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SAN LUIS NWR: Rescuing Deer Trapped in Canals
California-Nevada Offices , July 11, 2017
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Engineering Equipment Operator Brandon Jordan uses an aqua-pod to rescue a black-tailed deer that is trapped in a canal near the San Luis NWR.
Engineering Equipment Operator Brandon Jordan uses an aqua-pod to rescue a black-tailed deer that is trapped in a canal near the San Luis NWR. - Photo Credit: USFWS
San Luis NWR Complex staff (from left: Brandon Jordan, Melinda Nunes, Kathryn Heffernan, Sean Brophy) secure a black-tailed deer rescued from a canal and prepare it for transport to a safer location on the refuge.
San Luis NWR Complex staff (from left: Brandon Jordan, Melinda Nunes, Kathryn Heffernan, Sean Brophy) secure a black-tailed deer rescued from a canal and prepare it for transport to a safer location on the refuge. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Reintroduced to the area in the last two decades, the San Luis NWR and surrounding vicinity has a thriving population of black-tailed deer.
Reintroduced to the area in the last two decades, the San Luis NWR and surrounding vicinity has a thriving population of black-tailed deer. - Photo Credit: James Sanderson

By Madeline Yancey

In one respect, the work done at the San Luis NWR Complex in Merced County, California is straight forward – protect and manage habitat so that a diverse community of wildlife has everything needed for survival. Reality is not always that simple. Sometimes, the work of helping wildlife survive becomes more hands-on; like one morning this summer when three Columbian black-tailed deer had to be physically rescued from a manmade obstacle – a concrete-lined irrigation ditch – then transported and released into a safer area.

While the wildlife refuges of the San Luis Complex protect part of the largest expanses of wildlife habitat remaining in California – nearly 200,000 acres – they are surrounded by, and intertwined with, human development and activities. The refuges are encircled by and crisscrossed with hundreds of miles of major state highways, local roads, streets, and farm roads. Merced County has nearly a million acres of farmland, some of which flanks the refuges. Those lands, and refuge lands, are supplied with water by thousands of miles of irrigation canals and aqueducts. All that human infrastructure complicates the task of protecting and managing habitat for wildlife.

The sometimes far-ranging Columbian black-tailed deer is one species that has problems with all that human infrastructure. The black-tailed deer is a native species in California. It is believed the deer historically numbered in excess of one million animals ranging throughout the state with the exception of Southern California. The deer in the San Joaquin Valley and Merced County were seasonal migrants. They moved from the valley floor to the foothills and back again depending on the annual flooding of the San Joaquin River and its tributaries. In late winter and early spring when the river filled the valley floor with rainwater and Sierra snowmelt, the deer resided in the foothills. By late June when the floodwaters receded leaving behind lush grasslands and riparian woodlands, the deer returned to the valley floor. Rapid human settlement and development of the San Joaquin Valley in the last century created problems for the deer; obstacles to their seasonal migration, such as the major north-south thoroughfare known as Interstate-5, the California Aqueduct which transports water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Southern California, and the San Luis Drain – a large concrete-lined canal designed to channel agricultural drain water from the fields to the San Joaquin River.

These obstacles make it difficult for deer to move about within their habitat. When deer try to cross the Interstate, they do not stand a chance against vehicles barreling towards them at speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour. Deer have no problem with swimming, so one might think the aqueduct and San Luis Drain would not be a problem – not so, however. The deer jump in thinking it is like any creek or slough, just a short swim across, but then find out the sides – being concrete – are steep and covered with moss or algae. It is no easy feat getting out. It does not take long for a deer to become exhausted trying to gain traction on the steep slippery sides, and using a great deal of energy as its body tries to fight off hypothermia from being submerged in water for a long time. With knees and hooves bloodied from trying to climb up the concrete sides, without help, the exhausted animals drown.

Numerous times each year, it is all-hands-on-deck as field staff, refuge managers, biologists, fire crew, even wildlife officers drop what they’re doing to the heed the call, “there’s a deer in the drain!” With blindfolds, hobbles, blankets, kayaks, and catch poles, all available staff make a beeline for the deer in the drink. The process usually involves someone getting into the canal in a kayak or canoe with a catch pole (think, “dog-catchers’ pole). The deer is chased down until the loop can be dropped around its neck. Then the pole is tossed up to someone on the bank and everyone works to lift the animal up and out of the canal. Once on dry ground, the deer is blindfolded – which immediately calms the animal, and hobbled so as not to injure itself or its rescuers with flailing legs and sharp hooves. Then the deer is laid into the back of a pickup truck and relocated far from the obstacle where the only water courses to ford are the natural ones.

Without complications, it is a two-hour process to get a deer out of the drain and transported to safety. However, if for example, the water is shallow or there is only mud in the bottom, the animal can run! Not only is it challenging to catch a running deer, but running through the mud or shallow water is exhausting. Sometimes the rescuers are faced with a deer that has only just jumped into the drain. It is fresh and strong and wants nothing more than to stay away from humans. A deer like that can lead its would-be rescuers on a long chase. At the other end of the spectrum is the deer who has been in the water for a long time and is near exhaustion. They can be difficult to latch onto and wrestle out of the drain before succumbing to fatigue and drowning.

Managing habitat to ensure the survival of wildlife is challenging on good days. Working to ensure the survival of wildlife in a region surrounded by more than four million people and all their infrastructure adds further complications and challenges.

Madeline Yancey is a visitor services park ranger at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Los Banos, California.


Contact Info: Jack Sparks, 209-826-3508, jack_sparks@fws.gov
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