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New Study Looks At Why Elk Thrive While Mule Deer Don't

Bureau of Land Management, Wikimedia Commons

With mule deer numbers plummeting all over the West, a new research project in Rock Springs is looking at why elk populations continue to thrive. 

In cooperation with the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming Game and Fish, the Muley Fanatic Foundation plans to put tracking collars on 35 elk and 50 mule deer to compare the diet, predators, disease and other factors of the two species. Muley Fanatic Co-Founder Joshua Coursey, says one reason the two species may be faring so differently is their diets.

“Elk are truly a grazer and deer are truly a browser,” he says. “And so one is a very picky eater and the other will eat anything. Because of that, with the drought we've seen in that country, obviously a loss of groceries for mule deer makes them vulnerable.”

Coursey says it's not just the Rock Springs herd of mule deer that are in decline, but herds all over the West.

“Mule deer numbers have declined in the last couple decades by almost 40%. Here in Wyoming, the latest numbers seem to be between 36 and 38%. You go from 550,000 to 360,000, that's a pretty good drop in a very short amount of time.”

He says the Rock Springs mule deer herd makes a great test subject because its long been prized by hunters, even with strict limits on how many can be hunted there. But, he says, there are other reasons too.

“Some of the misnomers out there that maybe oil and gas are causing the decline of mule deer. That's not prevalent in this country,” he says. “So there's more to this than what appears on the surface. It really makes for a perfect laboratory for this type of research.”

Coursey says his group needs to raise a total of $1.4 million to pay for the five-year project. He says they've already raised almost $500,000 for their first year.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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