Mule Deer in Deschutes County

By Suzanne Linford

Deschutes county is a historical migratory corridor for Mule deer in central Oregon. They migrate in summer to the higher elevations of the eastern Cascades, and they migrate in fall to lower elevations in winter range across Highway 97. Winter range is essential for their survival because it provides them with seasonally specific forage (native plants), protection from the harsher weather found at higher elevations and exposure to greater genetic diversity found in the herds from other areas. This cycle is essential for them to survive and thrive. Only they aren’t.

From 2004 to 2021 populations of mule deer have declined over 50% and continue to decline 10% a year. The main cause is human disturbance and loss of habitat. They are losing habitat to growing demands for land use for recreation and development. Human disturbance fragments and degrades their habitat and needed connections to other useable habitat. One human walking on a trail will cause a mule deer to flush at 200 meters and abandon even useable habitat. Bikers riding on trails that are temporarily closed to protect elk can cause elk to abort their fetuses. Unleashed dogs often attack fawns.

Few understand that their trail use is a human disturbance contributing to habitat degradation and fragmentation. Hikers attribute this to bikers, bikers often blame motorized vehicles users, horseback riders blame motorized vehicles, and many blame the Forest Service for instituting a permit system to limit overuse of popular trails, or not giving in to demands for many more trails. There is little awareness of carrying capacity that determines how much land can be disturbed without breaking fragile ecosystems. All reasons are based on human entitlement, not land stewardship.

Then, there’s traffic on roads and highways. Highway 97 and feeder roads bisect historic migration corridors in Deschutes County, where the deer need to move from west to east in the fall and east to west in the spring. Crossing highways and feeder roads is often fatal for animals. There are over 1000 reported animal vehicle collisions a year in the Deschutes County region at a cost of over 1,000 mule deer mortalities on ODOT maintained and county-maintained roads. The total number of collisions higher when unreported collisions are included. They included wounded animals that crawl off the road to die.

Although wildlife crossings reduce the number of collisions by 85-95 %, Oregon has only four crossings in the state. Other states have dozens. There is no dedicated source of funding for wildlife crossings in Oregon. NGO’s, composed mostly of sportsmen’s organizations and the Oregon Wildlife Foundation, recently raised over $500 thousand to build necessary funnel fencing on the newest crossing at Gilchrist. But that support is not a sustainable model for continued funding. The public is unaware of this, as it is unaware of what funnel fencing is.

The contributions in time, money and labor of sportsmen’s organizations is also largely unknown by the public.

Protections for wildlife habitat and connectivity are essential for the survival of mule deer and other species. But demands for land use are competitive as Deschutes County continues to be one of the fastest growing regions in the nation, growing 30% between 2010 and 2020. Many believe that land ownership includes ownership of wildlife, that priorities for land use should be first for humans, and that ownership overrides stewardship. They are unaware or indifferent to understanding that the land is composed of complex eco systems within specialized ecoregions, where species like mule deer are already struggling to survive the impacts of climate change, degraded habitat, diseases, and human disturbance. They also may not know that wildlife belongs to the public, and that they can combine land ownership with land stewardship.

Elected officials also have little opportunity to learn the impacts of human development in winter range, and the adverse impacts of human disturbance on wildlife habitat and corridors connecting habitats. More education about this is essential, if land use protections are to be crafted and implemented for wildlife on private and public lands.

If you know of landowners who are practicing good land stewardship, send an email to me. We want to publicize the good things that landowners are doing to help wildlife.

For more information contact Suzanne Linford at [email protected]. PAM is an unmembered nonprofit, that does educational outreach on wildlife. It is under the umbrella of the Oregon Wildlife Foundation. Written or digital materials on migration, wildlife friendly fencing and barrier free safe passage are available upon request.

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