Project aimed at restoring habitat for mule deer, quail

Deer numbers dropping in area around Kingman

The sprawling unit’s mule deer population has been in decline, and a habitat improvement project is under way to boost the game species’ numbers. (SPARKY KNOWLTON/Miner)

The sprawling unit’s mule deer population has been in decline, and a habitat improvement project is under way to boost the game species’ numbers. (SPARKY KNOWLTON/Miner)

KINGMAN - $1.1 million has been allocated to improve mule deer and scaled quail populations in the state, with about $400,000 dedicated to improving habitat for a dwindling number of mule deer in Mohave County's vast Unit 16A, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Using funds from the Wildlife Restoration Program - which receives a portion of its funding from an 11 percent federal excise tax paid by the makers of firearms, ammunition and archery equipment - Game and Fish, and the federal Bureau of Land Management, have planned prescribed burns in an effort to "reopen and reinvigorate" desert shrublands that are thick with overgrown vegetation, according to Bill Andres, a Game and Fish information chief.

The scaled quail habitat Game and Fish targets is in units 31 and 32 near Tucson.

In both cases, the deterioration of the respective habitats has resulted in a reversal of fortune, as numbers once considered robust have notably diminished.

"Both these popular species are currently below population objectives, and conventional thought is that poor habitat quality impedes their recovery," said Game and Fish Assistant Director Jim DeVos in a statement.

"One of the challenges to wildlife management agencies is to increase wildlife populations and meet the demand for both hunters and wildlife watchers."

The mule deer habitat in Unit 16 - encompassing more than 1.4 million acres - is concentrated in the Hualapai Mountains, according to Jeff Pebworth, the Wildlife Program manager for the Game and Fish Region 3 office in Kingman.

According to the Hunters Database website, the number of mule deer hunters have harvested has almost literally dropped by half since 2007, when 597 hunters took 127 deer, a 21 percent success rate.

In 2008, 576 hunters harvested 105 mule deer for an 18 percent success rate. The following year, 608 hunters harvested 93 deer for a 15 percent success rate, and in 2010, 572 hunters harvested 72 deer (13 percent).

In 2011, the most recent year available, 499 hunters harvested 64 mule deer for a 13 percent success rate.

The state made the decision to focus on specific habitats rather than take a shotgun approach in distributing the funding. Unit 16A was pledged $400,000, as was mule deer habitat in central Arizona's units 21 and 22. The remaining $300,000 will focus on quail habitat.

Pebworth said funds distributed through the excise tax grew by more than 320 percent between 2004 and 2013 - in large part because of fears over gun control.

"The current political climate ... prompted a huge run on firearms and ammunition," said Pebworth. Other funding came through an increase in the cost of a hunting license, which was used as the department's required share to secure the federal excise tax funding.

The decline

The mule deer population has been in decline for 30 years across the West since reaching a high in the 1980s. Working groups, said Pebworth, were formed with membership including various state and federal agencies and ranchers.

Unit 16A was chosen because declines there have been among the most significant.

"Our thought process was, here is where the greatest decline is. This is where we could make the most gains," said Pebworth.

DeVos, who made the decision to put part of this year's Wildlife Restoration Program funding into efforts to improve deer and quail habitat, said the prescribed burning of dense shrub and tree removal - along with improvements to nearby water sources - will improve conditions for both species.

Historically, unit 16A was home to high numbers of mule deer, but the changing habitat, according to Andres, forced a decline. The same holds true for quail. The restoration of their southern Arizona habitat also involves prescribed burns, as well as other treatment, he said.

Once the work is finished, new growth of shrubs and grasses will become a food source for the deer and the birds - as well as many other species, according to Andres.

For DeVos, a vigorous approach is required.

"Growing these populations will take aggressive action," he said. "This new funding has allowed us to go into arenas where we couldn't go before."