Bend is one of the fastest-growing cities in America, according to a survey conducted last year by personal finance website WalletHub. But as people flock to the forest town, the population of another longtime resident is in steep decline.

Mule deer numbers are falling in Central Oregon as fast as humans arrive, according to annual inventories conducted by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Paulina Unit, east of Bend, is down to 5,918 deer from 15,400 in 2002, a 61% decline. Wildlife biologists say the deer are losing habitat to growing construction in and around Bend.

Mule deer aren’t in danger of being listed as threatened, but their sudden change in numbers is a concern for biologists. The population drop follows a global pattern reported by the Washington, D.C.-based World Wildlife Fund that animal populations have declined on average by 60% between 1970 and 2014.

The management objective — where the department would like to see the Paulina Unit deer population — is 16,500 individuals, said Corey Heath, wildlife biologist for ODFW.

The deer population in the Metolius Unit, north of Sisters, has declined 40% in the past three years to 3,359 deer. The management objective in Metolius is 6,200 deer, Heath said.

Wildlife management units are geographical areas the department uses to manage hunter and wildlife numbers.

“We work on it every day. We adjust hunting tag numbers. We work with land managers and landowners. We work with ODOT (Oregon Department of Transportation), but a lot of impacts are hard to turn around,” Heath said.

The number of hunting rifle tags available are often dictated by the annual inventories.

This year, 350 rifle tags are available in the Metolius Unit and 1,430 tags are available in the Paulina Unit.

The number of applicants for tags usually exceeds the tags available by a factor of two or more. The season for hunting buck mule deer with a rifle is set to run from Sept. 28 to Oct. 9.

While mule deer populations are in decline across many Western states, the situation in Central Oregon is particularly noticeable due to the housing boom in Bend.

The population of Bend has jumped 27.3% to 97,590 between 2010 and 2018, and Deschutes County was the fastest-growing county in the state during that period. Bend is the fourth-fastest-growing city in the country, according to economic metrics compiled by WalletHub.

The construction of subdivisions displace deer from their traditional winter and summer ranges and migration patterns, Heath said. Does teach fawns the migration patterns, but when a disruption occurs the deer are often unable to adjust.

When deer are displaced, they become stressed and are more vulnerable to predation and disease, Heath said. Poaching and road kill also contribute to the declining numbers, he said.

While deer numbers are in decline, the population of elk near the city is faring better, even if the elk have had to change their wintering grounds, Heath said.

The construction of subdivisions have forced elk out of areas such as Ryan Ranch, Elk Meadow and River Rim. Elk show more mobility compared to deer and are able to more easily move to new habitats, Heath said.

Elk that previously roamed those areas now are wintering west of Awbrey Butte, where they can be found on farms and ranches near Johnson Road, with occasional sightings at Awbrey Glen Golf Club.

“There is open space, and they have found an area of less disturbance compared to the area further south where they used to winter,” Heath said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, mkohn@bendbulletin.com

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