Mule Deer Foundation improves winter range on BLM lands

By: Kelly Bockting, Wildlife Biologist, Dillon Field Office

Healthy Mountain Mahogany
Healthy mountain mahogany plant inside big game exclosure.
Photo by Kelly Bockting.

The newly formed Beaverhead chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation (MDF) was off to a rough start in 2020. Following a successful

fundraising membership drive in December 2019 that got members excited about mule deer conservation, the banquet was canceled due to Covid-19 restrictions. Another fundraising/ membership drive opportunity got shut down when the county fair was drastically scaled down. Then Chapter President Ryan Nagle contacted the BLM Dillon Field Office Biologist Kelly Bockting to ask if there was a habitat project they could get involved in. Ryan did not want the energy and momentum of the newly formed chapter to diminish. So, after a field trip to a look at a mule deer winter range project on BLM-managed land, it was decided to set up a volunteer workday. The project was comprised of removing Rocky Mountain juniper and Douglas fir that competed with curlleaf mountain mahogany on mule deer winter range.

removing Rocky Mountain juniper
Sawyer removing Rocky
Mountain juniper. Photo by
Kelly Bockting.

Curl-leaf mountain mahogany is a crucial forage plant for wintering mule deer in southwest Montana. It’s a browse species that meets protein requirements for wintering mule deer. It often occurs in rock outcrops and talus slopes with little to no soil development. Mountain mahogany is very long-lived and can assume a tree form, but in juniper and fir forests and woodlands it may eventually be overshadowed by taller trees and shaded out. A decrease in quality habitat equates to a decrease in mule deer populations. The work consisted of cutting conifers and lopping with hand loppers and piling the severed trees on heavily browsed mahogany plants to detour browsing and reduce plant stress. This allows the mahogany to grow up through the slash for several years without browse pressure from wildlife. Multiple other shrub species in the area benefit from conifer removal as well, including black currant, buckbrush, raspberry, common snowberry, and shrubby cinquefoil. The weather could not have cooperated any better for a mid-August day as temperatures were in the mid to upper 70s. The MDF volunteers completed 20 acres of conifer removal equating to 120 volunteer hours. Even with the unseasonably cool temperatures there was a lot of sweat poured out that day and glad to say, no blood. Everyone worked safely and the smiles at the end of the day said it all. The workday culminated with a cookout with hunting stories told around the campfire that helped build comradery among the new MDF members and their families.

Mule Deer Foundation volunteers standing under an awning.
Mule Deer Foundation volunteers. Photo by Jill Nagle