Local Mule Deer Foundation Chapter promotes habitat work and public education

Story by: Kelly Bockting, Wildlife Biologist, Dillon Field Office

Hill side with red and green trees.
Red trees slashed in 2020 by MDF
volunteers. Photo by Kelly Bockting

A messy tangle of brush was the catalyst for an interpretive sign project last fall.

It all began in 2020 when the newly formed Beaverhead Chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation (MDF) wanted to get their hands dirty and complete a project to directly benefit mule deer habitat.

That year they completed habitat work in mule deer winter range on BLM-managed lands in the Dillon Field Office. This work included cutting and lopping Rocky Mountain juniper and Douglas fir to stimulate and protect curl-leaf mountain mahogany, which is a crucial forage plant for wintering mule deer in southwest Montana. 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 when juniper and fir forests and woodlands colonize these sites, it may eventually be overshadowed by taller trees and shaded out. A decrease in quality habitat equates to a decrease in the mule deer population.

Slash pile, dried up branches, with young mountain mahogany plants growing out of it.
Young mountain mahogany plants growing
up through slash. Photo by Kelly Bockting

The MDF work in 2020 consisted of cutting conifers with hand loppers and piling the severed trees on heavily browsed mahogany plants to detour browsing and reduce plant stress, thereby allowing the mahogany to grow up through the slash for several years without browse pressure from wildlife. Some of the shrub species that are present in the area and benefit from conifer removal include Black Currant, Western Buckbrush, Raspberry, Common Snowberry, and Shrubby Cinquefoil. 

After the work was complete, it looked messy, jumbled and was hard to navigate. At that time, we realized the general public most likely doesn’t understand the goal of this habitat work, and why it is important for wildlife.

Mule Deer Foundation volunteers surrounding a newly installed interpretive sign
MDF volunteers stand with a newly installed
interpretive sign. Photo by Jill Nagle

Therefore, the local MDF Chapter decided to install interpretive signs to educate the public about the need and benefits to wildlife. An interpretive sign was designed and approved by all parties involved, including the BLM, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, and the Mule Deer Foundation.

Volunteers installed two signs this fall, one at each end of the habitat treatment. After putting the signs in place, volunteers hiked up to a historic exclosure that has been in place since the 1950s to observe the site’s capability to produce mahogany. There, retired MT FWP Biologist Craig Fager spoke about the study involved with the exclosure and importance of this habitat work. Afterwards, everyone spread out and lopped small conifer trees that had encroached into the mahogany stand on their way back down the mountain.

Youth volunteers surrounding newly installed interpretive sign
Youth volunteers at newly installed
interpretive sign. Photo by Kelly Bockting

A total of 20 volunteers (12 adults and eight kids) showed up to help install the signs and complete ten acres of maintenance (lopping) in the habitat unit. That was an impressive turnout considering it was September during the 2021 archery season. It was great to have 12 adults participate, but even better was the youth turnout. If the participants were old enough to lop a small tree, they had loppers in their hands assisting with the 10 acres of treatment that were completed. Several of the MDF members said they have hunted deer in the area with their kids in the past. These members say they realize the importance of getting youth involved early and teaching them conservation values.