Thursday, January 05, 2012

Backyard Deer

Flying over Boise yesterday--returning home after nearly two weeks of holiday travel--I looked in vain for signs of winter. Everything looked brown, including the ski resort. Leaving the airport I found balmy 50-degree weather.

Last night, though, I saw the first inkling of winter: Deer in the backyard.

I flicked on the backyard light to look for any critters. Immediately two forms appeared, browsing on grass and shrubs.

Maybe it's because I'm used to seeing smaller critters--juncos, fox squirrels--that backyard deer always look so huge, so out of place. In the confines of my yard, they appear as horses.

Even without the snow, they're drawn to the green(ish) lawns of the neighborhood. I know I'll be seeing more of them over the coming months.It's always interesting to see how wildlife adapts to humanity. The mule deer's close relative, the white-tailed deer, excels in this regard. There are almost certainly more whitetails now than at the time of European settlement.

The whitetail thrives in the world of woodlands, cornfields and suburbs--all habitats heavily influenced or created by people. You can find more deer in the suburbs of New Jersey than you can in the vast forests of Maine.

They're survivors.

The mule deer? Despite looking so similar, they're much less suited to humanity.

Sure, they'll be in my neighborhood browsing most winter nights. Some mule deer have even neglected to migrate back into the mountains in the spring, instead choosing the easier existence of feeding on garden plants.

Still, being in close contact with people presents hardships for mulies: Roads. Dogs. Weeds. Loss of winter forage.

Take away sagebrush and the mix of plants that make up a healthy sagebrush community, and deer are likely to starve. They need room to roam, and a mix of native plants to provide nutrition.

It's a tough winter world for deer (and elk, and other large Western mammals). Many will survive by foraging in backyards. But others will find a snowy land where their normal food--sagebrush and bunchgrasses that stand above the snow, providing steady calories--has been displaced by cheatgrass (which the snow flattens, so deer can't reach it).

Protecting healthy habitat is vital to ensuring mule deer remain a part of the Western United States. It's been a focus of The Nature Conservancy's work in Idaho by protecting places that still have healthy sagebrush, like the Owyhees and Pioneer Mountains.

It's also been the focus of other conservationists. The protection of Hammer Flat in Boise, now owned by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, will protect deer winter range very near my home. Biologists have a plan to restore sagebrush, bitterbrush and other native plants to this area so that deer can better make it through the winter.

Throughout this winter, Idaho Nature Notes will feature the many factors that affect mule deer survival in the winter--and what you can do to help. Working together, we can help mule deer and elk make it through the winter--whether in your backyard, or in the wilderness. --Matt Miller

1 comment:

Sara {House Bella} said...

I have often had deer and elk in my backyard in the winter and early spring. They move from public land, onto private, and back onto public. I have often said that I moved into their backyard, not visa versa!