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Utah’s record-setting snow has been ‘heaven and hell’ for big game herds

Morgan County, Utah, deer feed operation, courtesy Division of Wildlife Resources, Jan. 23, 2023
courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
Deer feed scatters the ground at an emergency feeding location in Morgan County, Utah, Jan. 23, 2023.

Utah’s record-setting snowfall may be a boon for winter recreation, but it’s been tough on wildlife.

Heavy mountain snow has made food scarce for mule deer herds in parts of northern Utah, including Morgan and Rich counties.

“We're going to end up with really high adult doe mortality and almost complete fawn loss on our mule deer on the Morgan South Rich unit,” said Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Big Game Coordinator Dax Mangus.

The DWR checks the deer herds each December. Thanks to a wet fall, Mangus said deer were in a good place heading into the winter. It soon became clear that additional steps would be necessary as the snow started to pile up.

We knew at that point we were probably going to lose fawns,” he said. “There really isn't a whole lot you can do there. But if we can keep those adults alive, then the population can bounce back quicker.”

In January, the DWR set up targeted emergency feeding locations in northern Utah to keep adult, reproductive-age deer alive. But feeding deer is more complicated than just putting out food. It involves thousands of man-hours and mitigating the spread of disease.

“When you have centralized feeding grounds, that congregates the animals and increases the chance of disease spread, specifically with chronic wasting disease,” said Utah Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Vice-Chair Caitlin Curry.

Chronic wasting disease is a neurological condition that affects deer, elk and moose. It is relatively rare but has been detected in several parts of the state.

“Feeding deer is something we are hesitant to do and we have some strong triggers that we want to make sure are hit before we take those steps and move towards feeding deer,” Mangus said. “There's definitely some risks and downsides associated with feeding. Disease is a huge one. And our policy is if we have a unit that is [chronic wasting disease] positive, we don't feed on that unit.”

But the news isn’t all bad. The same moisture that’s hammering the northern herds has also been amazing for mule deer in southern Utah.

“It's kind of this heaven and hell thing,” Mangus said. “We're seeing some of the highest fawn production and fawn survival and adult doe survival of deer that we've ever recorded in that part of the state.”

Still, the northern die-off has many in the outdoor community concerned.

I would say the general reaction, especially in the hunting community, there's definitely been worry for sure,” Curry said. “The moisture that we're seeing is actually a good thing in other parts of the state. It's just those consistent cold temperatures up north that are causing challenges for the herds up there.”

“We've been focusing on educating the public around giving wintering wildlife their space,” she added. “I definitely think there's a lot of nuance that needs to be discussed and education that needs to be spread on what are the actual effects of this winter.”

Larger animals like elk and moose are more resilient than deer and have not experienced the same losses, Mangus said. Predators like mountain lions have also thrived as prey like deer have been slowed down by the heavy snow.

When it comes to what this means for hunters, Mangus said the first round of permit proposals is expected to be released in early April.

“We're going to see recommendations for cuts in northern Utah on these units where we anticipate that we're going to have pretty big losses and we're going to see recommendations for increases on some units in southern Utah where those deer populations are doing really, really well and growing.”

In the end, Mangus said herd decreases in northern Utah could ultimately be offset with increases in southern parts of the state. So, overall permit numbers might not change that much.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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