The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is working to thin San Juan County’s black-tailed deer population by offering up to $1,000 to property owners who allow hunting on their land.
Since the 1800s, humans have been the only predator for the deer in the San Juans, with fewer people hunting, the number of deer has been steadily growing.
“Deer are native to the islands and a valuable component of the ecosystem,” Ruth Milner, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, explained in a press release regarding hunting in the San Juans. “That said, their high populations are decimating plants that are food for a whole host of other species, so we are looking for ways to reduce their numbers.”
When asked if there is an approximate percentage she would like to see the deer population reduced by, Milner explained to the Sounder that rather than “bean counting,” they focus on the health of the entire ecosystem, including the deer themselves.
One solution the agency has arrived at is to encourage hunting to reduce deer populations through a private land hunting access program.
“It is a win-win-win for the islands,” Rob Wingard, a WDFW private-lands access manager, said in the press release. “If a property meets the criteria for a safe and productive hunt, we can work together with landowners to help native species, reduce islanders’ problems with deer and traffic hazards, and provide a unique experience for hunters seeking new places to find plentiful deer.”
Several strategies have been suggested to bring the population down, including sterilizing the animals and introducing predators such as wolves or cougars. Neither are viable options Milner said. Sterilization has been tried in other locations and has proved unsuccessful, she explained. There is no sterilization that would work for the duration of the animal’s life, according to Milner. She also explained that 80 percent of the deer in San Juan County would have to be injected, which would be extremely difficult, especially given that there is no reliable data on the islands total deer population.
“There isn’t a good survey of their population,” Milner said. Deer are forest-dwelling animals that can swim from island to island, she added, and it is nearly impossible to tag let alone count them.
Both wolves and cougars were once found in the islands more than a hundred years ago. Milner explained, however, that in order for WDFW to consider a reintroduction of predators, they would first need to study the impacts, which could take years. After those studies were completed, if evidence suggested reintroduction could be beneficial, WDFW would still need more months to years planning the proper method, after which they would then spend years holding public meetings and getting feedback from the citizenry.
Time is of the essence, and the stakes are high, according to WDFW’s press release, including the survival of the island marble butterfly found nowhere except on San Juan Island. The butterfly was thought to be extinct since 1908, however, it was rediscovered by biologists during a prairie survey in San Juan Island National Historical Park in 1998.
The island marble largely depends on two mustard varieties, according to Jenny Shrum, who has been working with the National Park Service, one is the tumble. They lay their eggs on mustard flower buds and the caterpillars feed on mustard blossoms and leaves.
Mustard is a favorite meal of black-tailed deer, Shrum told audience goers June 12 in a lecture about the marble butterfly, and the National Park Service has had to fence off the plants along American Camp, known butterfly habitat to protect the insects.
Hunters have had a challenge finding area to hunt since there is little public land, Wingard explained in the press release, which is where owners of parcels larger than five acres could step in. Those who qualify could receive as much as $1,000. He added that that funds for the hunting access portion of this project come to WDFW through the U.S. farm bill — the primary agricultural and food policy legislation of the federal government. He added that the funding is not expected in the future, therefore the ability to pay landowners would be this fall deer season only.
Interested island residents with more than five acres should contact Wingard directly at 360-466-4345, ext. 240, or by email at Robert.Wingard@dfw.wa.gov to set up an appointment.
Not every landowner that calls is going to qualify, Milner noted. After calling WDFW to state an interest, agents will schedule a site visit to determine if the property is appropriate. Safety, she noted, is a concern not just of WDFW but of islanders and hunters as well.
“Hunters are trained in gun safety, and they should be concerned about it,” Milner said.
Landowners can specify how many hunters may hunt at one time, where they are allowed to go on the property and decide which days they can come, but under this program, they can’t specify who is allowed access, he added.
“Deer are a public resource belonging to all the citizens of Washington, so all hunters who buy a hunting license are eligible to participate in the private lands access program,” Wingard continued.
Those who qualify and enroll in the program will benefit from liability protections under state law and will be involved in assessing options for how to match their needs with hunters looking for a spot to hunt, Wingard noted. Hunters would gain access to private lands only after any concerns with safety or land access from either the agency or the landowner are resolved.
According to Milner, while the general hunting season lasts from Sept. 1-Dec. 31, state law only allows each hunter two deer a season. San Juan County is a gun-restricted county, she added, so hunting with high-powered assault rifles is illegal throughout the islands.
To cover all the bases the agency is also exploring other options. WDFW is working to create and secure voluntary agreements with landowners to encourage habitat conservation and is partnering with federal, county and nonprofit organizations to create protected habitat for island marble butterflies on San Juan and Lopez islands.
According to the WDFW press release, hunting access and hunting opportunities in the state are supported by sales of hunting licenses, among other sources. WDFW license revenue from hunting goes entirely toward management of game and lands to provide hunting opportunities, often creating benefits for both game and nongame species.
WDFW is the state agency tasked with preserving, protecting and perpetuating fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fishing, hunting and other outdoor recreation opportunities. This work—financed by the farm bill and other sources – demonstrates on-the-ground efforts to meet this mandate.
“The situation is too complex. By looking at the habitat and the condition of the animals, we can tell if it’s working. Hunting may not work, but we suspect it will,” Milner said.
For more information, see https://wdfw.wa.gov/accessibility/reasonable_request.html.