CATHLAMET — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are pleased with a recently completed effort to relocate endangered Columbian White-tail deer, even though they moved fewer animals than planned and about 20 percent of them died.
“I think over all the FWS is extremely pleased with the translocation,” Jackie Ferrier, who manages the Julia Butler-Hansen refuge near Cathlamet, said in an interview Tuesday.
Biologists and volunteers trapped and relocated 49 deer from Wahkiakum County to two other locations, 16 fewer than their target. The mortality rate was 21 percent, or 10 deer, two more than wildlife officials had projected would perish.
The relocation effort, which cost about $200,000 and started in January, had two objectives aimed at protecting and improving populations of the deer, which are an endangered species:
• Relocating up to 50 deer from the refuge mainland just west of Cathlamet to the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge in north Clark County. The goal was to protect the deer if the eroding Steamboat Slough Dike fails and allows the Columbia River to flood the area.
• Moving 15 deer from Puget Island to Cottonwood Island to help stabilize an existing population there.
During the last stages of the capture effort, the teams tried many methods to lure more deer to traps. Despite biologists’ efforts to be discreet during the trapping effort, the animals had become so wary of humans that nothing worked anymore, Ferrier said. In addition, a boat used to move deer between Puget Island and Cottonwood Island also broke down, further hindering the effort.
“The deer were just plain not coming into the nets anymore . ... We just were not having any success,” Ferrier said.
In all, 37 deer were taken to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, and seven died. One doe died during transportation there, and coyotes killed two other does, Ferrier said.
Another 12 deer were brought to Cottonwood Island. One buck died in transit, and the other two deer were struck by cars after swimming back to the mainland. Radio collar signals indicate that those two deer were among at handful who have strayed from their release sites.
As of April 8, radio collar signals placed three Ridgefield deer outside of the refuge boundary, and three of the deer on Cottonwood Island had left the island.
Biologists knew that the some of the deer, who have an intense physical reaction to stress, would not survive the relocation, Ferrier said. But Ferrier said she felt the multiple agencies and volunteer groups involved had collaborated well, responded to a dire situation quickly, and done a good job of protecting the animals during the high-intensity operation.
The risk to the deer was worthwhile, Ferrier said, because the remaining deer are “in a safer place now.”
In the past, floods at the refuge and elsewhere have taken a far greater toll on deer populations than the relocation did, killing as much as 30 percent 50 percent of the population on the refuge mainland. Before the relocation began, the mainland refuge harbored about 90 deer. The total estimated in the Lower Columbia Region is about 600 deer.