Washington State
Mule Deer
Management Plan
Photo of mule deer in a field
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Washington State Mule Deer Management Plan

Executive Summary

Rocky Mountain mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus hemionus) are an icon of the American West. Common throughout much of eastern Washington State, mule deer occur at varying densities along the state’s entire north-south extent, from the crest of the Cascade Mountains east to the Idaho border. This widely distributed cervid has considerable interest and is of significant importance to the people of Washington. It provides hunting and viewing opportunities for many, economic support to the state and to local communities and it has long provided food and clothing for native peoples. There are more than 120,000 state-licensed deer hunters in Washington, of which a large portion hunts mule deer, harvesting between 9,500 and 14,000 annually. Mule deer hunters provide an economic boost to many of the communities where Washington’s mule deer occur.

The purpose of this plan is to provide background information on the natural history, biology, and status of mule deer herds in Washington State, describe current management issues, and establish objectives and strategies to guide future management. The emphasis is a science-based approach to managing of mule deer populations and factors affecting deer populations. The over-arching goals of this mule deer plan are: 1) Preserve, protect, perpetuate, and manage deer and their habitat to ensure healthy, productive populations; 2) Manage deer for a variety of recreational, educational, and aesthetic purposes including hunting, scientific study, cultural, subsistence, and ceremonial uses by Native Americans, wildlife viewing, and photography; and 3) Manage statewide deer populations for a sustainable annual harvest.

Harvest regulation and management of mule deer in Washington State has been ongoing for 124 years. Annual harvest regulations have ranged from conservative when deer abundance was low, to liberal when deer numbers were elevated or to address agricultural damage concerns. Hunting seasons are now designed to provide equitable opportunities to all user groups (i.e., modern firearm, muzzleloader, and archery). Estimates of statewide mule deer buck harvest remained relatively stable between 2004 and 2014, averaging around 8,000 bucks.

The basic unit for managing mule deer harvest in eastern Washington is the Game Management Unit (GMU). GMU boundaries were designed to assist with management, and were drawn using identifiable physical features such as roads and rivers, to help hunters and law enforcement interpret regulations. Most hunting season dates, resource allocations, and limited entry special permit levels are set at the GMU level; hunter harvest, hunter effort, and hunter success are reported by GMU. Groupings of GMUs also form the Department’s District and Regional boundaries. This management plan launches a new approach to mule deer management delineations by dividing eastern Washington into seven Mule Deer Management Zones (MDMZs). Each MDMZ is a grouping of GMUs based upon a combination of local knowledge, physiographic province and ecoregion. These GMUs share common mule deer populations, and vegetative and geographic characteristics, but are not limited by any county or other administrative boundary. Using MDMZs as the largest mule deer management unit ensures that demographics are collected from a complete population (or sometimes metapopulation), and that management is applied at the population level.

Managing mule deer populations to provide opportunities for both hunting and appreciative recreation, and to reduce mule deer-human conflict, is a complex endeavor. Management is most effective when knowledge of current population trajectory, densities, age structures, herd boundaries, survival, and mortality patterns are readily available, along with hunter harvest and effort data, but few of these metrics are available for use by deer managers because of the expense in obtaining such extensive data sets with adequate sample sizes over large areas. Monitoring mule deer populations provides deer managers with information on population trends and/or densities. Current population monitoring efforts in eastern Washington vary according to the landscape and habitat structure. In some zones, aerial surveys are used to count and classify deer by age and sex. In zones where aerial surveys are not cost-effective due to deer distributions, tree cover and topography, ground surveys are commonly conducted on foot or from a vehicle. The Department has strived to improve the quality of mule deer abundance estimates and trend indices. While there is room for improvement, surveys resulting in relatively high precision estimates are currently being conducted across portions of Washington’s mule deer range. But the Department will continue to develop, use, and refine aerial survey models where appropriate to produce unbiased abundance estimates.

Although mule deer are highly adaptable as indicated by their wide distribution across eastern Washington, the landscapes used by mule deer vary considerably in vegetative composition and habitat quality and in the ability to support mule deer. Habitat is the key to maintaining mule deer populations. In many areas, habitat has been altered from natural vegetation. Habitat conversions today often remove natural cover, sometimes with major consequences. Recent large-scale fires across Washington’s mule deer ranges and climate change will present new challenges to managing mule deer.

Specific mule deer population and habitat management objectives, problems, and strategies are identified in the following sections. These priority objectives reflect key management issues and specific challenges in mule deer management. To accomplish each objective a variety of strategies have been developed. The following objectives have been identified:

Statewide Mule Deer Management Objectives

  • By 2021, develop new or refine existing survey designs for each of the seven MDMZs to estimate population levels or trends, pre- and/or post-hunt age and sex ratios, and/or spring fawn to adult ratios
  • Within each MDMZ, manage mule deer to ensure stable or increasing populations, as indicated by demographic indicators
  • Adaptively manage (Stankey et al. 2005) to attempt to maintain the current level of mule deer hunting opportunity throughout the seven management zones
  • By 2027, within each MDMZ maintain or improve the quality of at least 10% of the important seasonal habitats that support mule deer populations
  • Maintain or reduce the number of damage prevention permits or kill permits issued to minimize commercial crop damage caused by deer in MDMZs over the period 2016 – 2021
  • By 2020, have long-term solutions or plans in place for at least three local communities dealing with urban mule deer populations causing nuisance or damage issues
  • By 2018, increase the number of times mule deer are profiled in public outreach and engagement efforts to at least four per year
  • Establish and promote public use of at least two mule deer viewing opportunity sites with informational kiosks by 2021
  • Raise public awareness about deer-vehicle collisions by hosting a town hall type meeting in each MDMZ by 2023, discussing the selected problem areas described above
  • Achieve 90% compliance of regulations during mule deer hunting season by 2018
  • Prevent illegal take of mule deer outside of the hunting season and illegal commercialization of mule deer parts from increasing above the current level
  • Increase funding for mule deer management and research by 10% by 2022
  • Integrate mule deer into the planned, multi-species predator-prey study by 2017

Spending Priorities

Achieving spending levels will be contingent upon availability of funds and creation of partnerships. Department spending priorities for managing mule deer should focus on the following:

Activity Priority Future Costs
Population Monitoring High $175,000
Habitat Management High $720,000
Public Education/Outreach Medium $10,000
Research High $30,000