Utah residents older than about 40 may remember a time when mule deer dominated wildlife sightings during outdoor adventures or drives up the canyon.
Those days are gone and will most likely never return, but the Utah-based Mule Deer Foundation (MDF) is doing everything it can to hold on to waning populations of the species.
"For most of us raised in the West, hunting mule deer carries a certain mystique," said Miles Moretti, CEO and president of the Mule Deer Foundation. "But right now mule deer are the major big-game species in trouble across the country. Their numbers are declining while other species are increasing. There are a lot of people who have developed a passion for mule deer and want to preserve what we can of their populations and their habitat."
Many people, mostly hunters, recognized that mule deer populations were in decline in the early 1980s. Wildlife filmmaker and hunter Emmett Burroughs decided to set up a nonprofit conservation group to help the species.
Burroughs came up with the idea in 1986 during a hunt, but it wasn't until 1988 that the Mule Deer Foundation was created in Redding, Calif. The goal was then, and remains now, "restoring, improving and protecting mule deer habitat, which result in self-sustaining, healthy, free-ranging and huntable mule deer populations."
The foundation has more than 15,000 members and 100 local chapters across the nation with some support coming from states that don't have mule deer.
Four years ago, a Utahn with strong connections to wildlife management was named CEO and president of the Mule Deer Foundation. Miles Moretti had served as acting director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and turned in more than 30 years with the state wildlife agency before retiring and taking on the new duties for the nonprofit.
"My experiences and connections working for the DWR prepared me well for my job with the foundation," Moretti said. "It is nice for me to be able to focus on one species."
MDF moved its headquarters to Utah shortly after Moretti was appointed, and the foundation's offices are now on the western edge of Salt Lake City. The organization is also a major player in the now-annual Western Conservation and Hunting Expo each February in Utah's capital city.
MDF auctioned off three highly sought mule deer hunting tags at record highs at the last expo, including Utah's statewide hunting permit for a record $260,000. Arizona's statewide deer tag went for $177,000 and Colorado's for $130,000, both records.
Moretti said MDF was responsible for auctioning 129 such tags in 2010 through national and local events, raising $1.84 million and setting a new record for a conservation organization with these special hunting permits. The previous record was 175 for $1.66 million set in 2008, according to MDF. Ninety-three percent of the money raised from auctioning the tags goes back toward wildlife management programs and habitat projects.
"That's a major accomplishment with so much of that money going back on the ground and into habitat restoration and acquisition," Moretti said.
The loss of high-quality habitat, particularly winter range, is recognized as the No. 1 threat to mule deer. Highway mortality, another form of habitat loss, also takes a toll on the herds.
"Continued development in the West happens right where deer need quality habitat the most," Moretti said. "We keep building [homes] on important winter range, making deer even more susceptible to winter. This is really contributing to the decline of mule deer. We have plenty of summer range in the high country, but there is so little winter range."
In Utah, important MDF projects range from helping with emergency feeding projects in severe winters to creating water guzzlers in arid environments to planting native plants on important wintering grounds.
"One of the most memorable Utah projects involved the restoration of land ravaged by the Milford Flats fire," said Mike Laughter, a MDF regional director from Hooper. We contributed close to a quarter of a million dollars to reseed the land."
Laughter says it is the hands-on projects that MDF volunteers do that provide the real connection to the land and the species. Take, for instance, the recent effort to plant bitterbrush to provide winter forage for big game in the Cache Valley.
"There is something about being there and touching the plant and putting it in the ground," Laughter said. "You get the sense that 'this plant in my right hand might be the difference.' "
Nationally, MDF helped found the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance to promote a better understanding of and work to find ways to control the fatal deer disease.
The nonprofit has also joined other notable hunting conservation groups in an effort to allow state wildlife agencies to manage wolves rather than have federal control for the predators.
"If you live in one of these states [Idaho and Montana]," the MDF's wesbite reads, "you have seen firsthand the dramatic impact wolves have been putting on your elk, moose and deer herds during the past several years. With wolves now being seen in Washington, Oregon, Utah and Colorado, something has to be done to keep the management of wolves in check."
Moretti makes no miracle promises to MDF members about returning mule deer populations to the glory years of the past, but he does remain optimistic about the future.
"We can't go back to the 1950s, but our efforts will help keep mule deer populations stable and preserve our hunting heritage."
Mule Deer Foundation on the web
Visit http://www.muledeer.org for more information about the Utah-based Mule Deer Foundation.