Mule deer study shows the critters move long distances over a year

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A collared mule deer in the Whitefish Range, part of a study looking at the animals’ movements and habitat choices.

Preliminary data from a 2-1/2-year long mule deer study is showing some interesting facets in the animals’ behavior and movement across the landscape in Northwest Montana.

Researchers from the University of Montana in cooperation with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, radio collared 44 mule deer on the Rocky Mountain Front near Augusta, 26 in the Fisher River drainage and 31 in the Whitefish range.

Currently, of those deer, 26 are still “on air” along the front, 21 near the Fisher and 19 in the Whitefish Range.

The GPS radio collars let off a signal when they stop moving for long periods of time, an indication of a mortality. So far, researchers have found that 12 muleys were killed by mountain lions, three by wolves and five due to other health reasons.

Muleys will also travel considerable distances. Some collared near Trego, for example, go to summer range along the Continental Divide in the Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park, some 60 miles by air away.

On the Front, some deer traverse a big chunk of the Bob Marshall Wilderness to get to the South Fork of the Flathead.

The study is also looking at the type of habitat the deer frequent. It was initially thought they might like previously harvested stands of timber.

But what they’re really keying in on is older forest fire burns, ranging in age from 6 to 30 years old, the preliminary data has shown.

Some deer after last winter were in very poor shape, FWP Region 1 Wildlife Manager Neil Anderson noted. The bone marrow from dead deer was a dull pink, whereas in a healthy animal it should be solid, white and waxy. A pink marrow is a sign of malnutrition.

Mule deer in Northwest Montana have been in decline since the mid 1990s, FWP harvest data shows. Whitetail deer may also be playing a role. When they occupy the same habitat, whitetails can outcompete the mule deer, Anderson noted.

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