In many mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) populations, recruitment of fawns drives population dynamics. The quality of food available to females and their fawns in summer and autumn may play an important role in fawn recruitment. We examined direct links between digestible energy (DE) content of food and the DE intake of females on the nutrient concentration of milk and between the nursing behavior, DE intake, growth, and survival in captive mule deer fawns. We offered females and their fawns diets that simulated the natural decline in DE content of forage from mid-summer to late autumn in many western landscapes. Fawns fed a higher DE diet weighed 14% more at the onset of winter, had fewer unsuccessful nursing attempts, consumed milk with more protein and energy, and had higher survival than fawns fed a low DE diet. Differences between fawn performances among treatments were greatest when diet quality began decreasing earlier in the summer. Because our results indicate that summer and autumn nutrition is likely to influence fawn recruitment, wildlife biologists should include metrics for summer precipitation and late autumn fawn mass in population models, and land managers should focus on methods for improving the nutritional carrying capacity of summer and early autumn habitats.
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Vol. 75 • No. 4