CASPER, Wyo. -- The 2009-2011 winters were harsh for mule deer in the Platte Valley. Even if good food existed, they couldn't find it buried under all that snow, said Bill Clay, the XH Ranch manager near Saratoga.
Now that snow has melted and this winter didn't hit as hard, he thinks it may be time to look at habitat, even if he's not sure what needs to or could be done. For nearly 35 years, he's watched the population go up and down. It's the last five years that has him truly worried.
He wonders if part of the problem could be all of the trees killed by pine beetles in the nearby Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. It could also be vegetation issues in other areas.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials also want to understand what's happening and started an unprecedented partnership between the department, private land owners, nonprofit groups and other government agencies. Game and Fish dedicated $500,000 to studying habitat issues in the Platte Valley herd and working on solutions. The agency hopes with matching grants the money will multiply to fund more projects.
"We want to help this deer herd," said Scott Talbott, director of the Game and Fish Department.
The overall population of this herd went from around 25,000, 15 years ago, to about 11,000 now, Talbott said.
Also worrisome is how difficult it is for the herd to bounce back after a hard winter, said Rick King, the regional wildlife supervisor for the Laramie Region.
The Platte Valley mule deer herd is one of two herds in the state selected to be part of the Wyoming Mule Deer Initiative.
The goal of the initiative, which started in 2007, is to bring together landowners, hunters, outfitters and recreationists to discuss the problems the herds are facing and build trust between biologists and the community.
The initiative focuses on possible problems including hunting seasons, predation and habitat. This recent proposed partnership will hone in specifically on habitat.
"We are certainly looking at disease and predation, but most of those declines are more localized," Talbott said. "You have to have healthy habitat to deal with the other issues."
Saratoga rancher Jack Berger wants to go back and look at range records created 30 years ago that outline what vegetation appeared in which areas. Even though it doesn't give trends, it does give officials on idea of where the land has been.
"It's knowing what direction to go with the money and making the best of use of it so we're not shooting in the dark," Berger said.
Biologists, land owners, nonprofits and other government agencies all met recently to begin discussing possible habitat problems and solutions.
The Game and Fish Department manages relatively little land, which means there has to be cooperation between both private land owners and also agencies like the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, King said.
Forest Service officials attended the recent meetings and plan to be part of the process, said Larry Sandoval, public affairs officer for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.
"It's still too early to say what sorts of projects and what role we will play, but we are encouraged by what we see there," Sandoval said.
Game and Fish officials want to create a "road map" of sorts to follow in the future, King said.
He hopes within a year they will have a plan.
It's hard to know how big a difference habitat projects like chemical treatments or mowing will ultimately have on the herd's survival, Talbott said.
But he does know if nothing happens it will be more of the same.
"People hold mule deer in very high regard," Talbott said. "I don't think we can afford to say this problem is too big."