The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is considering closing two-thirds of the Methow Wildlife Area from Dec. 15 through April 15 to protect mule deer.
There are seven units in the 34,600-acre wildlife area. The closure would affect wildlife units from the Rendezvous to Carlton, 23,306 acres in all, according to a WDFW map of the proposed winter closures.
The Methow Valley is home to the largest migratory mule deer herd in Washington, and many of those deer overwinter here. Much of the land in the wildlife area was purchased to protect migratory corridors and mule deer winter range, often with grants specific to mule deer protection, WDFW Regional Director Brock Hoenes told the Methow Valley News.
These wildlife areas get high recreational use in the winter, including cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and fat biking, Hoenes said. That use can disturb deer, which may choose to overwinter in other areas where they won’t encounter people, he said.
Available quality winter-range habitat has been reduced over the years because of development, conversion, wildfire and an increase in recreation, Methow Wildlife Area Manager Brandon Troyer told the News.
As people expand across the landscape, wildlife habitats are inevitably encroached upon. This fragmentation can limit access to available resources because it disrupts natural movement patterns, Troyer said.
Mule deer have very limited fat reserves to get through the winter. Every time they’re spooked, they expend energy, Hoenes said. If the deer are disturbed on a daily basis, it could increase winter mortality, he said.
There is still quality winter range available to migratory mule deer in the Methow, much on the wildlife area. That’s why it’s important to minimize human disturbance in those areas to give mule deer a place to forage, seek refuge from weather, and conserve energy, Troyer said.
Motorized recreation is not permitted on the Methow Wildlife Area, but human-powered recreation can startle deer. That can induce longer flight distances and ultimately result in the unnecessary consumption of crucial calories, Troyer said.
Wildlife area managers have also seen an uptick in downhill skiing on these areas. The speed and stealth at which skiers encounter mule deer appears to trigger a significant flight response, Troyer said.
Wildlife biologists have observed a decline in the overall mule deer population since the wildfires of 2014 and 2015, and again at the end of the last decade, WDFW Assistant District Wildlife Biologist Jeff Heinlen told the News. The population appears to be in decline again after several harsh winters and the extreme summer conditions of 2021. This spring, fawn-to-adult ratios fell to a 16-year low, Heinlen said.
The annual closure will support data collection on mule deer winter use and movement to inform long-term stewardship, WDFW said in a press release about the proposal to close the areas.
“We’re seeing less quality habitat available for wildlife and more human disturbance during those critical winter and early spring months, when food is scarce,” Troyer said. “This proposed closure is intended to reduce that disturbance. We know how important the Methow Wildlife Area is for visitors, and it’s important to us that we work with the public as we consider this closure,” he said.
Protecting these areas also benefits songbirds, mammals, salmon and other wildlife, WDFW said.
WDFW is seeking public input on the proposed annual closures. The agency is holding a workshop on Wednesday (Sept. 13) from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Winthrop Barn.
• Texas Creek: Lands west of Highway 153.
• Golden Doe: Lands west of Twisp-Carlton Road.
• Big Buck: Lands east of Frost Road would be closed. Access to Frost Lake would be allowed.
• Methow: The Methow Unit would be closed except for lands west of Boulder Creek and East Chewuch Road.
• Rendezvous: Lewis Butte and Rizeor Lake would be closed.
• Big Valley: No closure.
• Early Winters: No closure.
• Lloyd Ranch and Bowen Mountain would be exempt from the closure.
• Access to Cougar Lake would be allowed.