Bringing back the mule deer population across the Western Slope will require habitat management, highway crossings and reducing hunting licenses.
The mule deer numbers are in decline in Western Colorado and all across the Western U.S. In Southwest Colorado the deer population has declined an estimated 10 to 20 percent in the last couple of decades, according to the local Colorado Parks and Wildlife office.
The agency outlined strategies to address the problem in a draft plan written after almost a year of public meetings with hunters across the state.
“They supported the plan almost universally,” said Ron Velarde the Northwest Regional Manager for Parks and Wildlife and one of the plan’s authors.
The plan will be presented to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission on Friday, and it is scheduled to be approved in December. However, most projects will not start until after July 2015, following the state’s budget process.
The plan includes partnering with the Colorado Department of Transportation to build underpasses. Safe routes for deer will help build the population and protect drivers.
“Nobody should be killed hitting a deer,” Velarde said.
Eight-foot fences have to be built along the highways to help funnel deer to the underpasses. The department plans to start with underpasses beneath a highway in Grand County. U.S. Highway 550 from Montrose to Ouray and along U.S. Highway 50 from Gunnison to Monarch pass are also slated for construction.
The construction will depend on funding availability.
Clearing and improving the health of winter and shoulder season habitat also is part of the plan. In some areas piñon and junipers need to be cut to make room for the bitter brush and mountain mahogany, that deer browse on. Wildfire suppression has lead to piñon and junipers taking over.
Weed reduction, habitat reseeding and habitat protection are also part of the plan. Some critical habitat areas on federal land could be seasonally closed, among many other measures to protect habitat.
Increasing the number of licenses for predators, such as bears and mountain lions, in certain areas also is a strategy.
At the same time, the department plans to continue reducing licenses for does. The agency consistently cut doe licenses for the last five to six years, Velarde said.
Development of ski areas and highways means some areas on the Western Slope can never rebuild mule deer populations.
Parks and Wildlife will monitor deer population progress every year, and Velarde expects deer numbers will show if the measures are effective in the next two or three years.