HAMILTON - Something is happening to the mule deer herd in the West Fork of the Bitterroot.
No one knows for sure just what.
Following last year's general hunting season, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Biologist Craig Jourdonnais could only find three bucks for every 100 does he counted in an aerial survey.
That's downright dismal.
Members of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association have been worrying about that downturn for several years now.
Gary Habeck - a past president, past director, longtime association member and fervent mule deer hunter - had been urging the group to step forward and fund a study on mule deer movement for quite some time. Talks were under way to do just that when Habeck died in a fall from a tree stand in December 2008.
At the club's Gary Habeck Memorial Banquet in February 2009, about $7,300 was raised in his honor toward a $10,000 study to track 10 adult doe deer for a year using radio telemetry. The rest of the money was donated later.
"It took us awhile to raise all the money we needed," said Tony Jones, the association's president. "And it took some more time for the fish and game to approve the study."
Everything came together this winter.
In February club members worked alongside Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists and wardens to set and bait four Clover traps in likely locations in the West Fork.
The traps are essentially a metal frame covered with netting. The inside is baited with hay and when a deer ambles inside, a trigger snaps the door closed behind it. The traps work best in the coldest part of winter when hungry deer can't pass by an easy bite of hay.
The $300 radio collars didn't arrive as early as expected and that made the whole trapping operation a challenge.
"We were fighting weather right from the very beginning," Jourdonnais said. "These types of trapping operations are extremely weather-dependent. We should have started in late December or early January."
Club volunteers checked the traps every day.
They ended up catching four deer. Unfortunately, two were whitetail deer.
One mule deer was caught in the same trap four different times.
"Craig told me that was the craziest thing he'd ever seen," Jones said.
As the weather turned warmer, Jourdonnais turned to a second method of capturing deer. A FWP crew spent two days darting does with a tranquilizer. This week they were able to put the last collar out on a mule deer doe.
"We've been tracking the collared deer ever since we trapped the first one last February," Jourdonnais said. "We have about a half-dozen locations on the first radio."
The deer appear to just be starting to move off their winter range as they follow the green grass shooting up on the surrounding hillsides.
"They're following the snowline back and some are dropping down on people's lawns," Jourdonnais said. "All of the deer we have collared appear no worse for wear. They all look like they are doing great."
The hope is the study will provide some good baseline information on the movement of mule deer in the West Fork area.
"We would really like to know what happens to them when they pull away from the winter range," Jourdonnais said. "Right now we don't know for sure where they go."
Researchers know that mule deer can travel a long way between their summer and winter ranges.
Idaho has been collaring quite a few mule deer over the last few years. Some of those radio-collared does travel all the way from their Salmon winter range to the Sapphire Mountains above Darby.
The only other mule deer study in the West Fork happened about 20 years ago. Jourdonnais said that study showed deer routinely making the long trek to Idaho between summer and winter ranges.
Studies like this one often create more questions that could easily turn into new research projects somewhere down the line.
"Things always pop up that you don't expect," Jourdonnais said. "While this is definitely small scale in the realm of some research projects we do, the information we gather will add another piece to the puzzle. Over time, we can work to put all those small pieces together and we'll get a better understanding of the overall picture."
The club is already working to put together the next deer monitoring project in the West Fork.
"We know mule deer are important to hunters," Jones said. "Last year 5,444 people put their names in for the 45 permits in Hunting District 270.
"We want to know what's happening to these deer," he said.
Gary Habeck's wife, Linda, said her husband had always hoped for a research project like the one ongoing in the West Fork.
"I think he would have been a little bit embarrassed about the attention, but he would have been very proud that it was being done," she said.
Ravalli Republic editor Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.