Washington's Columbian white-tailed deer have had a rough time surviving. In fact, their population fell so much they were once thought to be extinct.
Years ago, development claimed much of the Columbian white-tailed deer’s historical habitat. Most recently, a damaged dike threatened to burst and destroy one of their remaining refuges. (The Julia Butler Hansen Refuge for the Columbian White-Tailed Deer was established specifically to protect the species.)
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relocated 37 deer to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge 60 miles away and brimming with prime habitat.
Now, those efforts are paying off.
In its five-year review of the deer, the service is recommending the Columbian white-tailed deer be downgraded from an endangered species to a threatened one.
That’s one step closer – in a long series of steps – to removing the deer from the endangered species list. However, the recommendation is only that, a recommendation, which is not always taken.
But biologists are pretty confident that the Columbian white-tailed deer will one day be fully recovered.
“Finally after 40 years, with this particular population segment in the Columbia River, we really are on the right track. Things are going to move quickly from here," said Rebecca Toland, a wildlife biologist with the service.
Ten years ago, the service removed another Columbian white-tailed deer population in Oregon from the endangered species list. Biologists say that shows, given the right conditions, the Columbian white-tailed deer can make their way off the list.
"There's a precedence for recovering and reclassifying and, ultimately, delisting under the endangered species act. But particularly for this species. There is a track record of the service doing that when warranted," said Chris Allen, fisheries biologist with the service.
If Washington's population is downgraded to a threatened species, the doors are opened up for more biologists and wildlife managers to work to protect the deer. Under federal law, there are many research restrictions when a species is classified as endangered. The threatened classification loosens those restrictions.
The service had several specific goals for the Columbian white-tailed deer to meet:
A minimum of 400 deer across the Columbia River population;
Three groups of at least 50 deer living in three different locations;
Two of those three groups had to be on protected, secure habitat.
Now, Toland said, biologists can put a check mark next to each of those items.
After biologists moved deer away from the eroding dike in southwestern Washington, the new Ridgefield population has begun to flourish, Toland said. Biologists have spotted two fawns at the refuge.
"They're taking to the habitat," Toland said. "It's supporting them, and they're finding enough cover and forage, and the things that they need in their new home. It's always a challenge moving species to a completely new environment that they're not familiar with."
The dike near the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge is also being repaired. A one-mile setback dike was built this fall to prevent the refuge from flooding if the dike were to burst. Parts of the old dike will be removed next year, which will restore tidal connection and fish access to the refuge.
The service will likely decide whether to accept this recommendation in 2014. If the downgrade is officially proposed the public will then be able to comment.