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Mule deer decline and management strategies are hot topics at first Sportsperson Conservation Forum

A group of mule deer stand in a gold grassy field, with tall mountains and blue sky behind them.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
A group of mule deer graze close to the Trail Lakes Trailhead at the base of the Wind River Mountains near Dubois.

Earlier this week, Gov. Mark Gordon brought together wildlife experts and the general public for the inaugural Sportsperson Conservation Forum. The forum took place at the National Museum of Military Vehicles in Dubois and covered topics like mule deer management and wildlife crossings. Wyoming Public Radio’s Hannah Habermann spoke with Wyoming Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik about his takeaways from the event.

Editor's Note: This story has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Hannah Habermann: One of the forum's big goals was to try to bring people together to talk and connect with each other. What was the overall tone of the event? Any moments of tension or big breakthroughs?

Brian Nesvik: The intent here was just to bring folks together and highlight some of both the biggest successes and challenges facing wildlife and wildlife habitat across our state. And then to encourage folks to find their way to become involved and to have influence over helping to continue our successes and also deal with our challenges.

You know, as far as any points of contention, I guess I wouldn't say there was anything that became just really palpable in the room. But there certainly were some contentious topics discussed, like planning and zoning at the local and county level.

There were certainly some discussions around fair chase, which oftentimes can be different based on an individual's perspective on what fair chase is. But overall, the tone was just very positive and I was very happy with the event. I think we certainly achieved our objectives and it exceeded my expectations.

HH: For listeners who maybe don't know, could you give a one sentence blurb about what fair chase is?

BN: I’ve got to think about that, that’s hard. What most sportsmen would define as fair chase is: those practices and behaviors that give the animal that's being hunted a fair opportunity to escape.

HH: Thanks for that definition. One of the panels focused on declining mule deer populations throughout the state, which is obviously an issue that's gotten a lot of attention in the last couple of years. Were there any big insights about how to address that issue?

A man in a suit stands in front of a navy blue Wyoming Game and Fish Department banner.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department
Brian Nesvik

BN: That's a really good question. This whole discussion around declines in mule deer has been something that I know has been on not only sportsmans’ minds, but also just ranchers and wildlife enthusiasts. A common theme around the mule deer issue was that there are a significant number of different threats that all can have either small or moderate impacts on mule deer.

It's almost like this “death by a thousand cuts” kind of an analogy. When you look at things like wildlife disease, like chronic wasting disease (CWD); and then you look at continued human presence and human-dominated landscapes with urban sprawl, and more subdivisions and more development in many different ways, whether it be roads or fences or energy development; the concerns with competition with other species like elk, when we have places in the state where elk populations are growing beyond what they've been in the past – there's a lot going on out there that is not necessarily good for mule deer.

As far as what we can do, there's been interest in doing something here for a long time. And a lot of those successes were highlighted [at the forum] – working on large-scale habitat projects for mule deer, looking at highway crossings where we know we have mortality, looking at ways to continue to evaluate and find ways to try to manage mule deer in a way that reduces the prevalence of CWD. Those were all some things that have been either demonstrated and need to continue, or ideas that need to be tried in the future – like, for example, the changing of management techniques specific to chronic wasting disease.

HH: Changing gears a little bit, did the Sublette County wolf incident come up at all? From your perspective, how is that influencing discourse about predator species management?

BN: It did come up briefly when we were on the panel that addressed fair chase. I think that the panelists that brought the issue up really framed the issue in a Wyoming way and reflected what I've heard from a lot of Wyoming folks. Bottom line is that I haven't heard from anybody that condoned or felt that those actions around that incident were right. But there's a real need to have thoughtful, deliberate dialogue and discussion around if and how policy needs to be changed to address the behaviors of one individual that obviously nobody finds as right or reasonable.

HH: Make sense that it came up, definitely a hot issue. Any topics that weren't discussed at the forum that you wish had been talked about?

BN: I really feel like we hit the mark on what was most important to talk about. I mean, we only had roughly six and a half hours, five and a half hours when you took out a lunch break. But there certainly are a lot of other topics that could be discussed that are challenges in Wyoming that I suspect will be discussed for topics at future forums. I think that there was a lot of momentum yesterday from people who want to see this conducted on an annual basis and I believe there's support to do that.

HH: Did the forum illuminate any topics where there's a discrepancy between what the public wants and what Game and Fish is up to?

BN: There certainly was one that comes to mind fairly quickly here, and that's this whole discussion around elk out-competing mule deer. There is certainly some science that was presented [at the forum] from Dr. Kevin Monteith at the Haub School that indicates there very well may be some competition.

The conundrum there is that folks want to have lots of deer and they also want to have lots of elk, and the science indicates that you may not be able to have both. As we look forward and we at Game and Fish have discussions about what objectives should be for elk populations, especially in those places where we're concerned about deer and our deer populations are below those objectives, I think that's going to be a real interesting discussion with the public to see if Game and Fish can find the sweet spot.

HH: Obviously there's so much interest in these conversations. The 350 seats at the event were fully reserved. What would you want to say to any sportspeople or conservationists in Wyoming who weren't able to attend the event?

BN: For those folks that were not able to attend, we are going to be looking at providing a summary and any of the materials that were used during the forum by the panelists, so that folks can get a flavor of what was discussed. And then we're gonna get back together with the steering committee and look back at, “What did we learn as far as participation? And do we need to look for a different way to do this so that more people can be engaged?”

HH: Anything else you'd like to add that we haven't touched on in this conversation?

BN: When we looked at all the topics and all the presentations that the panelists provided, there's always a lot of discussion around the science of wildlife management. And one thing that continues to be clear to me is that science has a broad meaning. There's obviously biological science, that's important. But there's also social and political science. That's all part of wildlife management in Wyoming. And I think that those topics and the way that people addressed them really brought that out [at the forum].

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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