For weeks, the largest wildfire in the State of Washington’s history burned across more than 250,000 acres in the Carlton Complex east of Seattle. More than 3,000 firefighters and emergency personnel responded to the blaze, which consumed 300 homes and tens of thousands of acres in wildlife habitat. A few isolated areas are still burning, but wildlife managers are now scrambling to deal with a new problem: thousands of newly-evicted mule deer. Forced out of the forest by the fire, the deer are struggling to find food and cover where they can. Many have wandered onto hay fields, orchards, and other nearby farms.
“A fire of this magnitude will have both short and long-term effects on wildlife populations and the landscape and that will have implications for hunting and grazing in the area,” Jim Brown, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) regional director, said in a press release. “This is not a problem with easy answers.”
The Carlton Complex fire burned more than 25,000 acres of habitat across five wildlife area units, which are home to a large mule deer population and an important resting ground for thousands of migratory deer during the winter. WDFW biologists say that the area is already overpopulated with deer, but the fire may mean trouble in the years to come as well. For now, WDFW officials are working with landowners to replace damaged fences and implement other methods to keep deer off their land, but some fear that thousands of returning migratory deer will not be so easy to keep away.
“We expect more issues to arise as migratory deer return to the area this fall, but we are taking steps now to minimize those problems,” said Ellen Heilhecker, a WDFW wildlife conflict specialist.
The WDFW is considering a supplemental feeding program for the deer, although biologists are reluctant to approve such a measure. Supplemental feeding draws deer into dense concentrations, increasing the likelihood of disease and even exacerbating habitat damage.
“Winter feeding is not a long term solution,” said Scott Fitkin, a WDFW district biologist. “At best, it’s a stop-gap measure until the deer population and habitat are back in balance.”
Instead, the department says that it will likely increase the number of anterless deer permits available to hunters. Surveys from last year show that the antlerless mule deer in Okanogan county outnumber bucks by at least three-to-one.
“We know we need to take steps to reduce the size of the herd,” Fitkin said. “That effort will focus initially on minimizing conflicts between deer and agricultural landowners.”
These plans are dependent on how conditions progress towards winter. The plans for supplemental feeding and increased hunting may be reduced if sufficient green-up occurs before the winter chill.
Image courtesy Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife