Under a new B.C. Wildlife Federation study, collared mule deer movements and health is being tracked in the southern interior. Submitted photo

Study looking at declining mule deer population

Southern Interior mule deer project tracking deer movement and health

If you ask residents of some South Okanagan communities, it might come as a surprise that one of the most pressing needs in B.C. wildlife management is the decline of mule deer populations.

The numbers of urban deer are a pressing problem for many communities in the South Okanagan, but outside there borders, the B.C. Wildlife Federation says it’s the opposite problem.

“Mule deer declines have been a concern in portions of the southern interior since the 1960s, and decades of hunting regulation change have not reversed the declines,” said Jesse Zeman, director of fish and wildlife restoration for the BCWF.

Mayor Andrew Jakubeit says the deer living in the urban areas remains a concern for both city and residents.

“It is not as high a priority as some people would like it to be, but in various pockets of our community, even around the downtown area, you see deer in urban neighbourhoods,” said Jakubeit.

Related: Penticton deer safe for now

The new, large-scale research project, involving multiple agencies and universities, Indigenous people, the public, stakeholders, and industry, brings together cutting-edge research on deer ecology.

A combination of fire suppression, timber extraction, highways, urban sprawl and other factors affect the movement and size of mule deer populations in the Southern Interior of B.C.

“In addition to landscape change, things like increases in competitor or predator species may also be affecting mule deer, as we’ve seen in other parts of western North America, and we want to identify which drivers are most important in the Southern Interior,” said Sophie Gilbert, an assistant professor at the University of Idaho and co-investigator on the project.

Mule deer are essential for food security, Syilx cultural practice and knowledge transfer, hunter opportunity, and are considered a ‘canary in the coal mine’ for B.C.’s ecosystems.

“What we have heard from Indigenous communities, ecologists, and resident hunters is that the decline of mule deer matters to them and the status quo is no longer sufficient,” said Adam T. Ford, assistant professor and Canada research chair in wildlife restoration ecology at UBC Okanagan “It is time we bring more science to bear on issues affecting wildlife in B.C.”

Jakubeit said he would hoped the problem of urban deer and perhaps returning them to forested areas would have formed part of the study.

“Some would argue, anecdotally at least, that the decline in the forested region is because the deer are now in urban centres and creating multiple generations … giving birth to a new generation that think the urban centre is their home,” said Jakubeit, adding those deer don’t stray from urban areas and have no fear of interaction with humans.

GPS tracking collars on 64 adult female mule deer in the areas of Kettle-Granby, Peachland-Garnet Valley and Cache Creek-Elephant Hill fire. An additional 33 adult female mule deer were collared in the Kootenay study area. Does and their offspring (fawns) are what drive deer population change, which is why the project is focusing on them.

Of the 64 deer captured the project team found a 98 per cent pregnancy rate on 56 does greater than one year of age, and at least 80 per cent of those were carrying twins.

In addition to the collars, at least 200 remote cameras will be deployed in the project areas to provide an understanding of how other animals (predators, prey, and people) interact with mule deer as well as fawn survival and sex ratios.

This fall the group expects to place GPS collars on a minimum of 60 mule deer fawns and will also incorporate vegetation monitoring (food availability).

To date, nearly $300,000 in direct funding has been contributed to the project along with over $500,000 of in-kind support from collaborators, particularly project volunteers, UBC-O and the University of Idaho.

Donations to the project can be made through the BCWF website or directly to the Okanagan Nation Alliance. The BCWF also has information on volunteer opportunities.


Steve Kidd
Senior reporter, Penticton Western News
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