Mule deer can be found in Bend's backyard gardens and along the highways connecting the city to other Central Oregon towns. In fact, seeing one is so unremarkable that the risks facing them are easy to miss. But wildlife biologists say the species is suffering, and humans are to blame.
That simple conclusion should come as no surprise to anyone who saw Disney's Bambi as a child. The conflict between humans and wildlife is long-standing. But in Central Oregon, it's both critical and complicated, since many of the threats to the mule deer are tied up in activities humans are rather fond of, like driving, expanding into new areas, and recreating.
Glen Ardt, a retired Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist and mule deer expert, says these human impacts can be attributed broadly to "people in pursuit of the American dream."
The fact that mule deer can be spotted in residential areas is evidence of the disruptive effect of urban sprawl. In a recent study of mule deer in south central Oregon, the ODFW estimates populations decreased by almost half in the Maury Wildlife Management Unit southeast of Bend, from 6,399 in 2010 to just 3,866 in 2014.
Part of the challenge is that mule deer migrate twice a year, following the same path each time, so they need a safe and reliable winter and summer habitat, as well as an unobstructed path between the two.
"The ultimate challenge for wildlife is loss and degradation of their habitat," says Sara Gregory, a wildlife habitat biologist for ODFW. "Each spring thousands of does migrate, some traveling almost 100 miles, from winter range east and south of Bend into the Cascades to have their fawns. If a fawn survives, it will follow its mother back to winter range in the fall."
She goes on to explain that something as seemingly innocuous as hiking with a dog in mule deer habitat can cause a disruption.
"If one of these components—winter range, summer range, or migration corridor—is unusable to deer, either due to disturbance from recreation, urban sprawl, or loss from wildfire—among other challenges—their chances of survival will be compromised," Gregory says. "Because they cover so much ground, mitigation of the threats to mule deer and their habitat needs to occur on both a landscape and a local scale."
On a landscape scale, that looks like collaborating with the various land management agencies and other states where mule deer have habitat. Locally, that mitigation involves both policy informed by science and a values-driven conversation about the relationship between recreation and conservation.
It's a catch-22. People recreate outdoors because they enjoy being in the wilderness. But the more that humans insert themselves into natural habitats, the less wildlife seem to want to be there.
So what's being done to address these threats?
"They're not being mitigated all that well, frankly," says Amy Stuart, a retired ODFW biologist and Central Oregon LandWatch board member.
One success she points to is the wildlife crossing under Highway 97. Roads present major barriers to migration, Stuart explains. The recent ODFW study found that vehicles caused at least 10 percent of mule deer mortalities. By comparison, 11 percent died as a result of legal hunting, 13 percent were poached, and 17 percent were killed by natural predators (i.e. cougars and coyotes).
But the largest cause of death—coming in at a full 44 percent—is the nebulous "unknown." This is where those harder to track causes may be found, such as increases in stress due to motorized and non-motorized vehicle traffic through mule deer habitat. In other words: mountain bikers and people riding all-terrain vehicles.
And while Stuart says she's as guilty as anyone else, she point out that some types of recreation have a greater impact than others. Hiking, for example, is relatively low-impact. Mountain biking is a greater disturbance, in part because bikers typically cover more area than hikers. On the other end of the spectrum, Stuart says, are off-highway vehicles (OHVs).
"We don't need anymore OHV areas in Central Oregon. There are thousands and thousands of miles in Central Oregon," Stuart says. "There should be more emphasis on quiet recreation than noisy recreation."
But Matt Shinderman, a natural resources professor at OSU-Cascades, says the thought process needs to go beyond balancing types of recreation. Sometimes, he says, the only appropriate human use is no human use.
"Striving for balance would be great," Shinderman says. But, "we need to start by asking ourselves, as a community, is there anything we are willing to leave alone?"
It's those larger questions that weigh on Bend resident Kreg Lindberg, who enjoys outdoor recreation but is concerned about the impact of future developments on wildlife.
"I believe we would benefit in Central Oregon from a sustained dialogue on this and more fundamental issues of maintaining quality wildlife habitat," he says. "In the meantime, I believe resolving this contradiction requires recognition of the role of value judgments and politics." Lindburg points out that while science plays a critical role in coming up with solutions, personal values and politics often determine how that science is interpreted.
Those big picture questions include ones posed by OSU's Shinderman: "What value does wildland have without wildlife? Is it really wildland anymore if the only 'purpose' it serves is to host mindless recreation?"
Frankly Mule Deer, We Do Give a Damn
11:30 am-1 pm. Wednesday, August 12.
Environmental Center, 16 NW Kansas Ave. Free.