due in part to changing logging practices, wildfire suppression and drought. We still have wildfires, of course, most of which are good for deer, but man's penchant to douse fires even in backcountry areas rarely allows enough habitat to burn so as to be beneficial over large ranges.
There are exceptions, of course. In 1987, for example, about 800,000 acres were scorched in the state; Siskiyou County was hit especially hard. The scarred earth was ugly to the human eye, but within three years the population of deer in Zone B-6 was noticeably building. Fifteen years later, the fire sites have aged and, predictably, deer numbers are once again falling.
In the old days, logging was a cut-and-run business that left many clear cuts to recover slowly through natural succession - first grasses and weedy plants, then shrubs and finally trees. Not only is clear-cutting history, but so is the natural evolution of forest life. Cut blocks and burned areas, such as the site of the 60,000-acre Fountain Fire which took place nine years ago in Shasta County, are often replanted with trees immediately and then sprayed with herbicides to keep grasses and brush from competing with tree growth, leaving only minimal benefit to deer and other wildlife.
Human encroachment also affects wildlife. It's impossible for deer forage to grow through asphalt and yet just last year California gained an average of 54,000 new citizens each month. Their homes, shopping centers, schools, ballparks and golf courses eliminate deer habitat. Between 1950 and 1980, about 4.8 million acres of wild lands were converted to agricultural and urban uses. The trend continues today.
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WILL THE TREND EVER END?
Deer herds peak and decline on a regular basis. The difference these days is that, with a few exceptions, the peaks and valleys of those fluctuations are more pronounced than ever before. But all is not bleak.
I'm actually a more successful deer hunter now than I was in the 1950s. Why? Probably because I hunt smarter now than I did when I had a multitude of animals on which to spend youthful energy.
Deer of one subspecies or another reside on 56 percent of California's land base, or roughly 88,000 square miles of habitat. Annual surveys show herds in some regions to be stable while others are slightly growing or declining. We've had multiple years of good weather to help stabilize those herds.
And take heart in knowing that the DFG relies on conservative figures. In some cases, things are not as bad as reported. Even today, some California hunters are successful nearly every year, no matter where they hunt. That means there's hope for all of us. And for our beloved deer.
Where Do We Go From Here?
One of the most severe cases of deer herd collapse in California involved the Round Valley herd of Inyo and Mono counties, which dropped from 5,500 animals to less than 1,000 in the early 1990s. Forage succumbed to drought and suddenly there were too many deer for the range to support, reports Vern Bleich, a California Department of Fish and Game biologist.
While the herd has not rebounded with blinding speed, it has increased from 950 deer in January 1991 to 2,500 animals in January 2002. And so it goes in other parts of the state.
The CDFG works with the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Forestry and private landowners to improve habitat on an ecosystem basis through prescribed burns and other manipulation. "The land management agencies are not interested only in deer, and they do not specifically target habitat projects for deer alone," said Dave Smith, a CDFG biologist. "The best department biologists can do is propose projects that we think will help deer along with everything else." Unfortunately, the acreage involved is a fraction of what's needed for deer herds to grow in a significant way.
Meanwhile, the game department watches trends, controls hunter pressure through the availability of tags and waits for natural weather cycles or fire events to benefit deer habitat on a large scale.