Fires char 256,000 acres, leave little winter food for deer

SUNDAY, AUG. 10, 2014

Washington’s largest deer herd will have to be reduced by hunting and winter feeding is planned for the survivors in the aftermath of wildfires torching the Methow Valley.

Wildlife managers and some sportsman’s groups already are taking steps to help impacted landowners.

Members of the Columbia Plateau Wildlife Management Association are working with three major landowners in Lincoln and Spokane counties affected by the Watermelon Hill Fire that started near Fishtrap Lake.

The group has been assisting with fence repair and replanting forage and cover, said spokesman Jerry Hickman.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Department is focusing on the Methow Valley region, where the Carlton Complex fires – the largest recorded in Washington history – have destroyed about 300 homes and structures and blackened 256,000 acres.

The burned area includes 100,000 acres of winter range that’s critical to the local deer and the 10,000 mule deer that will be migrating from the Cascades to the valley in a few months.

The fires, still burning in some areas, have damaged 25,000 acres within five wildlife areas managed by the agency and destroyed about 100 miles of game-proof fencing necessary to keep wintering deer out of orchards and irrigated crops even in normal years.

“A fire of this magnitude will have both short and long-term effects on wildlife populations and the landscape and that will have implications for hunting and grazing in the area,” said Jim Brown, WDFW regional director. 

Some of the burned areas may still provide winter habitat depending on weather through fall. Some habitats will be improved by the fires. 

Even if fall rains cooperate and vegetation resprouts, there likely will be too many deer to support this winter and possibly for several years to come, said Scott Fitkin, state wildlife biologist.

“We know we need to take steps to reduce the size of the herd,” Fitkin said. “That effort will focus initially on minimizing conflicts between deer and agricultural landowners.” 

The agency is working with local property owners to deter deer from moving into orchards, hay fields and pastures to seek food and cover. Federal emergency funding is being sought for fence repair, he said.

The number of antlerless deer permits issued this fall and winter likely will increase, offering opportunities first to youth, seniors and hunters with disabilities, officials say.

The agency plans to contact hunters who’ve already applied for deer permits in the area, Fitkin said, noting that a deer feeding program also is being considered.

“Winter feeding is not a long term solution,” he said. “At best, it’s a stop-gap measure until the deer population and habitat are back in balance.” 

In the winter, deer prefer to browse shrubs and bitterbrush, which the agency plans to re-seed on department lands within the burned area. However, it will take many years for shrubs and bitterbrush to re-establish, he said.

Flooding and erosion also are major concerns for habitat and human safety.

  The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest has assembled a Burned Area Emergency Response team to assess the condition of land denuded of trees, grass and other protective cover.

“The team will work with agencies to assist off-forest affected businesses, homes, and landowners in preparing for rain events that cause flooding and musdlides off steep scorched slopes,” forest officials said in a media release. 

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