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Wahkiakum County takes feds to task for failures in protecting rare deer

Despite some public objections, federal biologists have begun moving Columbian white-tailed deer from Puget Island to the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge in another step to create a viable population in north Clark County.

Eight deer were moved in February, and biologists hope to move another 20 or so to Ridgefield in 2014, said Paul Meyers, wildlife biologist for the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge for Columbian White-tailed Deer west of Cathlamet.

There already are about 25 deer at the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge, where the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service started moving deer last year in an attempt to build a sustainable herd of 50 animals. Doing so would enable the agency to start the process of removing the deer from the federal Endangered Species list and make the deer one of the uncommon success stories under the law.

The goal is to establish three separate sustainable “subpopulations” — groups — on land that is protected. The Ridgefield site would be the third, joining those at Julia Butler Refuge and federally owned Tenasillahe island, a Columbia River Island near Cathlamet.

“Normally it takes several relocation efforts to establish a viable subpopulation,” Meyer said, noting that such was the case at Tenasillahe Island, which now has a herd of 100 to 130 deer. The refuge mainland has between 60 and 80 deer, even after 37 were moved from there to the Ridgefield site last year.

Several died and moved off the site.

Puget Island, a 5,000-acre land mass that is mostly private farmland, has a population of 200 to 250, a 10-year high. So there are ample number of deer there to help stock the Ridgefield site, Meyers said, estimating that another 10 to 15 will need to be moved next year.

To trap them, biologists lure deer with bait and then drop a remote-controlled net on them. So far no deer have died in this year’s relocation effort, Meyers said.

Many Wahkiakum County residents had opposed this year’s deer relocation, and the Wahkiakum County commissioners even accused the Wildlife Service of “gross mismanagement” of the deer.

Meyers acknowledged that more than half the public comments the agency received opposed this year’s relocation plan, but he noted the opposition was odd: In the past, the agency received numerous complaints that the deer damaged crops and gardens on the island.

“Historically, the sentiment has been that there are too many deer on Puget Island and they are destroying our farms and gardens. We were pretty surprised when lot of the public said we love the deer and don’t want you to move them.”

The deer are native to the bottomlands of the Columbia River, and their numbers dwindled as those lands were drained and developed. About 600 deer are scattered on Columbia River floodplains in Oregon and Washington, with about 40 percent of those supported by the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge, according to the Wildlife Service.

Even if the agency is successful in establishing a sustainable population at Ridgefield, it said, it would take at least five years to do so.

“It’s a long process.”

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