Whalen: Island Deer Numbers

By Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) state biologist estimates, Columbia Blacktail Deer populate the San Juan Islands at a level x10 the historic pre settlement population. At a recent presentation by our regional state deer biologist at the local library, islanders were provided a wealth of information about the health and numbers of our local deer population. The presentation included scientific reference to the impacts of overpopulated deer on trees, native plants, insects and birds. This presentation wasn't an opinion piece, or as written in a recent letter, a Cabelas rally. The biologist simply provided those in attendance with some real information to consider.

First and foremost I would like to thank our district biologist Ruth Milner for traveling to the island to speak to us, and the San Juan Island Library for hosting this presentation. I would also like to thank those islanders in attendance who listened to the presentation with an open mind. Armed with more information, we all can couple the information provided with observations of our own to better understand the island condition and how best to participate moving forward.

One of the talking points that brought with it the most discussion was the fact based opinion by state biologists that hunting is the best means of controlling the numbers of deer in our islands. Clearly, in a pre settlement habitat with wolves and cougars and bears, nature finds and maintains the balance. The fact is, we don’t live in a pre settlement habitat. And like it or not, we will never live in a true natural balance habitat again. Not unless you remove humans from the equation. I submit this letter to those fellow Islander’s who may not like hunting or may not know how hunting still fits our lifestyle here. As human numbers increase and the landscape changes, deer numbers often skyrocket. An example of this is the whitetail deer, especially in the midwest where agriculture has created a habitat capable of supporting exponentially more deer than existed pre Mayflower.

A similar situation is common in parts of Western Washington where rural countryside once covered with large carniferrous forest has become a new type of deer habitat. A landscape with much more edge habitat, and void of natural predators.

As recently written in a letter I largely disagree with, I do agree that this is not the fault of the deer themselves. We humans have done wrong by many species and many sustainably healthy habitats. But we also have the ability to learn from our mistakes and in many cases, impart some good management practices that address specific imbalances in specific locations. When it comes to a vibrant and balanced ecosystem, there are some common denominators, but there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to our growing human population and the impacts on wildlife. What might work in Yellowstone may not work well on Whidbey Island.

* Island deer numbers by best estimate are x10 the pre settlement population. This a result of the elimination of natural predators and the clearing of land creating more “edge” habitat. (WDFW)

* There has not been a documented casualty or severe injury as a result of a hunting accident in San Juan County in the past fifty years if ever. (WDFW)

* High powered center fire rifles have been removed permanently from the landscape for the purpose of hunting. There is no modern firearm rifle centerfire cartridge hunting allowed in our county by law. Archery, Shotgun, Crossbow, Muzzleloader, or pistol only.

* In a non GMO, Gluten Free, Organic and Free Range minded community, why is there an emotional resistance to killing deer for human consumption? Why wouldn’t venison meat be in demand in a community like this? Not for commercial sale of course.

* Automobiles are now the apex predator in the San Juan Islands (WDFW)

* Solid scientific reference has demonstrated the damaging effects of too may deer on our native plant and trees. The forest understory is depleted of young trees and the Madrone tree is one of the hardest hit. The numbers of songbirds, insects and wildflowers are impacted in a dramatic way. Contact Ruth Milner with WDFW and she could probably point you towards the scientific study data presented at the meeting the other night at our library. The damage that has been sustained to most islands is striking.

* Fawn mortality in a region absent significant winter kill weather conditions is at 50% due to low caloric milk and reduced availability or preferred first year native food sources. (WDFW)

* Our deer, for a number of reasons, are not as healthy as mainland deer populations, and yet we sustain far more deer per square mile than is recognized as acceptably healthy for the carrying capacity of the land.

When any natural balance is off, one way or another, there are consequences. This leads me to the more objective and difficult part of the conversation. And my response to a recent letter that not only slanders people I know, but grossly mis-states the conversation as it took place. This recent letter referenced “in most places 95% of the land is open to hunting.” And that now hunters want the parks followed by logging and mining. With two national parks and a state park and a county park where hunting isn’t allowed, I think it’s a stretch to say that our local deer hunters will be followed by Weyerhaeuser any time soon.

The author of that recent letter about deer advocates a complete hands off, humans are to blame position. The solution model being a reintroduction of wolves and cougars to the county, removal of livestock large and small, hayfields, lavender farms, gardens and clearings. A reduction in humans and human infrastructure. In her words: “Deer are not the problem”. While not in any way grounded in reality, this is the person who wrote a letter a few years ago calling several of us “no better than the Paris terrorists” for hunting deer on land where we had written permission. We were confronted and harassed on private property where we were allowed to be by written consent and she was not. In her words to us that day in the woods, “ All the islands are a sanctuary.” While I agree it would be incredible to experience these islands as they existed pre settlement, removing humans and replacing then with cougars isn't a viable solution.

We were told in the library meeting the other night by the author or the recent letter that we as hunters “just haven’t evolved.”

Evolved into what exactly? To conform and adapt to the new Island lifestyle? Our island is a tourist destination. We package this place, market it, sell tickets, wait in line, take the scenic byway and see businesses operating from our county and state parks. The island has evolved alright. Try and navigate town in the summer when the ferry is in. And yet the dozen or two dozen of us who hunt the island as has always been part of our culture are often seen as the less evolved among us. Those of us who live here year around and spend time each fall with our sons and daughters sitting in the woods and eating free range sustainable venison are not the driving force behind climate change and the demise of the Southern Resident Killer Whales. I wish we were viewed through the same lens as those islanders who grow gardens, tend orchards, market fresh produce in town, those who appreciate local lamb and local vineyards. To me these are natural and cultural aspects to island life that hold value and keep us active and involved across our local landscape.

Last fall one of my daughters took the hunter safety course though she’s hunted with me for several years. I weigh the “hunting part” heavier than the “killing part” and she understands the difference. My daughters experience every range of emotion when the life of a deer ends by our hands. The hide is removed and they know what different parts are eaten and what it means to participate in the life cycle. They know the sadness and the joy and the appreciation of an old mature buck with antlers unlike the others. Like an old tree with character. No, we do not need the protein from island deer to survive and feed our family. No more than you need a cell phone. No more than we need another festival or event to attract more revenue generating crowds to the island. No, it’s not just about antler trophies or meat on the table or indulging in some misguided primal bloodlust to kill things. No it’s not just about conservation and the welfare of deer in the islands.

The heritage of hunting is about a great many things. Some of them simple truths, some of them admittedly painted in shades of grey. And it’s different for all of us. But it can be and is and should be about a great many things. My entire family loves to see the island deer around our house. Even with twelve acres on top of Mt. Dallas I can’t harvest a deer on my own property where I have about 13 in front of my house. The Homeowners Association would have an emergency council meeting and likely file a lawsuit. I killed my first deer on this exact property in the mid 1980’s one snowy day. Now I own the land and I can’t harvest and eat a deer from my own piece of the forest. Sight unseen by anyone, harvesting a deer on my own land from a grossly overpopulated herd is forbidden. But raising my daughters here the way I was raised, they can see and feel where meat comes from and there is no smaller circle than that. That’s what you call emotional, spiritual, and practical multitasking.

When did our species have this falling out with our primal, our feral selves? Deer are not people. We can draw that distinction because we’re well versed in reality. Well steeped in common sense. And at the same time, we go to the greatest lengths to pursue deer, be around deer, admire them and remember the ones that we kill for a lifetime. 75 deer die each year by automobile. Half of all fawns die naturally from malnutrition. When a deer dies in my family it means something. It’s not a number, a casualty. It’s a life not so different from our own. It’s a reminder to me and my daughters that we’re all in this together. The taking of anything absent understanding, absent emotion, absent appreciation, is empty. Conscious participation with a depth of feeling is consistent with a firm grasp of reality.

I offer you with a sincere thank you for keeping an open mind. Many of us long time islanders love to hunt both with our children and our friends. The island lifestyle has changed dramatically over the past few decades and hunting in general has fallen out of favor. We have far too many deer for what the island can healthily sustain. Native trees and plants are paying a heavy price and the damage is beyond dispute. Government sharpshooters, buck deer sterilization, or deer relocation aren’t in any way viable solutions. Not practically or financially.

Increased hunting may not improve the situation either. It’s the agreed to best method by wildlife officials. But hunters and mangers alike can’t promise this as a remedy. We will respect your land and your privacy if you give us a chance.

I truly believe we have more in common than what divides us, in most cases. And yes hunting has a place in the balance of life on mixed use land where our species has altered the landscape. Please give us a chance and we’ll work harder to make sure we do right by your confidence in us. To earn and keep your trust. And to live on an island where mutual respect is the norm.

My Ask

If you own land, even just a couple acres. If you control land in a trust or preserve or zoned agriculture, please consider allowing locals and or non locals to attain written permission from you the landowner to hunt on your land and harvest a deer. You set the terms, the times, the conditions.

Please keep an open mind and I believe you will be pleasantly surprised by the calibre of neighbor you make in exchange for the kindness. Many of us hunt with a bow or crossbow. No noise, no bullets, no safety concerns. Having places, even small properties to go to means a great deal to many of us and we might bring you a fresh salmon for the trouble.

If you prefer your privacy but you don’t oppose hunting, possibly petition the Land Bank to allow locals who pay the tax to fund the Land Bank to access some of the several thousand acres they hold but don’t allow hunting on.

We have no land other than rare private permission properties to hunt. When you consider the volume of deer on these islands, the damage deer are inflicting on the forest understory, and the willingness of law abiding long time locals you can trust to help solve the problem, maybe we can and should do better.


Carter Whalen

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