Relocating An Endangered Deer

Feb 15, 2013

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 breeched, the deer could be wiped out. Courtney Flatt has this report.

A white-tailed deer seen in Washington.
Credit Photo by Wikimedia user Dcoetzee / Wikimedia Commons

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.

They sit on the side of a rural highway outside Cathlament, Washington. The net is in sight, but we’re hidden from the deer. You can’t talk much. You can’t move much. You just wait.

And wait. And wait. And then:

Myers: “I see a deer coming out of the far end of the wood.”

That’s Paul Myers. He’s a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Myers: “Gonna take this buck.”

Ferrier: “There it goes. There it goes. Got him.”

And that’s Jackie Ferrier, who with eight other biologists and volunteers run several hundred yards to the net. 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.

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. And move the buck inside as they untie him.

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 need to move at least 50 before April. That’s when the does will become too pregnant for this kind of stress. It’s unprecedented to move this many endangered deer, this fast.

And there’s a real sense of urgency among everyone here. 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.

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

But there’s a plan that could prevent the breech 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. And so the area between the two dikes would have to be used as salmon habitat.

Maurice Mooers is the commissioner who overseas dikes for the county. He sits inside an antique shop he runs. It’s right alongside the refuge.

Flatt: “And will your land be flooded if the dike is breached?”

Mooers: “Yes.”

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.

Mooers has petitioned the federal government to bring the setback dike under county control.

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

He’s waiting to hear their decisions.

And everyone waits. But biologists move the 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.

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

We turn into the deer’s new home. Prime habitat with lots of food. A small river runs near the edge of a meadow.

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 our line of sight.

Doug Zimmer jokes:

Zimmer: “He’s probably thinking no more apples. Never another pear.”

The biologists are excited to have released the first mature, breeding buck. It’s one step closer to establishing the population here. But it’s just the beginning.

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

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio