Surveying deer in the Columbia Basin: grit and parkas required

It’s a cold day in Ephrata, Washington — the kind of cold that brings tears to your eyes and freezes your nose hair. But that doesn’t stop WDFW wildlife biologist, Ella Rowan, from hitting the road to survey mule deer.

If you haven’t been to the North Central Region, picture an immense landscape consisting primarily of agriculture lands, with some shrubsteppe, forest, and riparian habitat. Riparian habitat is the interface between land and a river or creek — it’s an oasis for the region’s mule deer and is critical habitat for many species.

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On this day, fog blankets the rugged landscape of the Odessa area of the Columbia Basin. As a non-biologist, I thought we’d have trouble seeing the deer, but once I got a glimpse of those enormous ears, my eyes were trained to see them.

The Columbia Plateau herd spans all three eastern regions in an area known as the Columbia Basin. This area has the highest mule deer harvest rates in the state, and as this blogger can testify, they are everywhere. Every year, biologists survey subsections of the herd from the air, while surveying all areas from the ground annually.

Ella explains that the two data sets allow biologists to gain population estimates from the air, and fawn-doe and buck-doe ratios from the air and ground. We also collect data on buck antler points to assess escapement of legal bucks post-hunt season. The management goal for this herd is to maintain at least 15–19 bucks per 100 does and at least 60 fawns per 100 does.

As we drive around, Ella explains how to tell the difference between older fawns and does. Fawns have a shorter snout, while doe snouts are longer, and their bodies are bigger.

We’re looking for bucks, too, as we drive around Grant County. Once we locate deer, Ella pulls out an app on her phone to record them. We’re hoping to find at least 100 deer today (spoiler alert: we did).

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She explains how to record the number of does, fawns, bucks, and unclassified animals. With bucks, we also note if they are yearlings, large two-points, three-points, or quality three-points.

District biologists use this information to track herd composition, determine harvest escapement, fawn production and survival, and general herd condition. If numbers fall far below management goals, we may need to alter hunting seasons, re-evaluate how many permits we can issue, or take other steps to get the herd back to decent condition. Surveys help us keep an eye on the population.

Ella says this population is generally doing well and holding steady. However, things like wildfires, reduced habitat, drought, harsh winters, and over harvest from poaching can influence the population. It’s important to maintain healthy populations so the deer’s niche in the ecosystem and food web is properly maintained, with greater certainty around future opportunities for hunting.

With good data, biologists are also able to spot and address issues early, which can help prevent having to make even larger adjustments further on. Today, it often takes active management to ensure a species’ health.

Ella and I eventually counted more than 100 deer. The next time you get to enjoy forty deer in a field, keep in mind the WDFW biologists like Ella who take on cold toes, trail mix lunches, and bouncy gravel roads, to ensure that our state has sustainable populations of wildlife to enjoy.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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