Since the end of January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has been transferring endangered Columbian white-tailed deer from the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge in Cathlamet to Ridgefield’s National Wildlife Refuge.
The move was made after the USFWS discovered the potential failure of a dike along Steamboat Slough Road in Cathlamet brought on by changing river currents. A geotechnical assessment revealed the dike condition is dangerous and at a high risk of failure.
Managers believe a rupture would flood the refuge with up to six feet of water, threatening the deer living at the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge and setting back recovery efforts for the species, as well as causing an estimated $28 million in potential damages.
In relocating to the Ridgefield Refuge, the deer stay within their natural habitat range and will be in a region not prone to flooding, despite the nearby Columbia River. Officials from the USFWS believe the deer will survive and become permanent residents in Ridgefield. The deer will also have tracking collars and ear tags to help monitor their movements and survival rates.
“People nowadays won’t remember this, but there was a time decades ago when you could find Columbian white-tails everywhere in the area,” said USFWS Public Information Officer Doug Zimmer. “Unfortunately, their decline came entirely through human intervention in hunting and reducing their available habitat. But we’re optimistic the deer will get acclimated and begin to thrive at the refuge.”
The Cowlitz Tribe, who holds the Columbian white-tailed deer as a culturally significant species, has been working with the USFWS over the years to help recover the species and help relocation efforts.
The cost of the relocation is estimated at $200,000 with half being paid by the Service and half by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from funds allocated for mitigation for the Columbia River channel deepening project.
The entry of the white-tailed deer in the region, however, may pose an issue with area hunters who’ve had to differentiate between them and the more common and legal-to-hunt blacktail deer. Currently, both Washington and Oregon hunters are required to identify deer species during the season.
“To my knowledge, there’s been maybe a handful of deer lost to hunters in the last 30 years, and both the feds and the states have done a very good job of working with local hunters and making them aware of when endangered species are in their areas and how to differentiate them from black-tails,” said Zimmer.
However, any hunter who accidentally shoots a Columbian white-tailed deer should immediately contact the USFWS or the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife so an investigation can be conducted. The Service’s Office of Law Enforcement will evaluate cases where the deer are killed on a case-by-case basis.
Any deliberate killing of a Columbian white-tail carries with it a potential $25,000 fine and six month sentence in jail, per USFWS regulations.
“It’s important to understand that these are protected animals at both the state and federal level and though we understand there can be accidents, as a hunter myself, we are taught that we are responsible for identifying what we’re aiming at at all times because we can’t get the bullet back once it’s fired,” said Zimmer.
While being tagged and collared will make them easier to identify than black-tails, as the population is expected to grow, new deer will not be tagged and free to move on and off the refuge more regularly.
“What we’re hoping is the deer will do what deer do and increase their population over the next few decades so eventually we can take them off the federal protection list and relegate it back to the state jurisdiction and maybe, we’ll see a point where we can open up to hunting Columbian white-tails on a limited basis,” said Zimmer.
Since relocation efforts began on Jan. 29, 22 of the estimated 50 deer have been captured, tagged and released into the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. One deer with a radio collar has been found outside the boundaries of the refuge and four deer, two yearlings and two adult does, have been found deceased though the cause of death has not been disclosed by the USFWS.
“We’re not sure what killed them, but we are investigating it,” said Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Manager Chris Lapp. “There was no evidence that we saw to indicate it was because of human contact, though.”
Lapp added that the primary concern for the deer’s safety going forward is not how they interact with humans, but with the coyote population in the refuge.
“The coyote numbers are pretty strong in this area and they are predatory to all sorts of deer, so it’s something we’ll be watching,” said Lapp. “If it turns out to be an issue, we’ll already have plans in place for how to protect the white-tails and preserve their numbers.”
More information can be found at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge website, www.fws.gov/ridgefieldrefuges/ridgefield, or by calling (360) 887-4106. If a Columbian white-tail deer is spotted in your vicinity or on your property, do not take any actions to remove it. Contact the refuge or the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife location in Lacey immediately at (360) 753-9440.