PINEDALE -- The first year Dale Gillespie hunted in southwest Wyoming, mule deer bucks were everywhere. Big bucks, more than 50 with four points or more in the Gray's River area alone.

That was decades ago, before gas development, drought and harsh winters, and before numbers dropped so low some wondered if anyone should be hunting at all.

Gillespie's dad was an outfitter then. When Gillespie was still a teenager, his father would take him into the mountains for days, and they would stalk the biggest bucks.

Now 57, Gillespie hasn't shot a deer in close to a decade. The same area that had 50 bucks now hosts fewer than 10. He still hunts but can't bring himself to kill a small buck, too young to be shot.

So it's gone with other hunters. Afton dentist Mark Weston remembers when he'd see deer every day. Put in enough time, a hunter could shoot a trophy buck each season.

Deer numbers dropped dramatically -- from around 60,000 to somewhere fewer than 30,000 -- in the Wyoming Range herd, which moves down the western side of the state from the Marbleton/Big Piney area to Kemmerer.

The Sublette herd is no different, hunters say. Those deer summer in the Noble Basin near Bondurant and winter on and near the Pinedale Anticline.

Numbers released in mid-March show the effects of another harsh winter. Estimates are 28,900 deer in the Wyoming Range herd, down nearly 8,000 from 2010. The Sublette herd has 20,600 deer, down 5,400 from last year. Some say it's only the aftermath of a bad winter, others say it shows deer herds can't bounce back.

What makes Weston saddest isn't the lack of big bucks -- though that does worry him -- it's the total lack of deer and the experiences his children will miss. The life they'll never know.

"You will lose generations of hunters," he said. "If they don't see anything, they will lose interest in the sport."

At the same time, Wyoming is losing a precious resource people value for viewing and hunting. It's for these deer that thousands of hunters bring their families into the mountains each year to scout. It's why fathers take their kids to secret spots, who take their children who take their children.

Put any group of hunters in a room and ask them why the deer numbers are declining and fingers will point in a myriad of directions. Some blame the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for overhunting in the early-'90s. Others blame gas industry development. All point to harsh winters that compounded the man-made issues.

Instead of rehashing potential causes, researchers are focusing on what can be done to curb the herds' declines including studying migration routes, improving habitat and restricting hunting in hard-hit areas. As development and hunting plans continue, researchers hope to find a way to prevent two of the most studied herds in the state from becoming the smallest ones.

Hotel stopovers

Imagine starting a long road trip finding only unappetizing food and unappealing places to sleep. You forge ahead, making your destination worn down and hungry.

Now imagine the same thing for mule deer, as they migrate back and forth from their winter to summer ranges.

They're called stopover points and may be critical to deer survival, said Hal Sawyer, a research biologist and project manager for Western EcoSystems Technology Inc.

His environmental consulting company was hired the Bureau of Land Management, using mitigation funds, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to study the impact of gas development on mule deer herds on both the Pinedale Anticline and farther north into the Sublette herd's summer range.

As gas development continues with another 4,399 wells expected on the Anticline, a major winter range, experts want to avoid ruining those stopover spots.

Conservation groups worry about a proposed development of 136 wells in the Noble Basin in the Wyoming Range near Bondurant, where mule deer spend spring and summer.

Sawyer has studied the Sublette herd and its winter range on the Pinedale Anticline since 1998. In the past six years he has begun to study deer migration. When development encroaches on the stopover points, Sawyer's research shows deer move through them quicker.

The U.S. Forest Service is in the process of changing a drilling proposal in the Noble Basin near Hoback because of Sawyer's research, said Bridger-Teton National Forest supervisor Jacque Buchanan. Officials will look at where wells can be placed to minimize impact.

Plains Exploration and Production Co. is proposing to build the wells over a space of nearly 27,000 acres. Some of the wells and pads are located in what Sawyer identified as stopover habitat for the Sublette herd.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department wrote in comments to the proposal: "It is essential that these movement/migration corridors and especially the stop over habitat and high use areas ... should be preserved ..."

PXP is aware of the Forest Service's environmental review process and believes it is important to balance energy and conservation, according to statements from Hance Myeers, PXP's vice president and corporate information director.

Steff Kessler, Wyoming project manager for the Wilderness Society, said protecting the stopover habitat in areas like Noble Basin may be the one of the only way to protect what's left of the Sublette herd when it comes off the winter range.

If development continues as planned, without considering any mule deer-friendly changes, it may be the end of the herd, she said.

Limit hunters

Pinedale outfitter Gary Amerine hasn't hunted a deer himself in more than 20 years. He takes some out-of-state hunters into Wyoming's southwest forests, but every year they find fewer mule deer.

"We stand a chance of losing this deer herd, or the quality this deer herd once represented," he said. "The deer have a special place in my heart."

The causes for decline are complex, and so are the solutions. But one way to help herds and to improve the quality of the experience is to limit hunters, he said.

Amerine is one of a handful of outfitters and hunters near the Wyoming Range and Sublette herds pushing for limited quota. They say it will cut back both deer harvest and pressure and give Game and Fish a way to manage hunters year by year. Those opposed, including Game and Fish biologists, say it's not an effective way to manage, especially in an area where residents value hunting each fall.

Right now, hunters use general licenses for the two herds. This means someone could buy a general mule deer tag in Gillette then drive to the Pinedale area for a hunt. General tags are unlimited.

Limited quota mandates a certain number of licenses per hunt area by application only.

It is a way to manage hunter numbers, but cutting buck tags won't necessarily help population growth, said Scott Smith, regional wildlife coordinator for the Pinedale Game and Fish office. Population growth depends on fawns being born and surviving their first winter. One buck can impregnate many does.

Doe hunting is still allowed in the area but only for youth. Adult doe hunting stopped completely in 2010, and some areas stopped doe hunting even earlier.

Afton high school teacher McKay Erickson said limited quota will only hurt resident hunters.

"Nobody in the Game and Fish seems to be sounding an alarm," he said.

"And in fact, the thing that concerns me is it's a business as usual attitude, and that includes not making the public panic."

The public should be worried, he said. Herd numbers are alarmingly low.

Game and Fish proposals for the 2012 hunting season call for cutting 300 nonresident tags out of 2,000 and a shorter season.

Officials are already considering moving another iconic Wyoming herd to limited quota. The Platte Valley herd in southwest Wyoming is one of the largest herds in the state and also under a general license.

Amerine wonders if officials successfully move the Platte Valley herd to limited quota, should they also look at the Wyoming Range herd?

Grow better groceries

It's called the "selfish mother hypothesis."

If a mother lacks nutrition, the first thing to go will be babies. It's a biological reaction in many animals.

Studying nutrition itself is more telling than simply knowing how many deer die, said Kevin Monteith, a post-doctoral research scientist with the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Biologists need to understand what goes into successfully producing and rearing a fawn.

If approved, Monteith will become the lead researcher in a proposed $500,000 Game and Fish research study to look at nutrition, productivity and survival of the Wyoming Range herd.

The plan is part of the Wyoming Mule Deer Initiative. Used in conjunction with a 10-year habitat plan done between Game and Fish and the BLM, biologists hope the information they find will tell them what can be done to bring the mule deer habitat back. With better habitat for adults, does will be in better shape and more capable of rearing fawns, which is key to population survival, Monteith said.

Ratios of fawns per does usually average around 63 fawns per 100 does in the Wyoming Range herd and 70 fawns per 100 does in the Sublette herd, said Wyoming Game and Fish wildlife biologist Gary Fralick. The most recent estimates for 2011 are around 60 per 100 does due in large part to the hard 2010-11 winter.

Many plants on the Wyoming Range and Sublette mule deer herd's winter ranges are old and not productive. The older the plant, the less nutritious the forage and the more mule deer have to work to eat and less energy they gain, Fralick said.

Some of the issues can be attributed to a recent decade of drought. Other reasons biologists are hoping to learn.

Officials could use the information from the study to figure out what methods -- such as burning, mowing or chemically treating -- they can use to help mule-deer-preferred shrubs like bitter brush grow.

Some hunters want less talk about habitat and more action. Small projects are fine, said Afton's Weston, but he's skeptical if anything large enough to make a difference will ever happen.

Every little thing counts, Monteith argued. And it ultimately may all depend on the weather.

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at 307-266-0524 or christine.peterson@trib.com.

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