Black-tailed population dwindling, but causes of decline hard to pin down

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - As deer numbers decline west of Portland, 
so do the number of hunters. 
In the wooded foothills of the Coast Range west of Portland, a chance sighting of deer goes hand-in-hand with the trickle of rainfall. But a number of forces, human and otherwise, are conspiring against Bambi and his brethren.

As hunters grab deer tags and head out for the woods, some are asking: Where have all the deer gone?

It’s a question biologists and researchers from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are trying to answer.

Deer populations are struggling across the state, says Don Whittaker, an ODFW game biologist. That’s true for black-tailed deer and mule deer, both native to Oregon.

Black-tailed deer numbers are hard to track because of their reclusive nature and thick forested habitats. In 2004, state game officials estimated there were 320,000 black-tailed deer, which are mostly found west of the Cascades, in Oregon; now officials are working on an updated estimate. Several factors might explain the decline: diminished habitat, increased poaching, parasites and diseases.

Some hunters are nervous. In a recent Oregon Hunters Association survey of more than 2,000 members, the majority endorsed conservation measures that would protect the species by limiting hunting opportunities.

Fires changed habitat

The problem may partly stem from the series of four large forest fires, starting in the 1930s, known as the Tillamook Burn, which consumed 550 square miles of timber in Northwest Oregon. When the fires defaced large parts of the forest, the burn created the ideal situation for plants that deer love to eat. The reforestation process was slow, allowing brush to keep growing and deer to thrive.

ODFW wildlife biologist Don Vandebergh says many people compare the amount of deer they see today to the amount they used to see before reforestation was completed, when the environment for deer in that part of Oregon was ideal.

Reforestation of the burned land was the largest such effort in the world at the time. But the techniques were primitive compared to what forestry experts know today. Large swaths of the forest, planted at the same time, didn’t include the diversity of trees and other vegetation typical of a healthy forest. And as charred lands came back to life, trees began to shade out the deers’ favorite shrubs.

To prevent catastrophic fires at what became the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests, crews put in a road system to provide easier access for firefighters — and everyone else. Once largely the redoubt of loggers and wildlife, the Coast Range woods are now prime territory for hunters, hikers, all-terrain vehicle riders, horseback riders, campers, bikers and explorers.

Increased access and use of the forest has likely had an impact on deer, Vandebergh says. Deer tend to avoid people and concentrated forest recreation displaces them.

The construction of roads and homes, and the conversion of wild forest land for agricultural use, also reduced deer habitat.

Lands where deer once roamed now belong to private property owners, not all of whom welcome the four-legged natives.

ODFW received an average of 420 complaints a year about deer from 2002 to 2006, mostly from landowners reporting damage to their gardens, landscaping and crops. Landowners can notify hunters that they’re free to hunt on their lands, or get permits to kill deer damaging their property.

David Nemeyer, a longtime Forest Grove resident and the city’s fire marshal, has been hunting for 20 years. “It’s a way to get out and enjoy and respect nature,” Nemeyer says. “But I don’t trust people in the woods anymore. It’s all a product of too many people not knowing what they’re doing, concentrated in the same area and not having successful seasons.”

Nemeyer says he’s also tired of coming home empty-handed.

The number of hunting tags sold for the general firearm deer season has declined in recent years, from 200,537 in 2007 to 183,432 in 2011. Tags for female deer were down 10 percent last year.

Times have changed since Nemeyer could drive his truck through the woods with his binoculars and spot dozens.

“There are more and more people getting squeezed into a small area, and deer don’t want to be near you and I,” Nemeyer says. “As our population grows, people blame the animals and say ‘They are in our backyard.’ No, we took their yard.”

Poachers, disease also threats

At the August meeting of the Oregon Hunters Association Tualatin Valley Chapter at the Forest Grove Elks Lodge, chapter president Leslie Shaw asked roughly 35 members what could be done to improve hunting in Oregon.

Their answers? Improved habitats and stricter regulations on poaching.

A 2008 ODFW study estimated that there was an average of 741 black-tailed deer killed illegally by poachers each year from 1996 to 2005, with expected increases since then.

Humans aren’t the only predators deer have to worry about.

The ODFW concluded that coyotes, bobcats, cougars, black bears and domestic dogs were major predators for black-tail deer. Since Measure 18 passed in 1994, forbidding hunters to use dogs to hunt bears and cougars, there likely are more of these predators.

Disease could be another explanation. Deer Hair Loss Syndrome and Adenovirus Hemorrhagic Disease, among others, have negatively impacted deer in and around Washington County. Deer with hair loss syndrome have unusually high infestations of lice, which results in hair discoloration, hair loss, weight loss, diarrhea and lethargy. It can also cause death, usually from exposure.

The reduction of hunting is taking a toll on ODFW’s budget, which brings in $99.7 million a year from the sale of fishing and hunting licenses. The 2012 price of a hunting license is $29.50 and deer tags are $24.50 for a resident. Out-of-state hunters pay $140.50 for a license and $375.50 for deer tags.

Vandebergh is working with his team to study black-tailed deer populations from Forest Grove to the coast over the next few years, hoping to get a more accurate and current count of the deer and gathering enough evidence to come up with effective solutions for some of the animals’ greatest problems — habitat loss, disease and illegal hunting practices.

“We are going to see what kind of habitats they’re using and how they’re moving around,” he says.

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