In his piece on the Deer Fence as a local icon, Herald Journal editor Charles McCollum opened the door for additional comment. This prompted me to post a commentary from the perspective of a wildlife biologist. Indeed, the Deer Fence represents a significant landmark in the history of big game management in Utah. The story is too long to tell in detail here, but for those who are interested, I suggest they read the historical account in Dennis Austin’s book “Mule Deer.”
When we came to Logan nearly half a century ago, the Deer Fence was alive and well, apart from some evidence of redneck vandalism largely directed at the then Utah Department of Fish and Game. Noteworthy is the fact that this was also before the proliferation of ATVs. As McCollum noted, the fence was built in the late 1940s to keep mule deer out of local farmlands (orchards and hayfields).
In those days, elk were a relative rarity with an annual statewide harvest of less than 2,000. Moose were virtually nonexistent in our local landscape prior to 1970. Not so for deer! The ’40s and ’50s saw the highest mule deer populations Utah has ever known, greatly exceeding the carrying capacity of their habitat. Over-utilization of the habitat was virtually universal throughout the state.
These populations suffered catastrophic losses during the winter of 1948-49, arguably the most severe winter in recorded Utah weather history. Accurate estimates of the number of deer that died that winter are lacking, but local lore had it that the carcasses were interred in mass graves on what is now the LoganCountry Club golf course.
This overpopulation of deer was the result of numerous factors, most importantly restrictive (“buck-only”) hunting regulations, aggressive predator control and an abundance of shrubby browse species such as bitterbrush and sagebrush on winter range areas. The latter occurred in the wake of fire suppression and earlier grazing by sheep and cattle that removed the grasses and favored shrubs, thus creating ideal winter range conditions.
The tide turned with the advent of more liberal harvest regulations (either-sex or hunter-choice) in the ’50s and ’60s. The total Utah deer kill peaked in the mid 1960s at approximately 130,000 per year (reported legal harvest alone) with roughly twice that number of hunters afield. Hunter success
averaged 60% and hunters could take multiple deer by various means. Depredation hunts to remove deer from agricultural areas were common. Those were the halcyon days of deer hunting in Utah that older hunters reminisce about and younger hunters unrealistically pine for. Regrettably this will never happen.
The tide turned once again in the 1970s, when liberal harvest regulations caught up with the deer herd’s reproductive potential and ushered in a period of protracted population decline. This despite the return to increasingly restrictive hunting regulations. Currently the number of buck permits is roughly 90,000, and the statewide antlerless harvest in recent years averages approximately 2,000 animals. The hunter success rate averages 30%.
The factors involved in the decline are numerous. Relaxation of predator-control efforts in the 1960s led to increased cougar and coyote populations. On the other hand, elk numbers have exploded with estimates of the statewide population now totaling 60,000 animals. Elk are direct or indirect competitors with mule deer. In our area, preferred browse species have declined as a result of transition to grass ranges and encroachment of juniper. Periodic severe winters, notably those of 1983-84,and 1992-93 have occasioned drastic winter deer losses.
However, one inescapable factor outweighs all others, namely the ever-increasing loss of deer winter range on our local benches due to residential development. An often overlooked consequence of this development is the disturbance/harassment factor associated with human habitation. This includes dogs and human incursion into the remaining deer habitat during all seasons of the year, be it on foot or with bicycles and motorized vehicles.
Add to this the virtual explosion of ATV and snowmobile ownership. Austin has estimated that for every home built on previously unoccupied winter range, five acres and one wintering deer are effectively lost due to human usage. A relatively new development is the increasing popularity of collecting shed antlers for commercial purposes, which brings collectors into close contact with wintering deer.
Finally, an important consequence of urbanization is impact of increased roadways either in terms of direct mortality or the effect of highways as movement barriers.
Increasingly mule deer have become year-round residents of Cache Valley, a phenomenon that can be traced back to the severe winter of 1983-84, when in response to public pressure the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources implemented an emergency feeding. Since then, similar feeding efforts have been launched on various occasions by well-meaning sportsmen’s groups.
Apart from the questionable effectiveness of these programs in increasing long-term deer survival following harsh winters, one negative consequence is that a significant fraction of the deer population has abandoned their ancestral return to summer range and now live in a suburban landscape. The remnants of a once robust deer population are no longer an agricultural pest, but rather a residential nuisance, eating your shrubbery and tulips. Some communities like North Logan struggle with the problems these now urban deer populations present.
Thus, the Deer Fence may have outlived its usefulness but remains an iconic anachronism and a testimonial to the adverse impacts of increasing human populations on wildlife habitat. Repairs and maintenance might increase its effectiveness in excluding elk and moose should management agencies have the resources and political will to do it.
Michael Wolfe is a retired professor of wildlife management at Utah State University. He spent most of his career researching big game animals in Utah and other western states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.