Major Deer Die-Off
Nevada Tags Will Be Cut
A combination of 30-plus years of fires, heavy snows in December, and a cold spell this winter have contributed to a reduction in the population of the deer herds in northeastern Nevada.

The deer herds in Areas 6 and 7, two of Nevada's largest herds, have suffered anywhere from a 40 to 60 percent die-off, which will result in fewer deer tags being issued this year.

In Area 6, NDOW biologists estimate the deer population to be approximately 9,300 deer, down from 15,500 in 2001. Area 7's estimate is approximately 9,700 deer, down from 22,000 the previous year. Both hunting areas have experienced large fires over the last few years.

"The problems with the deer in Area 6 are a result of habitat loss to cheat grass and fires," said Ken Gray, big game biologist for the Nevada Division of Wildlife. "These problems started in the 1960s and 1970s, as cheat grass and fires affected the winter ranges of the herd."

Cheat grass is an exotic weed from Asia, which was introduced to the area in the early 1900s. It grows in very dense colonies and forms a mat of extremely volatile fuels, which when ignited takes what would have historically been a relatively small fire of several thousand acres and transforms it into an inferno of extreme proportions. It is common to have fires in the 50,000- to 100,000-acre range. These burned areas that are dominated by cheat grass, don't recover naturally.

By 1996, more than half of the southern winter range in Area 6 had been lost to fire. This winter range is in low elevation sagebrush between 4500 and 5500 feet. It is out of the heavy snow zone and provides both thermal cover and browse for the deer during the winter.

Over the last five years, over 770,000 acres, or approximately 1,200 square miles have burned in Area 6. To put this in perspective, this would be a four-mile-wide path following I-80 from Elko to Reno.

According to Gray, "Not only have we lost all this winter range, but it is fragmented into small areas now and this affects the deer herd's ability to use it."

The Division of Wildlife (NDOW) has been issuing 600-800- doe tags a year for the last six years in an effort to keep the herd's size down to the carrying capacity of the winter range. The carrying capacity is the number of deer that the winter range can support.

"Without these tags, the estimated population would have been around 21,000 deer going into this winter in Area 6, instead of the approximately 15,000 deer that we had," Gray said.

He figures that less deer would have survived the winter with the higher population, "We saw the available vegetation depleted around the middle of February this year. If the higher population figure had been in place, we feel that the vegetation would have been exhausted by the end of January and many of the deer that did survive, would not have made it to March when the weather moderated."

The BLM, sportsmen's groups, mining industry and NDOW have put a lot of time, effort and money into rehabilitating wildfire-damaged lands that are crucial to wildlife. With the high cost of seed, and millions of acres of fires across the state, the acreage rehabilitated is just a small percentage of the acreage that was lost to fire.

When asked what sportsmen and concerned citzens could do Gray responded, "Let the land management agencies know how important this sagebrush habitat is to wildlife and how important that wildlife is to you, so that more effort can be put into protecting these areas from fire and restoring areas that have already burned."

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