WDFW says action needed to protect mule deer at ‘crisis point’
People and mule deer have one thing in common: They both prize the 35,000 acres (about 55 square miles) of the Methow Wildlife Area, where they make their own trails in comparatively quiet parts of the valley.
But that small area of overlap creates an inherent incompatibility, particularly in the winter, when mule deer have limited fat reserves to get through the season, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
That tension is at the heart of a WDFW proposal to close two-thirds of its wildlife units from the Rendezvous to Carlton from Dec. 15 through April 15 to protect the state’s largest migratory mule deer herd.
A hundred people attended a WDFW workshop last week to learn more about the reasons for the closure. They made the case for the importance of these areas to them — for some, for snowshoeing and skiing, and for others, for preserving vital habitat where deer can exist without disruption.
Some 14 WDFW staffers from the Methow Valley, Okanogan County, Ephrata and Olympia attended the workshop. Okanogan District Wildlife Biologist Scott Fitkin gave the presentation and answered most questions from the public.
Although just one persons’ recreational activity is not a big stressor for deer, when it’s combined with weather, wildfire, and what Fitkin described as the recent “crush of recreational pressure,” it’s pushed deer to a crisis point, he said.
Fitkin has been thinking about how to address winter impacts on deer for two decades. Restricting winter range is not a new idea — in fact, most western states already close key habitat in the winter, he said.
It’s hard to provide an exact count of the mule deer population in the Methow, since you can’t just go out and count every animal, Fitkin said. He estimated there are 15,000 to 20,000 mule deer in the western two-thirds of Okanogan County.
That lack of data prompted many questions and skepticism at the workshop. Attendees asked how WDFW would know if the winter closures are working. Fitkin said effectiveness is less about the total number of deer and more about whether the deer are using the habitat provided for them.
Monitoring to determine effectiveness will probably include remote cameras, collaring additional deer and, potentially, the use of drones. Biologists will study the effects on deer over the next several years, Fitkin said.
Those deer are very vulnerable during the Methow’s harsh winters, when they burn more calories than they take in. Slightly more than half of the fawns don’t make it through the winter, Fitkin said.
Mule deer use winter range at lower elevations, where snow depth is 18 inches or less and they have easier access to forage. In the warmer months, the deer migrate higher and find abundant food.
Although the Methow has some of the best habitat for mule deer in the western United States, if it isn’t available to the animals and they aren’t using it, it isn’t effective, Fitkin said.
Loss of access
Some workshop attendees were clearly opposed to losing access to a favorite activity, while others praised WDFW for long-overdue action.
One person said the proposed closures would disproportionately affect people in Twisp and the lower valley, who can’t afford hundreds of dollars for a trail pass for Methow Trails’ groomed cross-country trail network, or who can’t drive long distances to recreate. The Methow Trails network is at higher elevations where there is deeper snow all season long, so those areas are less suitable for mule deer, Fitkin said.
Others said the closures would eliminate an environmentally friendly form of winter recreation, where people make their own tracks in the snow and don’t rely on gas-powered grooming equipment or snowmobiles.
The boundaries of the proposed closure aren’t set in stone, but they’re probably fairly close, Fitkin said. Because of the significant economic impact of outdoor recreation on the valley, WDFW intentionally kept open areas with groomed trails, such as the fat-bike trails at Lloyd Ranch.
For people who prefer solitude when they recreate, that wasn’t a satisfactory solution. The prospect of losing access to these cherished areas hit some people hard. “This will ruin my winter,” one person told the Methow Valley News after the meeting.
Impacts on deer
Over the past decade, the cumulative effects of wildfire, summer heat domes, and cold, snowy winters have had significant impacts on the deer herd. Key factors in the health of the herd include how many fawns each doe has and what’s called “recruitment” — whether a fawn survives the winter and is incorporated into the herd.
Although the deer population has been “relatively stable” over the past 20 to 30 years, there have been significant low points. Last fall, the fawn-to-adult ratio hit a 16- to-18-year low, Fitkin said. “They’re struggling — there’s no two ways about it,” he said.
While roadkill has an impact on the deer population, it’s not as significant as people think, Fitkin said.
Two decades ago, on helicopter surveys Fitkin would count 3,000 deer in three hours in wildlife areas in the eastern part of the valley. Today, he’s lucky to see 300. “That’s a red flag,” he said.
Some 2,000 to 2,500 deer were “harvested” during hunting season last year, Fitkin said. While hunting of bucks affects the total deer population, it doesn’t affect the ability for the herd to rebound, he said. The ratio of bucks to does is currently about 20 or 25 to 100.
For years, Fitkin has proposed eliminating the antlerless hunting season (primarily open only for bow hunters). Past efforts to limit hunting have triggered significant pushback from hunters, WDFW Regional Director Brock Hoenes said.
There have been times when the size of the herd could sustain an antlerless season — but not now, Fitkin said. “We need not to be harvesting antlerless animals,” he said.
Importance of predictability
Some people said they regularly ski or snowshoe in these wildlife areas and rarely encounter deer. But they find hoof prints in their tracks on their next visit, suggesting the animals are using the area.
Deer learn migratory routes from their mothers and they have very high fidelity to their seasonal ranges. They don’t use areas where they’d be apt to encounter a lot of people, Fitkin said.
Because trail-based recreation tends to be more predictable, deer learn where it occurs and stay away. Even though vehicles and snowmobiles are loud, deer seem to adapt to them and know to keep their distance, Fitkin said. Mule deer are most bothered by anything unpredictable, like off-trail use, quick movements, and dogs, Fitkin said.
Mule deer are an important component of the Methow ecosystem. They are primary prey for cougars and wolves, and their carcasses are a major food source for eagles during the winter.
Unlike mule deer, white-tail deer do well around people and don’t migrate as much. The deer that congregate in town are typically white-tails.
The first violation of the closure order would be a $150 fine; the second would be a criminal misdemeanor, WDFW Officer Jason Day said.
WDFW representatives said they will consider suggestions from workshop attendees as they evaluate the proposed closures.
WDFW is seeking public input on the proposed closures. There is an online survey at https://publicinput.com/j8587. Detailed maps of the proposed closures are available through a link in the survey.
People can also email comments to methowWA@dfw.wa.gov. Comments and surveys are due by Oct. 15.
• 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.
• Lands around Cougar Lake, Pipestone Canyon and Fraser Creek would be closed, although access to Cougar Lake would be allowed.
• Big Valley: No closure.
• Early Winters: No closure.
• Lloyd Ranch and Bowen Mountain would be exempt from the closure.
• Lands south of Carlton east of Highway 153: No closure.