Could forest fire control be hurting B.C. deer? Study aims to find out

Researchers are going into areas hit hard by wildfire in recent years to see how the landscape affects the population and movement of mule deer.

Researchers studying areas hard hit by wildfire to see how landscape affects population, movement

A researcher believes wildfire activity may be 'the single most important factor' impacting mule deer numbers in B.C. (Shutterstock / Tom Tietz)

Conservationists and researchers say wildfire control efforts in B.C. may be causing mule deer numbers to decline.

That possibility is being explored in a new study of the animals beginning in southern B.C.

Researchers are going into areas scorched by wildfire in recent years to see how the landscape affects the population and movement of deer.

"It's all about food," UBC-Okanagan professor Adam T. Ford explained to Radio West host Sarah Penton.

"We know mule deer are very choosy eaters, and fire creates open canopies, so it opens up the forest and then you get the flush of green growth in the understory [Ecological term referring to growth beneath forest canopy] afterwards.

"We think that is the single most important factor affecting mule deer abundance in B.C."

A mule deer doe with a GPS collar scrambles along a hillside. (Bart Robertson)

Mule deer buck numbers have dropped, and the province is tinkering with how to manage the species.

This winter it proposed scaling back how many mule deer bucks can be hunted in most of the province.

Government biologists say the ratio of bucks to does is out of alignment, and people aren't seeing as many mule deer in the bush in general.

B.C. wildlife federation director Jesse Zeman says mule deer aren't the only creatures disappearing from the countryside.

"Over time, everyone just hoped the deer would bounce back or the salmon would bounce back or the caribou would bounce back and that just really hasn't happened," Zeman said.

The federation is involved with the research and hopes it will lead to some answers for long-term solutions.

Ford says the study could lead to new insights about how fire prevention efforts — like prescribed burns — can be done more precisely.

A researcher conducts an ultrasound on a mule deer doe. (Bart Robertson)

That could safeguard humans and their property while also allowing enough burning to make the land suitable for deer.

He says it could take a few years before peer-reviewed research is available from the study, but incremental updates will be posted online.

Listen to the full interview:

Researchers are going into areas hit hard by wildfire in recent years to see how the landscape affects the population and movement of mule deer. 6:59

With files from CBC Radio One's Radio West