Sometimes disaster prompts urgent action that leads to success.

Managers and biologists at Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge for the Columbian White-tailed Deer along the Columbia River in Washington state had been talking since the 1980s about translocating some deer to Ridgefield Refuge to increase the endangered species’ range and survival odds.

In 2013, an emergency forced them to do it. The result is success.

The Columbian white-tailed deer is a subspecies. Its Lower Columbia River distinct population segment is culturally significant to the Cowlitz tribe, was abundant in Lewis and Clark’s time, and was listed as endangered in 1967.

Julia Butler Hansen Refuge was established in 1972 to protect the deer. However, a recent levee failure along the Columbia threatened to put the refuge’s mainland under seven feet of water. “With tidal fluctuations, the entire refuge, all of its facilities and the Columbian white-tailed deer were at risk,” says project leader Jackie Ferrier. “That’s why we made the big, bold, scary step to translocate up to half of the population” to Ridgefield Refuge, 50 miles upriver.

Helped by 100 volunteers and the Service’s Cooperative Recovery Initiative, staff from both refuges moved 88 Columbian white-tailed deer to Ridgefield Refuge over three years. It was a labor-intensive, time-sensitive effort that involved amending the comprehensive conservation plan; writing environmental assessments; negotiating an animal damage management plan with Washington, Oregon and private landowners; trapping deer in small groups at Julia Butler Hansen Refuge (mostly in drop nets); and tranquilizing, examining, tagging and transporting them.

 In 2013, only 25 of 37 translocated deer survived the year, which was lower than normal survival. “That was, for me, quite troubling,” says Ridgefield Refuge project leader Chris Lapp. Coyotes, a resident species, were the primary cause of that mortality. So a predator control plan was implemented to remove some coyotes, and survival of both adults and newborn fawns improved. In 2014, 16 of 21 translocated deer survived; this year, 25 of 30 have survived. At least 20 fawns born at Ridgefield have survived since translocation began. Recently, forward-looking infrared (FLIR) videography estimated 85 Columbian white-tailed deer at or near Ridgefield Refuge.

Lapp, who was initially reluctant about the translocation project, credits refuge staffs, the Cowlitz tribe, Washington and Oregon Departments of Fish and Wildlife, private landowners and volunteers for the success: “The level of communication and collaboration to tweak and refine capture and transport methods to make this an extremely efficient project was impressive. I tip my hat to all of them. It’s been an amazing thing to be part of.”

Thanks to the translocations and a new setback levee, the species is making good progress. In addition to the new Ridgefield sub-population of 85 deer, there are three secure sub-populations at or near Julia Butler Hansen Refuge: about 100 deer on refuge mainland, 155 on the refuge’s Tenasillahe Island and 230 on private Puget Island. Beyond that, there are roughly 250 on unsecure private lands.

All of which gratifies Julia Butler Hansen Refuge biologist Paul Meyers.

“This is a huge step,” he says. “We’ve been trying to establish another sub-population on protected land for about 40 years, but the levee failure created a sense of urgency that pushed us over the hump.”

In the meantime, both refuges are enhancing deer habitat for the long term. Julia Butler Hansen Refuge is mowing, grazing and replanting forage to suppress invasive reed canary grass, which is unpalatable to the deer. Ridgefield Refuge, which is primarily wetlands and grasslands, has planted more than 30,000 trees (ash, alder, cottonwood, fruit) and shrubs (snowberry, red osier dogwood) in recent years to increase habitat for Columbian white-tailed deer.

“We want to make them happy here,” says Ridgefield Refuge biologist Alex Chmielewski. “We don’t want to give them any reason to leave.”