Afterthoughts about My Inyo Mule Deer

While hunting the Goodale Buck Hunt, I met several people who said that the mule deer in the Inyo National Forest were a distinct subspecies of mule deer, separate from the Rocky Mountain mule deer found further north along the Eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

As I watched deer, it did appear to me that the deer were slightly smaller, on average, than the Rocky Mountain Mule Deer I’d been hunting in Modoc and Lassen Counties, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought until I’d killed my buck and returned home.

Rich with buck IMG_6485

He’s not a big deer. His width is 21 inches, and height just under 18 inches. He has all four points on each side and also nice eye guards. Everybody who hunts Goodale wants a monster buck, but the truth is that they are hard to find. I am very happy with this buck.

That’s when I remembered editing a piece for Mule Deer Magazine 1995. Dr. Valerius Geist was the author and he spoke of four or more distinct subspecies of mule deer in California. One of those is the Inyo mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus inyoensis. The other primary species being the Columbian black-tailed deer, the California mule deer,  and Rocky Mountain mule deer.

Readings within recent issues of MDF magazine reminded me that another mule deer expert, Jim Heffelfinger, has studied and researched this topic. His views appear to be similar to Dr. Geist’s, but also divergent.  A significant issue is whether the variations in  mule deer characteristics within California deer are created by evolution or hybridization.

In their 1999 book, A Sportsman’s Guide to Improving Deer Habitat in California, Kenneth Mayer and Tomas Kucera, recognized six sub-species of deer in California. They expanded the listing to include the southern mule deer and the burro mule deer. Here’s what they said about the Inyo mule deer.

The Inyo mule deer occurs only in California, ranging east of the Sierra Nevada in Mono and Inyo counties. Like the Rocky Mountain subspecies, it is migratory, with low-elevation Great Basin winter ranges and higher-elevation summer ranges, often on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. Although a bit smaller it closely resembles the Rocky Mountain mule deer. Most wildlife biologists believe the Inyo mule deer is simply a southern form of the Rocky Mountain mule deer.

Possibly the most heavily researched issue with regards to differences between blacktailed deer and  mule deer has taken place along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, primarily in the Shasta Cascade Region. Based upon conversations with Dr. Geist, it is clear to me that when he wrote the article in 1995 he considered the variations in the deer in that area were primarily related to evolution. He labeled the mule deer in the Shasta Cascade region as California mule deer.

Many sportsmen consider deer in that area to be either Columbian blacktail, mule deer or hybrids.

As I reread the article written by Dr. Geist, my take away was that he believed that the primary differences between the deer species living in different regions of California was primarily due to adaptation to differing habitats (evolution).

The fact that these various sub-species of deer live in adjacent habitats supports the concept of hybridization. It is logical that the sub-species variations would be blurred by cross breeding. Jim Heffelfinger’s recent articles in MDF magazine and also Fair Chase magazine, Fall 2005,  discuss DNA sampling done for the Boone and Crockett Club. Addressing species boundaries has been an issue with record-keeping groups for years and the Boone and Crockett Club has made progress entering the arena of DNA sampling. Decisions about the species identity of an individual trophy can be made using DNA sampling technology instead of geographical location.

Since I’m not a scientist, I don’t want to go any deeper into the weeds, but I will say that my observations while hunting mule deer in the Owens Valley support the notion that the deer there are different from Rocky Mountain mule deer of Lassen and Modoc Counties in Northern California.

Here is a photo of a of an interesting illustration taken from the Winter 1995 issue of Mule Deer Magazine. In that article, Dr. Geist explains that a “cline” is a “…geographic line-up of forms that vary directionally in their characteristics… ” The sub-species of deer in the illustration fit that definition.

cline illustration from Mule Deer Magaine

This is a photo of an illustration provided to Mule Deer Magazine in 1995 by Dr. Valerius Geist – a recognized expert on mule deer taxonomy.

 

G3 – Goodale Buck Hunt

Didn’t expect to hold out this long, but G3 might be worth the wait.

In case you don’t already know, the G3 hunt takes place in the X-9B deer zone. The hope is that deer will migrate out of the surrounding mountains into the valley along interstate 395 which is the eastern boundary of the Hunt Zone.

The highest peak in the vicinity is Mt. Whitney (yes that Mt. Whitney). It’s over 14,000 feet up. The valley floor is at about 4,000 foot elevation.

Here’s a link to a map of the area:

https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=83618&inline

The season is from December 1 through December 16. When weather conditions are right, numbers of bucks show up from the nearby peaks and parks of Inyo National Forest. I’ve never been there, but I’m getting as educated as I can.

I’ll probably get a room in Independence. That would create the most comfort. The town is located right in the middle of the zone.

The weather appears to be cooperating. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Conservation Versus Conservation

 

mayberry-feb3-026-mallard-flock-cropped

This great mallard habitat on Sherman Island is no more.

Our duck club, on Sherman Island in the California Delta, was some of the greatest seasonal marsh on earth. In winter, ducks, geese, shore birds, raptors, river otters, beavers, muskrats and many more critters thrived in that habitat.

It was great hunting.

After the California Department of Water Resources purchased the duck club from us, we continued to manage the property as a seasonal marsh. Then California decided that the property needed to be turned into a conservation experiment.

The primary goals were to reduce subsidence and sequester carbon. This was a prototype project. Unfortunately, the goals of the experiment conflicted with the existing use.

In order to test the hypothesis, the existing seasonal marsh would have to be replaced by permanent ponds.

DSC_0056 ducks

Our Sherman Island duck club was converted from seasonal to permanent marsh. It is no longer managed for waterfowl.

Having sold the property to the State, we were in no position to oppose the program. The rest is history. Although ducks and geese still migrate to Sherman Island, they avoid the permanent marsh in favor of the remaining shallow-flooded pasture that surrounds the property we used to own.

It’s easy to see the effects to waterfowl when you observe our property. It’s more difficult to quantify the effects this change had on the California waterfowl population, but when combined with other similar projects, it could be substantial. We’ll never know.

This was a situation where one form of conservation conflicted directly with another.

Conservation comes in many forms and we see conservation activities frequently, but underlying conflicts are usually invisible except to specialists who manage wildlife or wildlife habitat.

Ongoing are changes to wildlife preserves and refuges on public lands. Where lands are dedicated simply to wildlife, there is competition between thriving species and threatened species. Should endangered or threatened status always trump thriving or common?

Where land is purchased for and dedicated to a certain species or group of species, one would expect management of that land to be managed for that species. Is that always the case?

Take, for example, land purchased with Federal or State Duck Stamp money. Duck stamp funds are raised by our government agencies specifically to purchase habitat for migratory waterfowl. Hunters purchase these stamps with hopes that there will always be waterfowl to hunt.

California has a long list of threatened, endangered and special-concern plants and animals. What is the ultimate “trump” species? Can habitat for a threatened species displace waterfowl habitat on dedicated land?

garter snake on log

Sometimes habitat is designed by the forces of nature. Other times man redesigns land to favor one species or another.

Habitat can be converted by applying water. Timing of the water application is crucial. When water floods fields in winter and is left to dry during the spring, the habitat favors migratory birds. When farmers use water to irrigate, farming can create food for many species including waterfowl.

When land is flooded and water covers the land during spring and/or summer, it is beneficial for numerous species and sometimes waterfowl can nest there, but usually not.

When land is permanently flooded, it favors primarily fish species but there is little food to attract waterfowl, especially dabbling ducks.

We must not kid ourselves about permanent marsh. It may attract golf course Canada geese, but it is not important to migratory waterfowl.

It would be nice to think that conservation always benefits all things, but it’s not that simple.

Why a Habitat Committee to Oversee Public Hunting Areas?

IMG_3909 Sunrise from Blind 2bWetland management is a combination of science and art. A habitat committee should be run by an individual with many  years of experience in wetland development and maintenance.  A year or two of experience is nice, but marsh environments are dynamic. Weather is one of the major contributors to how a marsh grows and weather changes are dramatic and inevitable.

The more years one observes and manipulates marshland, the more they realize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for creating and maintaining a marsh. The managers of individual public hunting areas should welcome advise and consultation with experienced marsh managers in the public and private sector. Marsh managers cannot rely on one technique applied over and over again when managing a wetland.

The habitat committee must be made up of individuals who are passionate about habitat and who are able to work with other people for the greater good. The leader of the habitat committee must be able to nurture a teamwork environment with participants in the agency and public sector.

The major marshlands of the California refuge system are located in areas critical to migratory waterfowl. Intertwined with these public wetlands are many private wetlands and related agriculture. Initially, the California wildlife refuges were created expressly to reduce the impact migratory waterfowl were having on farmers crops.

IMG_4054 December sun burning through fog

Ag lands like corn and rice provide short term food for waterfowl, but a seasonal marsh provides longer-term food as well as other habitat values.

The extent to which the initial motivation for public hunting areas has evolved can be argued. However the existence of private waterfowl hunting areas is a given and how the public areas are managed, especially regarding water and irrigation, has a major impact and direct impact on nearby private lands. This is another reason for a habitat committee with members with varied backgrounds.

One thing that is very clear to me, is that management of public hunting areas is a job that requires an understanding of hunters and the hunting culture. The passion of the hunter cannot be emulated or described by somebody who does not hunt.

The habitat committee should make sure that managers of public hunting areas understand that, for the most part, habitat on public hunting areas is there because of hunters and as a result, hunters want opportunity.

It’s always nice to be able to take photos of sunrises and decoys or observe seagulls, snipe, sandpipers, avocet and stilts, but a marsh without ducks and geese has no use for hunting.

We need a habitat committee in California. Tell the California Fish and Game Commission today. Sign the petition.

Here’s the link: http://chn.ge/2BfeLpd

 

 

 

Thoughts on how California Subdivisions have Impacted Wildlife Habitat

Subdivisions of real estate can protect or limit habitat. If they set boundaries that conform to natural barriers which separate human activity from wildlife, they can be helpful. If they subdivide large tracts of wildlife habitat so that it can never again function as habitat, they are a problem, even if nobody lives there.

During my 37 year career as a real estate broker, I was often unhappy with the California Subdivision Map Act (SMA).

The SMA creates the basis for many limitations of property use and restricts property rights. For a real estate broker, these restrictions are at least annoying and often impact property value.

This Act was created in 1937. If you’re interested in more history, you can find it easily by searching on the net. It is a very complicated topic. But for now, I’m looking at the SMA and where it stands today.

One of the unintended results of  the implementation of the SMA was to create an avalanche of subdivisions of rural ranches in the mid 1900’s. Once faced with dwindling opportunity to create new rural parcels, developers rampaged through counties with wide open and relatively inexpensive land and created large subdivisions which created small parcels where large tracts of land had previously existed.

Much of this type of subdivision activity was done in anticipation of real estate shortages and projected upward values – land speculation.

The subdivisions were relatively inexpensive to create from a land survey and map filing perspective. Between 1940 and 1970 many small (often as small as one acre) rural parcels were approved in areas where the demand never came close to fully absorbing the supply. Many lots created over 50 years ago remain vacant. Many without power, water or sewer.

At worst, these subdivisions have created land no longer of use to anybody or any thing – not even wildlife. The SMA is an example of a well-intended attempt to protect the public from unscrupulous developers and unplanned development, but there have been many unintended consequences and many of them continue to impact wildlife negatively.

Wildlife corridors are impeded by these sprawling and failing subdivisions. Winter range is impacted negatively and habitat is unnecessarily declining.

Modoc County, on California’s northern border may be the county most negatively impacted by sprawling subdivisions that are mostly vacant, tax sales are common and homes often fall into foreclosure.

IMG_3729 Pit River Subdivision

This is a photograph of a subdivision in Modoc County. It has been in place for over 50 years, yet it has no buildings, no paved roads, no water development, power or other utilities. The road is deteriorating. Because of diverse ownership, resolution of these issues is highly unlikely.

 

Aleutian Geese Arrive

Spent most of yesterday at Mayberry Farms on Sherman Island. I’m refurbishing my Airstream trailer and the repair job is progressing. During the afternoon heat, I stepped out of the trailer often to cool down.

Overhead geese were calling. It was the sound of Aleutian geese.

Being early in fall, I was taken by surprise. But, after reviewing some material on the internet I now realize they were actually right on time. It is normal for them to arrive in the San Joaquin Valley during early October. Yesterday their migration flight took thousands of them over the top of Sherman Island.

They just kept coming. String after string of geese. It was a sight to see.

Although a few geese flew lower than most, it appeared that they all overflew Sherman Island, but they will be back.

When the Delta corn crop is harvested, they will return to feast on the spillage left by farmers. That will be some time during the months of November and December.

Devil’s Garden Fires Threaten Hunts

Had a great trip to Modoc to scout for deer. And, we did find some. Take note, they were in a burn.

Burns are a vital ingredient of deer habitat. The fires return the climax forest growth to a new start of the plant succession. Mule deer do best in habitat with young plants that sprout after a fire removes the timber that shades out new growth.

bucks in northeast Devil's Garden

We also witnessed several days of lightning a an accumulation of small wild fires that began to expand.

Upon our return home, we were greeted by a notice of closure of most of the Devil’s Garden for the remainder of the fire season (October 1) See link.

Modoc fire closure order 8-1-17-1

Here’s a map showing the closure area.

Modoc Fire closure map 8-1-17-4

The closure is for northeastern Modoc National Forest in the Devil’s Garden area. Unfortunately, that’s where all the mule deer spend their time on the summer range along with most of the antelope and elk. For deer it’s a no-brainer and I’ve already send a letter in to the License and Revenue Branch requesting a reinstatement of my preference points.

Appeal letter

For antelope and elk it’s not as clear. There are some antelope and elk that hang out in the southern portion of the Garden,in summer, but most of the antelope appear to hang out near Clear Lake Reservoir.

aantelope at Clear Lake DSC_0079

Just to make sure I wasn’t missing out on an opportunity, I contacted Collins Company. Collins Company, AKA Collins Pine. Collins owns owns a large portion of the summer range in northeastern Modoc and has a long track record for providing public access to hunt and camp.

The Collins Forest Manager said, “Find another place to hunt.”

That effectively closed the last potential opportunity for a deer hunt. If my appeal is granted, my preference points will be reinstated and my deer tag forteited.

IMG_3557 burn pano

So, these events are a double-edged sword. While some of the areas scared by fire will produce only junipers and cheat grass, other areas will provide a fresh succession of preferred plant growth that will enhance the habitat of Modoc deer for years to come.