Southeast deer weathering tough Autumn

Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2006

Last weekend a couple of friends went deer hunting at Oliver's Inlet on Admiralty Island. Cruising the shoreline in a snow storm, they saw two hunters on the beach who had just harvested a pair of does.

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As the hunters loaded the deer into a skiff, a newly-orphaned fawn stood on the beach nearby, a four-foot high berm of snow blocking its access to the woods.

The hunters left the fawn. Perhaps a misguided sense of sportsmanship dissuaded them from taking a "young of the year" animal.

The best thing to do would have been to take the fawn as well. Or even better, to take the fawn instead of one of the does.

Fawns have very limited fat reserves and are typically the first animals to starve during hard winters. They spend their first summer simply growing, not building reserves that will help them through the winter.

Since most adult does are already pregnant with next year's fawns, they represent the most important segment to retain in the population. They are also typically the deer in the best physical condition and the best able to survive.

The idea that it is unsporting to take young animals is a relatively new one. But when deer - and moose and elk as well - are facing a severe winter, it makes sense to cull the segment of the population that is least likely to survive.

Hunting young or female animals was not a contentious issue until the turn of the 20th century. Widespread market hunting and unrestricted hunting for food culminated around the 1890s, and in the Lower 48 many game animals were virtually eliminated.

In those days, all ages and sexes were harvested. People hunted for meat and didn't care if there were antlers on the animal's head. Hunters also did not understand the principle of sustainable yield, and many believed it was just a matter of time before there would be no game left - so they had better get their share.

At the turn of the century, game management agencies began implementing and enforcing regulations to protect and rebuild remaining game populations. To allow the populations to grow, agencies prohibited the harvest of antlerless animals - a good strategy for low or declining populations.

Pennsylvania was one state to spearhead this effort to rebuild their obliterated white-tailed deer population.

Initially, resistance to the "bucks only" policy was considerable, and enforcement was difficult. Over time, efforts to educate the public were successful, and attitudes began to change. Enforcement became more effective, and the deer population rebounded.

While a bucks-only policy is good for building a population, managing a population that is at the carrying capacity of the habitat is a different story, especially when those animals are facing a tough winter.

"All western states allow taking of calves and fawns," said Fairbanks Area Biologist Don Young.

Recently, Colorado hunters took more that 4,000 elk calves, and Pennsylvania hunters took more than 100,000 deer fawns.

Many Canadian provinces and all Scandinavian countries allow taking of moose calves. "Forty percent of the moose harvest in Scandinavia is composed of calves," Young said.

Neil Barten, the Fish and Game area biologist for much of northern Southeast Alaska, noted that our region has experienced a series of fairly mild winters during the past five to 10 years.

Those favorable conditions have led to high deer densities, and many people came to expect that these high densities could persist indefinitely.

"Deer populations are subject to limiting factors in their environment, and here in Southeast Alaska, winter severity is the greatest limiting factor in deer survival," Barten said.

"During heavy snow winters such as this one, the carrying capacity of their habitat is only a fraction of that of a mild winter."

Barten said the expansive forested habitats that support deer during mild winters are not available this year. Deep snows have forced many deer to low elevations, often onto beaches where they compete with one another for a limited supply of food.

If the snow persists long enough and the deer exhaust this food supply, many of these animals will die.

It's difficult to predict what the coming months will bring, but it's clear that deer in northern Southeast have faced a more taxing autumn than in previous years.

The department has no plans to close or otherwise change the current hunting season, which ends Dec. 31. A federally managed subsistence hunt takes place in January.

As hunters scout Southeast Alaska beaches for deer, it's important to remember that it is illegal to shoot deer from a boat. In Southeast Alaska, it is illegal to shoot any big game animal from a boat. Hunters must come ashore.

It's also important to remember that on the mainland, does are off-limits.

At the end of the winter, department personnel will assess the extent of winter mortality and determine if changes to hunting regulations are needed to help with recovery of these populations.

In the meantime, there is no reason that hunters should not take advantage of the opportunity to harvest available deer, particularly if they focus their harvest on bucks and fawns.

• Riley Woodford is a writer with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the editor of "Alaska Wildlife News." Fairbanks wildlife educator Mike Taras also contributed to this article.

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