Mule Deer Field Trip near Bend, Oregon

At this time of year, mule deer are migrating and breeding in Central Oregon. Your best chances of seeing this nighttime-feeding deer are in the early hours of the morning or in the late evening. On a chilly November morning, High Desert Museum Curator of Wildlife, Jon Nelson, led a group of people eager to learn more about mule deer.

Mule Deer 10June2016

Mule Deer in the West

The mule deer is uniquely adapted to the environment of the American West. In the spring and summer they browse on plants in mountainous areas. As winter approaches, mule deer pack on the calories and move to lower elevations. Deer in the Cascades migrate eastwards and have to navigate their way past Highway 97. Underpasses help large numbers of deer make that journey. As the deer continue eastwards, hundreds can be seen in the area between Silver Lake and Fort Rock during fall and winter months.

In Central Oregon, deer feed mainly on bitterbrush, Idaho fescue grass, and sagebrush. They are not as dependent on the availability of water since they get much of what they need from their diet. On the field trip, Sand Spring was one of the few water sources we saw. It’s fenced to keep cattle out but the deer, as you probably know, can easily clear most fences if they want to get a drink.

Mule Deer buck 8August2017

Should you feed deer in your yard? No. If deer eat food provided by humans, it can have devastating effects. Their gut has evolved to process certain foods. If they eat other foods, it can kill the good bacteria in their stomachs. This can cause illness or even death. Certain diseases are spread to other deer via their saliva so you may not want to give them salt licks either.

Mule deer can often be found in ecotones, edge habitats between two plant communities. They can also find their preferred food plants in areas that are becoming re-established, including those affected by fires and clear-cutting. Deer seek out certain areas using behavioral thermal regulation. For example, they bed down on south and east facing slopes where it tends to be warmer.

Mule Deer carcass 10April2017 Mule deer are adapted to living in areas with high snowfall. However, depths deeper than 20” for extended periods of time, like we had last winter, can cause many deer to die. Scavengers benefit by feeding on winter-kill deer. On this trip, we found a dead buck and bald eagles and ravens were congregating nearby to feed on it. It appeared that coyotes had been there as well.

 

Factors Affecting Mule Deer Population Levels

When you see numerous mule deer around Central Oregon you may assume they are doing well. That, unfortunately, is not the case. The number of mule deer in Oregon is steeply declining. In the 1960’s, there were more than 300,000 mule deer in the state; now the number is estimated to be around 200,000. On this trip, we drove south on the China Hat Road, east of the Museum. Several years ago it would have been common to see lots of deer in this area. We didn’t see many deer until we were many miles away from Bend.

DeerHabitat 18Nov2017.jpg

There are several factors contributing to declining numbers. Fences affect deer populations by excluding them from some areas and also entangling them, which can lead to injury or death. Other factors include disturbance due to more people living in and visiting the area. Activities such as OHVing, mountain biking, and hiking with off-leash dogs, disturb deer. The many roads of Deschutes National Forest (more than any other National Forest in the U.S.) help in firefighting but also bring more people into the backcountry.

Poaching is a big problem in Oregon. More deer are taken illegally than legally. Due to budget constraints, the few officers responsible for enforcing the laws must cover huge geographic areas. On January 1, 2017, fines for poaching increased. The fine for poaching a deer with four or more points on at least one antler is now $7,500. While that is a lot, some people are still willing to break the law to bag a deer.

Mule deer 18November2017

The mule deer’s iconic antlers can affect their population levels. Some hunters prefer bucks with large antlers but another type of hunter is out looking for antlers. Shed hunters look for antlers that have been shed where deer tend to congregate in the late winter and early spring. This activity disturbs the deer at a crucial time of year. Selling the antlers, priced by the pound, is a lucrative business. Some states regulate how long shed hunters are allowed to collect antlers so that deer are not disturbed in the spring, when fawns are born.

Deer are managed through hunting throughout the U.S. Here in Oregon, seasons run from September through early December. Different types of firearms and restrictions are allowed at different times of the season. Hunters report their success and this information is used to set future seasons and manage the population.

A Bit About Mule Deer Life History

Fawn at Spring Creek near Camp Sherman, OR 25June2016 SiobhanSullivanPredators also affect deer populations. Cougars are the primary predator of deer in this region. Black bears and coyotes sometimes prey on fawns. Wolves have moved into the state over the last few years and they too prey on deer. One of the ways mule deer ensure more of their young survive is through a behavior known as swamping. All of the does become pregnant at about the same time. There are so many young fawns at once that predators can’t possibly get them all.

Signpost rubbed away by deer antlers 18November2017In the fall, breeding season starts for mule deer. The hormone levels in the bucks skyrockets. Their antlers grow at the amazing rate of up to an inch per day. The bucks shed the velvet on their antlers by rubbing on trees – or unlucky signposts. Big antlers attract mates and deter other males. The slim necks mule deer have in summer, become muscular and massive. Their eyes turn red and they sometimes drool. The rutting bucks are  ready to fight any male that gets too close to their harem of does. Harems can contain 15-20 does. The does choose which bucks they want to breed with. Fawns are born in late May through June after a 212 day gestation. Once they are more than a year old, does often have twins.

Diseases That Affect Mule Deer

Mule deer have a lifespan of about ten years in the wild but their life may be shortened by disease. Two diseases affecting deer were mentioned on this field trip. Adenovirus Hemorrhagic Disease (AHD) is passed  through direct contact, bodily fluids, and airborne routes. Symptoms may include a blue-colored tongue, mouth ulcers, severe weight loss, and weakness. AHD affects mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, moose, and pronghorn and is often fatal. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a disease with symptoms similar to mad cow disease. It occurs in deer, elk, moose, and reindeer and is always fatal.

You may have heard a story in the news recently about a local person cited for possessing a deer bagged in Montana. Oregon is CWD free and does not allow certain parts of deer and elk to be imported into the state from Montana, 24 other states, and one Canadian province that have the disease . Once it was determined that this particular deer had CWD, the deer meat was confiscated and every place it had been stored or disposed of had to be decontaminated. This highly contagious disease could be a serious problem here in the future.

Mule deer in garden 9August2017

So the next time you are concerned about mule deer eating your landscaping, keep in mind that their numbers are declining. Do what you can to keep them away from your most treasured plants and appreciate them for their beauty and grace.

Reprinted from High Desert Voices December 2017 newsletter. To see more issues, go here.

 

“When, what to my wondering eyes should appear…”

Selkirk caribou, Creston, B.C.Sometimes Nature gives you a special and unexpected gift. In the excitement of the moment, you click a few pictures and later find out they were not your best. Since it was such a special moment, you can’t manage to delete them. Here are a couple pictures from my archives of a caribou herd near Creston, British Columbia, Canada.

At the time, there were few records of this herd and I was pretty excited to see them. My photos helped biologists learn more about the herd. The endangered South Selkirk subpopulation of southern mountain caribou, Rangifer tarandus caribou, currently numbers only about 12 animals. Here’s a link to a recent article about them:  America’s Gray Ghosts: The Disappearing Caribou

Selkirk caribou, Creston, B.C.Caribou and reindeer are the same species so I thought it only appropriate to share these photos today. It was a magical moment when I saw them and I hope you find your own magical moments in the upcoming year.

And then there was…a creek

whychuscrk2-6oct2016Have they been “playing God” at Whychus Creek near Sisters, Oregon? I have witnessed the destruction of habitat before but never the restoration on such a huge scale. I went to the Whychus Canyon Preserve recently with the Deschutes Land Trust on a tour of the project.  They and the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, with the support of several other agencies and nonprofits, started to do field work on rehabilitating six miles of the creek in 2016. It is an enormous undertaking and it’s expected to take around seven years to complete.

Whychus Creek restoration 6October

Restoration in progress

Whychus Creek is a 41-mile long waterway that has its origin in the Cascade Mountains. It flows through the city of Sisters, forested, and agricultural lands to eventually enter the Deschutes River. Historically, it provided prime habitat for spawning, rearing, and migration of redband trout, spring Chinook, and summer steelhead. Continue reading

WPC: Our Parks as Works of Art

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Our National Park Service is celebrating its 100th birthday this week so I thought it only appropriate that pictures I have taken of the parks should be presented in a frame. Our 59 parks represent diverse and beautiful places and the Park Service works within a framework that helps to protect them. Hope that my “gallery” inspires you to visit some of them soon.

I have only been to 14 National Parks. How many have you been to?

Weekly Photo Challenge – Frame

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Mt Rainier National Park, Washington

Mt Rainier National Park, Washington

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Redwood National Park, California

Redwood National Park, California

Bison celebrating 4th

Bison in Yellowstone National Park 13 June 2011

Say hello to our new national mammal

Here’s a picture of bison in Yellowstone National Park. Happy 4th of July from our new national mammal in the U.S., the bison. Their scientific name is Bison bison bison.  If only all scientific names were that easy!

Bison are a conservation success story. Due to over-hunting in the late 1800’s, their population was down to a few hundred animals. As a result of the conservation strategies employed by President Theodore Roosevelt and like-minded individuals, the bison were able to make a dramatic comeback.

Here’s a link to a U.S. Department of the Interior page that has 15 interesting facts about them – Bison  

Twitter

Audubon's Warbler

His twittering voice kept leading me on through the wilderness. It seemed like every time I raised my binoculars to my eyes, he would make a quick getaway.

I followed him on winding trails bordered by bubbling and spouting geysers. He flitted through pine forests doused by thunderstorms. Gusts of wind kept pushing him just out of my reach.

Audubon's warbler

Finally, finally, I came eye to eye with the mysterious beast. A Yellow-rumped warbler, Setophaga coronata auduboni. This pint-sized songbird perched in the tree and stared at me as if he was shouting, “Ollie, Ollie in come free!” Our game of hide and seek was over and he stayed in plain sight on his home base.

The tree clung to the side of a cliff overlooking Tower Fall. The little bird had lead me to an important spot in Yellowstone National Park.

In 1871 the U.S. Geological Survey sent an exploratory expedition to the Yellowstone area. Artist Thomas Moran was a member of the team and he painted  a picture of the falls  that showed the public one of the area’s natural wonders.  William Henry Jackson was also part of the expedition and he took black and white photographs of the area. Due to the Moran paintings, Jackson photographs, and the observations of early explorers, the area was designated as the world’s first national park in 1872. Moran’s colorful paintings were instrumental in convincing Congress to preserve the region.

Tower Falls 6-2015

So you might say that this twittering bird had lead me to the place where a short message – in the form of an image of the falls – saved the land for generations to come. It was like a “tweet” in its time that was seen by thousands.

Swan Song

 

Trumpeter Swan, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

It’s ironic that a bird that almost disappeared from the face of the earth has their name associated with a phrase that means “final appearance.”

At one time the population of the Trumpeter Swan, Cygnus buccinator, was thought to be down to fewer than 70 birds. They were just steps away from their swan song. The birds were overhunted and their feathers were used to adorn hats and make writing quills while their skins were used to make powder puffs.  They were also hunted for their meat and eggs.

In 1932 the last known remnants of the population lived near Yellowstone National Park. Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1935 to help save the Trumpeter Swan. The Refuge is in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The photo above is of a Trumpeter Swan I saw last summer in Yellowstone National Park. Threats such as lead poisoning and habitat loss still exist but the current population in North America is over 46,000. See…conservation can be a success!

Trumpeter Swans, Sunriver, Oregon

Here in Central Oregon steps are being taken to ensure their survival. At the Sunriver Nature Center in Sunriver, Oregon, a potential mate for the resident Trumpeter Swan was introduced last summer. After a somewhat rocky start, the pair bonded with each other and it’s hoped they will produce many offspring in the future. There was a story in the Bend Bulletin about the pair and you can read it here: Swans Find Love in Sunriver.

Trumpeter Swans, Sunriver, Oregon

My photos show the pair floating across a duckweed-covered waterway near the Nature Center. You can see the neckband on one of them. If you ever happen to see a banded or tagged swan, as I once did in the Skagit Valley of Washington State, contact the USGS Bird Banding Lab. Here’s a link to a handout from the Trumpeter Swan Society that gives more info on how to report a sighting: Reporting Marked Trumpeter (and Tundra) Swans – Collars, Wing Tags, and Bands.