WDFW will expand antlerless season

By Ann McCreary

The Carlton Complex Fire that charred more than one-quarter-million acres in the Methow Valley and surrounding areas destroyed thousands of acres of winter range essential to the survival of mule deer and white tail deer.

“Range for about one-third of the wintering deer may have been affected by the fire,” said Scott Fitkin, a wildlife biologist for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

State wildlife managers have been assessing fire damage to habitat for deer and other native species, including western gray squirrels, bears and birds.

“It’s the largest fire that’s ever occurred [in Washington], and ever occurred on a mule deer range like this,” said Jim Brown, WDFW regional director.

“A fire of this magnitude will have both short- and long-term effects on wildlife populations and the landscape, and that will have implications for hunting and grazing in the area. This is not a problem with easy answers,” Brown said.

State wildlife officials have already seen problems stemming from the loss of deer habitat, and anticipate more in the future as mule deer move out of burned areas and onto farmlands and orchards to seek food and shelter.

Wildlife officials are working with local landowners to help protect orchards and crops from deer displaced by wildfires, and propose increasing the number of deer to be taken during this fall’s hunting season.

Okanogan County is home to the state’s largest mule deer herd, with an estimated population of about 25,000 deer living west of the Okanogan River. About half of the herd lives in the Methow Valley.

Too many deer

With the loss of large swaths of winter range, there will be too many deer for the area to support this winter, and possibly for several years to come, said Fitkin.

Deer browse on shrubs, such as bitterbrush, that may take years to fully re-establish in burned areas, Fitkin said. The amount of time needed will depend on factors including how hot the fires burned in various areas, weather and soil composition.

“Recovery time is going to be highly variable; as little as five years, but in other places it may be two to three times that long,” Fitkin said.

“We know we need to take steps to reduce the size of the herd,” Fitkin said. The primary approach under consideration by WDFW will be to increase the number of antlerless deer permits issued this fall and winter, he said.

“We’re not looking at any general hunting season changes,” Fitkin said. “We’re looking to achieve additional harvest through modifications in the antlerless permit hunt.”

One option is granting permits to applicants for the antlerless permits who were not initially drawn, Fitkin said. He estimated that could result in removing an additional 750 adult does. As of early this week, WDFW had not issued a decision about changes in this year’s hunting regulations, Fitkin said.

Increasing the number of adult does taken by hunters has several objectives, Fitkin said, including reducing competition on the remaining range areas so that large numbers of deer won’t starve this winter.

“There’s a fair amount of mortality that occurs in a normal year [during winter]. Fawns are most susceptible. In addition, we could see increased mortality among adults” through starvation if the deer population remains at its current level, Fitkin said.

“We also want to be proactive in preventing a lot of nuisance/damage issues, particularly among orchardists and other agricultural producers,” he said.

Long-term strategy

The increased hunt will also relieve pressure on undamaged range and the potential for overgrazing, Fitkin said.

Similarly the burned range will have a better chance to recover with fewer deer on it. “We need to manage the deer herd in line with the current landscape carrying capacity so that as habitat recovers, the deer don’t mow it all down,” Fitkin said.

Decreasing the herd to ensure recovery of the range “is short-term pain for long-term gain,” he said.

WDFW has announced that it may draw deer and other wildlife away from agricultural lands with feed this summer and fall, and is considering a feeding program for deer this winter, primarily to prevent damage issues.

“Winter feeding is not a long-term solution,” Fitkin said. “At best, it’s a stop-gap measure until the deer population and habitat are back in balance.”

Sustained supplemental feeding is neither efficient nor beneficial to wildlife and often creates problems, he said. Feeding concentrates animals, making them more vulnerable to predators, poaching and diseases such as hair slip, which is already a concern for deer in the region.

Having so many animals clustered in one area also causes damage to the land and can hinder restoration efforts.

Taking steps now

With deer moving from burned areas to farms and orchards, WDFW is working with landowners to help replace some fire-damaged fences, and to seek funding for more repairs.

“We expect more issues to arise as migratory deer return to the area this fall, but we are taking steps now to minimize those problems,” said Ellen Heilhecker, WDFW wildlife conflict specialist in Okanogan County.

WDFW plans to reseed shrubs and bitterbrush, the preferred winter forage for deer, on department lands burned by the Carlton Complex Fire. The agency is also working with other government agencies on restoration activities such as timber salvage and weed control.

Roads in some wildlife areas will likely be closed due to hazardous trees, said Dale Swedberg, WDFW’s Okanogan lands operations manager. That could reduce access for hunting in the burned areas this fall.

While the impact of the fires on Methow Valley deer is evident, impacts on other species is likely to be significant as well. In some areas, ponderosa pine stands — the primary habitat for threatened western gray squirrels — could take several years to recover, WDFW said.

Fitkin said the fires will ultimately have a positive impact on habitat for Methow Valley wildlife.

“Looking at it from a holistic perspective, fire is the disturbance mechanism that helps shape this environment and reinvigorates it. Come next spring there’s going to be a flush of grass, forbs and flowering plants,” Fitkin said.

“There are a lot of species that are going to benefit,” Fitkin said. “Certain species are adapted to what happens right after a disturbance event.”

For instance, woodpeckers will rapidly colonize the areas of a burned forest, and a wide variety of birds, small mammals, and their associated predators will thrive in the ensuing explosion of young plant growth, he said.

The re-establishment of bitterbrush and other shrubs will also produce plants that are growing more vigorously and producing more nutrients than the older plants that burned in the fire.

“In the last few decades there has been a slow downward trend in overall deer numbers,” Fitkin said. “I think in part it reflects a downward trend in the winter range quality as a result of long-term fire suppression. In a few years, to several years down the road, we could have improved winter range and a corresponding increase in deer numbers.”