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Environment | Flora and Fauna

Relocating An Endangered Deer

CATHLAMET, Wash. – A dike in southwestern Washington has become a ticking time bomb. Managers say it’s not a matter of if, but when, it will fail. And behind the dike? A small group of white-tailed deer, considered an endangered species. If biologists can’t move the herd before the dike is breached, the deer could be wiped out.

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Trapping deer

A lot of effort goes into relocating about 50 deer from one refuge to another. Today, biologists are luring deer under a net with hand cut apples and pears. But first they have to wait for the deer to show up.

The trapping team is staked out on the side of a rural highway outside Cathlamet, Wash. The net is in sight, but hidden from the deer.

You can’t talk much. You can’t move much. You just wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And then, the radio crackles.

“I see a deer coming out of the far end of the wood,” says Paul Myers on the other end of the radio. He’s a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Gonna take this buck,” Myers says through the radio.

Everyone watches as the net falls right on top of the buck.

“There it goes. There it goes. Got him,” says Jackie Ferrier, who runs several hundred yards to the net with eight other biologists and volunteers. They immediately begin untangling, tying up and blindfolding the deer.

It’s an extremely quiet process. Human voices can stress the 159-pound buck, even more than he already is.

The buck lets out a guttural growl, making his feelings known. The team quickly ties his hooves together so that he can’t kick.

A veterinarian monitors the deer’s pulse, temperature and breathing. If he gets too stressed out they’ll sedate him.

They carry over a deer-sized brown crate. Then they move the buck inside as they untie him. The process goes relatively smoothly, though Myers says it was the most tangled a deer has been in the net. So far no animals or people have been hurt, which could happen.

Now it’s time to drive the deer to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. That’s about 60 miles away. There are already 10 deer there.

Biologists are trapping deer four days a week. They use three different methods:

  • drop netting, like today;

  • line netting, which involves driving the deer toward a burlap net;

  • and sedative darting.

The $200,000 effort also includes a day of helicopter trapping, but Ferrier says they may not need to resort to that.

Biologists need to move at least 50 before April. That’s when the does will be too pregnant for this kind of stress.

It’s unprecedented to move this many endangered deer, this fast. There’s a real sense of urgency because a dike at the other end of the refuge is failing. And Ferrier says, if it blows before the deer are moved, they’ll die.

“We expect water to basically inundate the entire 2,000-acres of the refuge, at a level of between two and five feet,” Ferrier says.

If the dike is breached, deer could drown, starve or succumb to hypothermia.

A plan to prevent the breach

The Columbian white-tailed deer were once thought to be extinct, but two remnant populations were found in 1968. The Julia Butler Hansen Refuge for Columbian White-Tailed Deer was established in 1972 to protect the endangered animals. Ferrier estimates taxpayers have spent $28 million to restore the species here.

But there’s a plan that could prevent the breach from flooding the refuge. The Army Corps of Engineers could build a setback dike, just behind the failing one. It would cost $4 million. That money, though, is marked for salmon recovery. The area between the two dikes would have to be used as salmon habitat.

Officials worry the the dike below Steamboat Slough
Road could be breached at any time.

Maurice Mooers is the commissioner who overseas dikes for Wahkiakum county. He’s the man who will decide if the setback dike can be built.

Mooers sits inside an antique shop he runs. It’s right alongside the refuge. He says his land would be flooded, if the dike blew.

Mooers says the setback dike is absolutely the right thing to do, but he doesn’t trust the federal government - the Army Corps of Engineers - and wants the dike under county control. He has petitioned to bring the setback dike under his control.

“Well, they’re either going to give it to me, or the dike’s going to flood. That’s where we’re at,” Mooers says.

He’s waiting to hear their decisions.

Everyone waits. But biologists move the deer.

Moving deer

The drive to the Ridgefield refuge is misty. The refuge was once a part of the Columbian white-tailed deer range. But they haven’t lived in this area in decades. Biologist Paul Myers tries to make the ride as smooth as possible for the deer in his truck bed.

“I think it’s one of those things, that, we created the problem, and we have some obligation to try and fix it,” Myers says.

The deer’s new home is prime habitat, with lots of food. A small river runs near the edge of a meadow.

The buck leaves the crate.

Biologists lift the crate and open its doors. Quickly, but cautiously, the deer steps out. He dashes to the river and hangs a right. Out of the line of sight.

Doug Zimmer jokes, “He’s probably thinking no more apples. Never another pear.”

The biologists are excited to have released the first mature, breeding buck. Before today, they had released one yearling and two fawn bucks, along with seven does. This is one step closer to establishing the population here. But it’s just the beginning.

“If everything goes well, we’ll move enough deer. We’ll get the setback dike in place. We’ll resolve the issue. We won’t have to do this anymore. That’s if everything goes well. In my 30 years of doing this kind of stuff, I’ve seen everything go well a couple of times,” Zimmer says.

Zimmer says if it doesn’t go as planned, they’ll go to plan b. But he says they haven’t figured out plan b yet.

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