Columbian White-tailed Deer Recovery

Columbian white-tailed deer are occassionally translocated to enhance population range and recovery/USFWS

The ultimate goal with species recovery is to improve the environmental conditions and population to the point that they can be removed from the Endangered Species List.

In 1967, Columbian White-tailed deer (CWTD) were one of the first species protected along with the California condor, bald eagle, grizzly bear, and Florida panther in an effort to stop continued decline and looming extinction.  They were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, the predecessor to the Endangered Species Act.  See a timeline of the history of the Endangered Species Act by clicking here.

Following over 45 years of species management through habitat restoration and translocation efforts, in 2013 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service published the Columbian White-tailed Deer Five Year Review (892 KB PDF) which recommended downlisting CWTD from endangered to threatened status.  

In October of 2016 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially announced the reclassification of the Columbia River distinct population segment (DPS) of CWTD to threatened status.

Downlisting criteria requires greater than 400 deer in the population with at least three viable (50 individuals or more) subpopulations, two of which must occur on secure habitat (free from adverse human activities in the foreseeable future and relatively safe from natural phenomena that would destroy its value to CWTD).  

Through several decades of intensive management and translocations, deer distribution has expanded three times and deer numbers have doubled (now over 1,000 deer), meeting the standards for downlisting.  The reclassification to threatened status allows the states and tribes as well as federal organizations more flexibility in the management and movement of these deer. More flexibility can lead to greater productivity and population sizes and greater distribution within the historical range that will eventually lead to the species being delisted. 

As of October 2016, five of the distinct subpopulations occur on secure habitat:  JBH Refuge Mainland, JBH Refuge Tenasillahe Island, Upper Estuary Islands (which includes JBH Refuge Crims Island), Ridgefield NWR, and Puget Island.

Two of the distinct subpopulations, JBH Refuge Tenasillahe Island and Puget Island, meet the definition of being viable and secure.

The subpopulation at JBH Refuge Mainland is secure and well on its way to being viable once again.  Additional monitoring is required to determine the viable status of this population following translocations of some of the deer to Ridgefield NWR.  The subpopulation at Ridgefield NWR is on secure habitat and is also making strides toward viable status.  Additional monitoring of this subpopulation will help determine its viability by ensuring the subpopulation is self sustainable. 

Further successes in habitat restoration and enhancement will ensure continuing stability and security for Columbian white-tailed deer.  

Find out more about this species road to recovery...


Columbian White-tailed Deer – Achieving a Secure and Sustainable Population 

In 1967, the Columbian white-tailed deer (CWTD) was listed as an endangered species. At that time, their range had shrunk from about 13 million acres to around 350,000 acres, approximately 20,000 acres of which were in the Cathlamet/Westport area.  Once ranging over a large part of western Washington and Oregon, the population was reduced to two Distinct Population Segments (DPS). The Douglas County DPS in southern Oregon was de-listed in 2003, and the local Columbia River DPS has extended its range along the Columbia River Valley to the Ridgefield, WA and Sauvie Island, OR area.  This range expansion and increase in population size to over 1,000 individuals lead to this DPS of CWTD being reclassified as a threatened species in October of 2016.  

The recovery of this species is dependent on achieving a secure and sustainable population over a geographical range.  This protects the deer from localized natural phenomena and land-use changes that can affect their habitat or health.  

To measure recovery, the population must be known.  Counting wildlife is difficult, but a combination of traditional techniques and new technology using forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras can make the job easier.

Road surveys of subpopulations are conducted in November of each year and help determine the index of fawn survival and sex ratios of the population.  

FLIR cameras detect heat.  By flying at low-elevation in a slow-moving helicopter, small hotspots can be recorded.  The cameras are sensitive enough to distinguish shapes and sizes, and deer can be distinguished from sheep, cows, and elk.  Deer-sized dogs, random hotspots, and thick cover can affect accuracy, but these mistakes can be corrected.  Deer surveys normally occur during the first 3 weeks of February.

Find out more about CWTD population estimates, trends and goals....

Deer by the Numbers 

The Columbian White-tailed Deer Recovery Plan, prepared by the USFWS in 1983, recommended that greater than 400 CWTD be maintained in three viable subpopulations occupying secure habitat. 

Today there are just over 1,000 deer in the Columbia River population.  Refuge lands, which include Julia Butler Hansen Refuge subpopulations on the Mainland Unit, Tenasillahe Island, and Crims Island, plus Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, account for approximately 20% of occupied habitat and support 40% of the population.  

A Helping Hand 

Intensive management actions to directly benefit CWTD (including translocation and predator control) have been necessary to ensure herd health and genetic integrity necessary for a long-term sustainable population on the refuge. Active management of the habitat (mowing, grazing, haying, pasture rehabilitation, plus riparian forest restoration) is performed on both the Mainland and Tenasillahe Island units to support CWTD subpopulations greater than 125 deer. Learn more about habitat conservation efforts…

Keep reading to learn more about the science of CWTD recovery...

The Science Behind Recovery Actions 

In establishing CWTD population objectives for Julia Butler Hansen Refuge, the following factors were considered: Recovery Plan goals, the health of the herd, the quality of refuge habitats, and opportunities for public viewing on refuge lands. The identified objective levels represent the best balance between a relatively large, healthy deer population (to help achieve recovery goals) and a thriving natural vegetative habitat (to sustain deer and other native wildlife). In 2013, the Five Year Review was released by the USFWS reviewing the current status of CWTD in the Lower Columbia River Region.  In 2016 the Final Rule reclassifying Lower Columbia CWTD as threatened was published.

Deer Density

The goal of the Refuge is to manage deer at densities that maintain healthy and sustainable populations of CWTD.  This is represented by a density of approximately 35-40 deer per square mile on managed lands such as the Mainland Unit and Tenasillahe Island and approximately 25-30 deer per square mile on unmanaged units such as Crims, Wallace, Hunting, and Price Islands.  This equates to about 100-125 deer on JBH Mainland and Tenasillahe Island Units, and about 80 deer on other refuge units.  

The total population objective for the refuge (greater than 330 CWTD) would provide the best balance between managing for a healthy, sustainable herd over the long term based upon the CWTD Recovery Plan while providing refuge visitors with an opportunity to view this threatened species.

CWTD also occur on other public and private lands which supports the overall goal of maintaining greater than 400 deer in the total population.  

Find out more about CWTD population dynamics and recovery efforts...

The Ebb and Flow of Deer Population

Deer populations are naturally cyclic over time. Herd size can vary in response to climate, predation, and other factors. Population objectives provide a reference point for determining when population numbers are too low and other management actions (e.g., coyote removal) may be needed to protect the CWTD herd. The CWTD numbers may rise above population objectives, and in fact, it is expected that population levels would be above unit objectives much of the time. Under this scenario, surplus deer could be trapped for reintroduction elsewhere, if appropriate reintroduction sites are available. The population objectives are conservative estimates to ensure refuge habitats support a healthy, sustainable deer herd.

Beyond Refuge Borders

The lower Columbia River population of CWTD presently occupies only a small fraction of its historical habitat. Although some of the original habitat is no longer suitable because of urban, industrial, and agricultural development, there are still thousands of acres that could support reintroduced CWTD. Increasing the deer’s range and numbers above the minimum recovery objectives would lessen the risk of catastrophic losses, help ensure there will never be a need to put the deer back on the endangered species list, and restore and maintain a portion of the lower Columbia’s natural ecosystem.

Partners in Deer Conservation

Refuge staff work with partners such as the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), The Cowlitz Indian Tribe, Columbia Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, private corporations, and private landowners to establish new and experimental subpopulations of CWTD. Approximately half of the current population of CWTD resides on private lands. Continued efforts to protect habitat on these lands are vital to maintaining the health of the population. Potential reintroduction and/or experimental population sites need to include sufficient acreage and habitat to support greater than 50 deer. An example of a recent site is Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

Learn more about the translocation of CWTD…