In 1988, hunters bought 51,011 deer hunting licenses in Nevada and harvested 26,784 mule deer.
In 2008, the Nevada Department of Wildlife sold 16,997 tags. Hunters bagged only 7,025 deer.
That's a huge decline. Where are the deer?
Oddly enough, whatever the problem is, it seems to affect only mule deer -- the species that generates most of the Department of Wildlife's revenue, when you consider that Uncle Sam matches deer tag revenue three-to-one.
Bighorn sheep populations are up. Antelope tags and harvests doubled over those same 20 years. Elk tags skyrocketed, from 182 to 2,723, with the elk harvest growing from 91 to 1,315.
It's hard to believe all those other species could thrive if the problem were drought or wildfires or fences or roads cutting off migration routes.
A state biologist says the apparent decline is due to cherry-picking 1988 as a starting point -- a wet year and a high point for the state's deer herd. Just six years earlier, for example, 23,053 hunters took only 11,954 deer in 1982. Current deer populations and harvests are only "slightly below" the historic average, according to Tony Wasley, the Nevada Department of Wildlife's expert on mule deer.
But a prominent hunting advocate, along with current and past members of the state Wildlife Commission, disagree. They paint a more ominous picture of a Californian re-appointed to head the agency as a political favor by Gov. Brian Sandoval after that same director, Ken Mayer, had been fired by former Gov. Jim Gibbons precisely for failing to take concrete steps to bring back a deer herd whose numbers have plunged so badly they may now be overestimated in pursuit of lucrative deer tag revenues.
They worry Mayer may have kept from his 27 years with California Fish & Game -- a state where mountain lions are experiencing a population explosion because they're no longer hunted, except when they take a jogger -- a reluctance to thin out predators, including lions and coyotes.
"For over two decades, NDOW has used 15 different excuses for Nevada's mule deer decline," argues activist Cecil Fredi of the group Hunter's Alert. "For the past few years, NDOW has used the habitat excuse. This is an excuse they can use for several more decades until their retirements kick in. It's hard to blame habitat when elk and deer occupy the same areas. Elk numbers have increased dramatically over the past two decades while deer numbers have dramatically declined," Fredi says. "The reason for this decline is that the main source of food for the mountain lion is the mule deer.
"Most biologists (but not NDOW's) believe that a lion will eat a deer a week," Fredi writes in a recent report with the attention-getting headline, "Nevada's deer will never recover." Fredi's main contention is that the state Department of Wildlife refuses to acknowledge any predator problem.
I called deer hunter and Wildlife Commissioner Scott Raine -- the immediate past chairman of the commission -- in Eureka, where he runs the town's only grocery, to ask him if Fredi's account is accurate.
"That's exactly correct," said Raine. "The mule deer population has just been crashing like a bomb in the past decade. They say, 'We don't know why it's happening, but it must be habitat.' When in doubt, blame the habitat. When you start talking about predation control, they don't even want to consider that part of the equation."
Gerald Lent, the now-retired Reno optometrist who chaired the Wildlife Commission for two years and served as vice chairman last year, but was not reappointed by Sandoval, recalls the commission approved spending $400,000 for predator control on mule deer and sage grouse. "Director Mayer fought against all these. He called the feds and shut down the sage grouse study."
Why would Mayer do that? "I don't know," says Lent. "He said the predator project to save the deer he wouldn't go along with. I think he's from California, where they outlaw predation projects."
I tried to reach Mayer for a response. He didn't return my calls, but delegated Wasley to answer my questions. Biologist Wasley says the very fact his position was created 2½ years ago demonstrates the department's commitment to maintaining the species.
"We have several predator control projects ongoing, and have spent millions of dollars in that arena," Wasley argues. "When we have removed a considerable number of predators, we have not been able to show any positive impact on game populations."
Lent has a different recollection. Under state law, "$3 per hunter is supposed to go to predator control. It's $300,000. So we put it into Area 014 west of the Gerlach Desert," Lent remembers. "The project was started in 2005 by (U.S.) Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services. From 2005 when they started, up till now, in the smallest deer management area in the state, they've taken probably 45 lions out of there, killed them. In 2005, the deer population was 850. This is out of NDOW's own book. Right now they estimate 1,400 deer there in 2011 -- that's a 65 percent increase in deer population. ... Right across the road in Area 015, that area is going down, down, down. There's no lion control in there. The lions kill a deer a week."
Mr. Wasley responds, "There was no significant difference in the area Dr. Lent is referring to in comparison to areas where there was an absence of predator control."
I asked Lent is he believes NDOW is inflating the numbers of the current deer herd, which state officials put at about 109,000. "Absolutely," he said. "They cannot prove the deer went up 2 percent from 107,000 to 109,000. The deer tag money is matched three-to-one federally. It's their cash cow."
He went on: "We had a predator conference that we had on the agenda. Ken Mayer brought in his buddies he used to work with down in California, and they basically said predation by mountain lions had no effect on the deer population, and that's not true. See, you can't hunt mountain lions in California, and I think that philosophy comes over the mountains."
Mr. Wasley defends the department's current estimate of 109,000 mule deer in Nevada, arguing that number is arrived at by tripling the deer seen from helicopters in aerial surveys. "So for somebody to suggest that it's as small as half of our published estimate, that would suggest that what we're seeing is close to 70 percent of the deer in the state, which simply is not the case. If the numbers were that small, we would begin to see hunter failure. ...
"I'm not under any constraint," Mr. Wasley says. "The director hasn't come down here and told me, 'We're not gonna kill lions, we're not gonna kill coyotes.' If there was a way that I knew we could increase mule deer, I would do it today, for selfish reasons. I love mule deer. I love to hunt mule deer. ... If there was something we could do to create more opportunity for Nevada's deer hunters, we'd do it."
Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and author of the novel "The Black Arrow" and "Send in the Waco Killers." See www.vinsuprynowicz.com.