BROWNS PARK, Daggett County — Less than 2 inches of rain has fallen here since April 1, and that has Lowell Marthe worried.
"We're probably in the worst condition in the state right now," said Marthe, a wildlife biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
He described Browns Park as "critical winter range" for as many as 4,000 deer and a much smaller number of elk.
But the lack of snow last winter, coupled with the dry spring and summer, means range conditions are dire.
"The deer that'll come down this winter will be eating (plants) that actually grew last year, since there's been no growth this year," Marthe said. "They're going to have a tough time of it this year."
To try to address the problem, the Utah Wildlife Board has approved 1,450 additional cow elk permits this year. Nearly 1,200 of those permits are for wildlife units in the Uintah Basin.
"The Forest Service and BLM have reduced the number of livestock on their ranges this year because of the dry conditions," Marthe said. "Our having additional (cow elk) permits is a response to those same conditions. We're just trying to get our animals down a bit, too."
Utah's elk population is on the rise, state wildlife officials said, but deer numbers have been in decline or stagnant for years.
"By reducing the elk population somewhat, we're hoping that existing forage on our winter range is enough to sustain those deer and remaining elk through the winter without any big losses," Marthe said.
Deer survive on a diet of leaves and twigs from plants such as sagebrush and bitterbrush, as well as broadleaf weeds and grasses. The brushy plants tend to be the most stable food source for the animals, but even they are being damaged by a lack of water and an overabundance of grazing.
"If there's not enough food, deer will actually nip (plants) down repeatedly enough that they can kill the plant over a series of years if it doesn't get enough moisture," Marthe said, noting that he's already seeing this in the Browns Park area.
"When you've got a limited amount of forage, you can only support so many animals," he said. "When it gets to the point where there's no food left, that's when you have to worry about a major die-off."
Ironically, more moisture in the form of heavy snowfall this winter will hurt the state's deer herds more than it will help, Marthe said.
"Two years ago, when we had a tough winter in the Uintah Basin with a lot of snow and inversion, we lost almost 60 percent of our deer fawns and 20 percent of our adult does," he said.
An ideal winter, Marthe said, would be "fairly mild" with "temperatures not real cold, but consistent," and "fairly low snow levels."
"But then, next spring, if we could get our moisture then, that would be our critical time," he said.
The Division of Wildlife Resources will put the additional cow elk permits on sale Sept. 6. They will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis.
More information about the permits is available on the Division of Wildlife Resources website.