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Hunting: Whitetail deer influx brings mixed reaction
Officials worry about impact on mule deer; others excited to see new species
By Brett Prettyman
The Salt Lake Tribune
Published October 19, 2008 1:14 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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TJ Gale, like all hunters, was excited to get a good look at his buck. It was October 2004 and the then-19-year-old had just shot a deer close to his home in Morgan.

Gale's deer wasn't a trophy, but he still ended up with bragging rights. While the rack wasn't worth hanging on the wall, Gale's buck quickly became a hot topic in the hunting and wildlife communities.

"I thought it looked a little funny at first and then I knew it was different because it had a white tail that was like a foot and half long," Gale said last week. "I told my brother it was a whitetail deer and he didn't believe me until we took it to the wildlife offices."

Gale had become one of the small, but growing, number of hunters, to kill a white-tailed deer in Utah.

Most Utahns, including many big-game hunters, are unaware that there are now two species of deer that call the state home. The arrival of whitetail comes with mixed reactions. Some are excited to see a different species; others worry about the impact the pioneering whitetail could have on the Beehive State's beloved mule deer.

Named for their large mule-like ears, mule deer dominate Utah's mountain and desert landscapes, but the white-tailed deer has been creeping over the northern borders from Idaho and Wyoming and setting up home ranges. They have been spotted as far south as Bountiful and the Heber Valley.

Reports of whitetail in Utah have been around for decades, but the first documented sighting came in 1996 in Cache County. Although wildlife officials suspect some were killed by hunters earlier, the first recorded white-tailed deer was taken during the 2000 season.

As of Saturday afternoon, no whitetails had been shot on opening day of this year's deer season.

State wildlife officials considered the possibility of the whitetail influx back in 1996 and decided to make no effort to stop the immigrants. But the question arose whether or not it would be legal to shoot one in Utah. Because the state has a deer hunt and not a mule deer hunt, it is legal to take a whitetail.

The largest number of whitetail are found in the Cache Valley, but there is also a sizable population in Morgan County.

Anis Aoude, big-game coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), estimates that there are now more than 1,000 whitetail in the state. That may seem like a large number, but not when compared to a mule deer population estimated at more than 300,000.

Still, wildlife managers and hunters are paying attention to the new arrivals.

"We need to carefully monitor the impact of whitetail in Utah and the West," said Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the nonprofit Mule Deer Foundation, headquartered in Salt Lake City.

As former director of the Utah DWR, Moretti is concerned the increasing number of whitetail may hamper efforts to restore struggling mule deer herds in the state.

"I do worry that the increasing number of whitetail in Utah may have to divert resources from mule deer recovery efforts for things like depredation," Moretti said. "The mule deer is the symbol of the West and an animal that plays an important part of our pioneer heritage. The Mule Deer Foundation, and I hope the DWR, are not ready to give up on this historical species."

Whitetail deer were not introduced to the West by wildlife officials, but followed agricultural belts across the plains to reach the Rocky Mountains from the East.

The influx of whitetail is concerning on several fronts. Because they breed at an earlier age and are more likely to have multiple births than mule deer, the population can expand quickly.

Whitetail also tend to consume more crops, leading for depredation claims with farmers.

Mule deer and whitetail will breed, but the hybrid offsprings rarely survive the first year and are sterile, according to Dennis Austin, a retired state wildlife biologist living in the Cache Valley.

Austin has been tracking whitetail in Utah and, while the population has not grown as fast as he thought it may have, he is concerned that the numbers will eventually boom.

Back in the early 1970s Austin worked as a biologist for the Bureau of Land Management in central Montana and he doesn't remember seeing a white-tailed deer. He recently returned to the area and noticed that 50 percent of the deer were waving the familiar white flag - the large tail that whitetail raise during flight.

"They have taken over in places like Montana, but have been a little slower to expand here," Austin said. "That's good I guess, but we will have to wait and see."

For the time being, whitetail deer remain something many Utah hunters enjoy hearing about and consider themselves lucky to see.

"I've been at the checkpoints when whitetail come through," Aoude said. "Hunters that took them seem to be kind of tickled that they took something different."

brettp@sltrib.com



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