SUBLETTE COUNTY, Wyo. — The Deer-Elk Ecology Research Project, five years in the making, is heading into its final leg on a mission to determine why mule deer populations have declined by 40% even in relatively pristine habitats. Researchers have honed in on key contributing factors—including drought, predation, and food competition—to give wildlife managers a better toolkit to help preserve the iconic species.

With the five-year comprehensive research project nearing the finish line, Kevin Monteith says he has gained great insight. Monteith, associate professor at University of Wyoming, has been studying the impacts of drought, coyote and mountain lion predation, and competition with elk for food in the Greater Little Mountain Area in southwestern Wyoming.

Kevin Monteith, UW associate professor. Photo: Courtesy University of Wyoming

“We’re working really hard to understand to what degree each one of those players is operating so that we can know better which one of those we can push or pull on from a management perspective to create a better scenario for deer in that system,” Monteith says.

Unlike other habitat fractured by human development, mule deer in this mostly untouched high-desert system are able to access summer and winter ranges, but they still have unable to thrive. Monteith says he hopes what his team can learn in this pristine setting will help wildlife managers take steps necessary to accommodate deer in other parts of the mountain West.

Technological advancements not available even five years ago have given Monteith’s team detailed data to work with. GPS satellite tracking helps researchers find and collar fawns in the field just hours after birth. DNA of fecal samples have identified some 200 different food types foraged by elk, compared with less than two dozen by mule deer.

Monteith says the new tools have revealed a multitude of previously unseen events, which helps paint a clearer picture of each deer’s unique story.

“This gives us the power to expose some of those pieces, connect the dots. On day one, where it’s born, the condition and circumstances of its mom, and watch it grow and develop ideally all the way until it hits adulthood,” Monteith says.

The Deer-Elk Ecology Research Project is an exhaustive undertaking compared with other mule deer studies, and through a broad grassroots effort, supporters have so far raised all but $190,000 of the $1.3 million needed to complete the project. The research was spearheaded by the Muley Fanatic Foundation.