In the grip of Ungulate Fever

 

Deep crimson splotches, like large drips from a painter's brush, pock the snow and lichen-encrusted rocks. A few steps farther, they mingle with patches of gray-brown fur, some of which cling to the stiff gray branches of sagebrush. Then more blood, more fur, more blood, on down the hill.

And finally, the body. Or what's left of it.

The partially furred skull grins blindly up at me, its cavernous eye sockets picked clean by magpies and ravens, no doubt. The torso is also gone, save for the rib cage, curved and hollow as a wine barrel. Only the ends of the legs look anything like a living mule deer. The hooves are untouched - they must be unpalatable - and feel in hand as soft and supple as they did when this spike buck made his last stand.

That was probably a couple of nights ago. My wife came in from feeding the horses and mentioned the ecstatic cackling of coyotes over the ridge.

Winter is a brutal season for wild ungulates. While many mammals head underground for a nap, deer and elk clump together in herds, hoping the fat they gained in the summer and autumn can outlast sub-freezing temperatures, a diminishing food supply and the ever-lurking predators.

Still, it's hard to drum up much sympathy for this particular animal. He was just one of hundreds we see every night on hay fields and lawns, browsing like domestic sheep. It seems only right that the magpies and coyotes get one once in a while, for winter is equally tough on them.

Not all Westerners view it that way. A few years ago, when mule deer numbers were down in several states, a small but vocal group of hunters began a campaign against coyotes, claiming they took more than their share of deer, especially vulnerable fawns. A former neighbor held that view.

"I shoot them whenever I can," Rich said. "They just wipe out the herds."

One day Rich called and asked if my seven-year-old son wanted to help him skin a coyote he had killed the night before. Armed with his new Swiss Army Knife and bubbling with excitement, Zachary talked nonstop as we walked through four inches of fresh snow to the back fence line. When we found the coyote, curled up like a sleeping dog beneath the barbed wire, Zachary turned quiet.

Rich hung the coyote from a dead limb and began stripping the fur from the flesh. My son made a few hesitant cuts with his blade, then fell back to watch as the coyote transformed from a handsome furred creature to a raw, red piece of meat.

Hunters like Rich have pushed state wildlife departments in Idaho and Colorado to aggressively pursue coyote extermination. But the departments, buffeted by environmentalists and animal-rights activists on the other side, have resisted wholesale extermination campaigns, focusing instead on science. The results of their studies on fawn survival are now in, and the picture they reveal is complicated: While coyotes do kill fawns on occasion, they play a minor role in the overall size and health of deer herds.

The major deer killer, aside from weather, is poor habitat, says Tom Pojar, who is now starting a fourth year of mule deer research for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Last year, Pojar's researchers found that 14 percent of the dead fawns they tracked died of sickness and malnutrition, sure signs that the habitat is not providing the way it should.

Up on the public lands, Pojar says the problem is decades of fire suppression and overgrazing, which have created an aging, brushy ecosystem lacking the mix of forbs, grasses and healthy sagebrush that deer need to survive winters. On the lower-elevation private lands, where many deer and elk spend the winter, the habitat is getting sliced to ribbons by the rising human tide: Too many people with too many dogs driving too many cars building too many houses and enclosing too many pastures with barbed-wire fences in prime winter habitat.

In other words, the real threat to wildlife herds is people like you and me.

That hardly seems possible on a cold February evening, when dozens of deer come down from the hills to graze in our alfalfa field. And even more improbable when, in the pre-dawn moonlight, I get up to let my dog, Lucy, out, and become aware of ghostly shadows in the horse pasture. Lucy sits erect and peeing as 100 huge elk run to the back fence. Their hooves clatter on the icy snow like a vast herd of Arctic caribou.

But while deer and elk numbers rise and fall over time, the overall trend is undeniable: People - hunters and animal-rights activists alike - cut deeper into the remnants of the Wild West every day, and each cut shrinks and complicates the world of the wild ungulate.

I see the problem every morning on my four-mile drive to work. Usually it's nothing more than a large, greasy red streak on the road, leading to the carcass of an animal. If it's a doe, then three deer have been lost, for most carry twins this time of year.

Last week, it took a different form. After dropping my children at school, I spotted a small herd of mulies below the road. Ears up, they were all looking intently at something. I followed their gaze to where a doe struggled mightily to free herself from a fence. I jumped out of the car and climbed down the bank toward the stricken deer, whose left hind hoof was caught in the upper strand of barbed wire. As I reached her, she redoubled her efforts, kicking frantically with her free legs, eyes wild with terror, white froth on her mouth.

My hands weren't strong enough to pry loose the wire wedged tight and deep in the cleft of the bleeding hoof. I scrambled back to the car and found a small screwdriver. When I returned, the doe quit fighting. She lay still and panting with exhaustion as I worked the tool between metal and flesh. Five minutes later, she pulled free and bolted for the river bottom, her rear left leg wobbling like a bad tire.

I like to think that doe is still alive. But I doubt it. Maybe a coyote got her, or maybe she was the roadkill I saw two days later on that same stretch of road.

 

Paul Larmer is the editor of High Country News.