Buck deer. Photo provided by Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

The story of Utah’s deer herds is an interesting one and fitting right now since the general deer hunt will officially open at sunrise on Saturday, Oct. 19.

Roughly 60.000 hunters and probably as many family and friends will take to the hills in search of the elusive bucks, and in some cases does. This, however, is a story that goes from bust to boom to bust.

The story is that when the pioneers first entered the valley, there were few deer but lots of cattle. It seems the cattle overgrazed the grasses, which opened the land to browse, favorite foods for deer when available.

Well, as deer number ballooned, they ate more and more and soon the browse was thinned and the grasses came back. Grasses, now, are not a favorite of deer, but the choice of elk. Because of this and other reasons the state’s deer numbers have dropped and elk numbers of risen.

As it stands now, elk numbers have nearly reached management levels where deer, in most cases, are far below the number of deer wildlife officials would like. A lot of factors have contributed to the decline in deer numbers. Those being hunting, road kill, predations, loss of habitat and severe winters.

Back in 1985, for example, 82,552 deer were harvested by more than 200,000 hunters. In 1961, 132,000 deer were tagged. This year, there were only 84,600 total permits issued, which covered archery, muzzleloader and general rifle hunts. Estimates are fewer than 20,000 deer will be taken this year. Also, estimates are the number of deer killed by vehicles in a year is around 20,000.

And, as noted, while deer numbers have dropped, elk have increased. Which is understandable since elk can survive harsh winters better than deer and there is a better food supply.

Estimates are Utah’s current deer population is only about half what it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

One figure showed elk numbers jumped from 18,000 to 58,000 between 1975 and 1990. The current elk population in Utah is estimated to be around 68,000. The population objective, which is the estimated number of elk Utah’s landscape is able to sustain, is around 71,000.  

One argument supporting the drop in deer numbers is what some say is a decline in large or trophy deer. That argument isn’t completely supported. In 2004, well into the decline of deer numbers, the largest typical buck taken in Utah was recorded in Boone and Crockett Records. It placed 4th in 1,572 entries. There are still some large bucks in Utah.

Records do support the growth in the elk population. In 1981, there was not a single entry in the Boone and Crockett records. Today, the second largest American or Rocky Mountain elk was taken in Utah. And, of the top 10 listed, three came out of Utah. There were a total of 820 entries.

Will Utah’s mule deer number ever reach high levels again? Not likely. Too many hurdles face Utah’s mule deer.