Out of Bounds

West’s Stotfree Future

Weather, habitat and disease are the major drivers of mule deer numbers

By Rob Breeding

The mascot of the university where I teach is the Lopers, a shortened, catchier version of antelope, which were once numerous on the surrounding plains before its wholesale conversion to corn plantations.

The student newspaper I advise — The Antelope — shares the name in its complete, albeit taxonomically incorrect form. Since I’m such a wildlife nerd, the newspaper staff may be the only student group on campus outside of the biology department that understands that on fall Saturday afternoons, we really ought to be cheering for the Prongers.

Many of them also know that pronghorn use a stiff-legged form of locomotion known as stotting. This came up when my marketing students suggested the phrase “Run with the Herd,” to promote the newspaper.

Lopers stot, I professorsplained, providing receipts in the form of YouTube videos. My students, understanding that scientific accuracy is only occasionally effective public relations messaging, rolled their eyes and got back to work.

Pronghorn may have once stotted the plains, but their curious locomotion style is really a Western thing today. Deer sightings were rare growing up as a kid in Southern California, but when they happened, the startled mule deer stotted away in proper, stiff-legged fashion. And in the early days of my writing career, I learned of the decline of a California mule deer herd that migrated out of the high country through a convenient break in the imposing wall of the Sierra Nevada near the ski town of Mammoth Lakes. 

Winter was no Caribbean resort on those sagebrush plains where they gathered, but at least there they didn’t have to go all Donner Party to survive.

Then I moved to the Bitterroot Valley in the early ’90s, where things were changing. In the old days, I was told, almost all the deer in the Bitterroot were muleys. By the time I arrived, if you saw a deer, either shooing it from the garden or dodging it on Highway 93, it was almost always a whitetail.

White-tailed deer, by the way, have their own lovely form of locomotion. They glide with a less awkward one-hoof-in-front-of-the-other gait, with that fluffy tail waving adieu. Whitetail are wonderful, but nothing screams “The West” like stotting mule deer.

These days, up and down the 93 corridor, whitetail are the rage. That’s not a big surprise, considering the highway bisects one of the fastest growing regions in Montana. 

Whitetail are nonplussed by all the construction. They will live in your backyard, year round. Staying put is a competitive advantage in booming western Montana. 

Migration exposes mule deer to danger. 

What’s even more disturbing are the signs of mule deer collapse spreading across the West. Things have gotten bad enough in eastern Montana that FWP Director Dustin Temple held a press conference last week to address the grim news. While there have been some recent weather-related upticks in mule deer numbers, if you hope to land a B tag to kill a mule deer doe this fall your odds just got worse. In Regions 5 and 7, B tags are already at the minimum quota, where they will remain. In Region 6, B tags will be reduced 54%.

The news from Wyoming is bleaker still. When it comes to chronic wasting disease, the mule deer herd in the Wind River Valley near Lander and Riverton may be the most infected, anywhere. As many as 75% of the deer in this herd could harbor the prions that cause CWD. In one study, nine of 10 mule deer bucks were dead 18 months after they were radio collared.

Doe mortality was nearly as bad.

Weather, habitat and disease are the major drivers of mule deer numbers. Weather does what it wants. We have limited influence on habitat. And the destructive force of CWD is beyond our control.

It won’t feel much like the West anymore if stotting deer become just a memory.