Plan to save deer, restore habitat faces challenges

Chad Lundquist/Nevada Appeal A mule deer stands in a clearing near the Genoa post office.

Chad Lundquist/Nevada Appeal A mule deer stands in a clearing near the Genoa post office.

RENO - State wildlife officials have a long-term blueprint to try to nurture Nevada's mule deer population, which has suffered under increasing pressures from humans, development, and perhaps worst of all, nature's fury.

Officials acknowledge it won't be easy to stabilize deer herds and their habitat when they are faced with invasive weeds, wildland fires and human encroachment.

Unless you're a desert lover, rallying support - and money - for sagebrush is a tough sell, said Russ Mason, big game chief for the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

"People visit Lake Tahoe. It's pretty," Mason said.

The picturesque lake in the Sierra Nevada has benefited from a "Keep Tahoe Blue" campaign and tens of millions of dollars for environmental projects to protect the clarity of its azure waters.

"Getting most people excited about brown desert that stretches for hundreds of miles, that's another story."

In 1988 the statewide estimate of mule deer in Nevada was 240,000 animals. Since 2002 that same statewide estimate has hovered near 110,000 animals. The last 20 years have been tough on mule deer with prolonged droughts that weakened the ability of the land to support the numbers of the late 1980s.

Nature switched gears and delivered the harsh "killer" winter of 1992-1993 where thousands of forage deprived and drought-weakened deer perished. Then, in the late 1990's the habitat devastation caused by wildfires began and continued through last summer.

"In the last 10 years Nevada has seen an increase in damaging wildfires. Nearly 3.5 million acres of prime sagebrush habitat has been lost and despite rehabilitation efforts, much of that land has been converted to cheat grass which does not provide the needed combination of food and winter shelter that the mule deer need," according to wildlife department spokesman Chris Healy.

"In western Nevada, along the Sierra Front, fast-paced urban hillside development has caused the loss of deer winter range from Reno, south to Gardnerville," he said.

Stresses on deer habitat have been bemoaned, studied and discussed for years.

What the new plan hammer's home harder than ever before is that there's no easy fix, and it emphasizes that protecting or rehabilitating the landscape is a monumental chore not easily accomplished - logistically or financially.

Mason said the mule deer plan "considers what can be done in terms of habitat, population management, harvest, private lands management and communications to improve the outlook for this keystone species."

It also provides an explanation of sorts for when disgruntled sportsmen complain they can't get a deer tag in the annual hunt lottery.

"There's a lot of people, well-meaning, that want to do good things for wildlife," said Tony Wasley, a game biologist with the state Wildlife Department in Elko.

Wildlife is a state resources, whether for hunters or people who just like to see animals, he said. "As opportunities to do that decline, people demand answers. They want to know, 'What are you going to do for our deer?'"

The Nevada Wildlife Commission set out to answer the question in September when it adopted the management plan, which requires agency biologists to develop detailed prescriptions for specific areas around the state.

The first four areas, two in northeast Nevada and one each in the eastern and western parts of the state. are scheduled to be reviewed by the commission in March.

Recommendations for the remaining areas should be in place by next year, with annual reviews each March thereafter, officials said.

One area in northeast Nevada, the western half of Elko County was particularly hard hit by wildfires last summer. More than 1.4 million acres - or nearly 2,200 square miles - of Nevada burned last summer. Most of the damage was in Elko County, which lost about 1 million acres of prime rangeland and wildland habitat.

Because of the loss of critical rangeland where the deer spend their winters, the state authorized an emergency hunt last fall of 1,000 does in the region to thin herds and prevent them from dying of starvation or exposure during the cold winter months.

Then the wildlife agency, working with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, set out to rehabilitate the sagebrush ecosystem - an uncertain undertaking, with the chance of success often dependent on the whims of nature.

Seeds must be sown in the fall and winter after a wildfire, so they can take advantage of the first winter moisture to get a root-hair hold before invasive weeds muscle them out and become a carpet of tinder-dry fuel come summer.

So far, nearly 20,000 acres have been seeded on the ground and 10,000 acres from the air in burned out watersheds.

An additional 165,000 acres of aerial seeding is planned this winter.

As of mid-January, the Nevada Department of Wildlife said 250,000 pounds of sagebrush seed and more than 14,000 pounds of bitterbrush seed were on order. The BLM has purchased nearly 1 million pounds of various seed species.

The state Wildlife Department already has channeled more than $700,000 of habitat conservation fees and bond money to rehabilitation efforts. Sportsmen groups have raised $85,000 more.

But the amount is only enough to pay for rehabilitating about 5 percent of the acreage burned last year, officials said.

"What you're actually able to do out there ... is just a fraction of what was lost," Wasley said. "We're putting a lot of hope that it's going to become established and provide what the deer need.

"In the long term, there's probably no way we'll ever see what we once had in that area,' he said.

"If we could just stop things where they are, we'd probably consider that a success."

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