Black-tailed Deer on Protection Island

Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) fawn in tall grass - Protection Island, WA A herd of yellow curry-colored beasts inhabits Protection Island, Washington. Black-tailed deer. Also known as: the only traffic I had to contend with on my bicycle. These deer are the northwestern subspecies of the Mule deer. For some time, Black-tailed deer were their own species but with genetic analysis, it seems that the deer in British Columbia and Alaska (Sitka deer) and the deer in the northwestern US (Columbian black-tailed deer) are almost one in the same.

Growing up in Colorado, I have seen my fair share of Mule deer. They are brown-grey with very large bodies and heavy antlers. Columbian black-tailed deer are somewhat different. Aesthetically, they retain the heavy antlers and the large bodies but they differ greatly in colour.

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These deer are beautiful and as you can see, not easily disturbed. I'm not entirely sure how they came to live on the island in the first place. The most likely explanation is that they swam over from the mainland (quite a distance) at some point. Their population on the island varies from about 30-70 deer at any given time. I found carcasses fairly often as evidence of food limitations. In some ways, this helps keep the population from getting out of control.

There is a big problem with the deer presence on the island though. They are directly responsible for collapsing seabird burrows. When they walk along the steep hillsides that contain auklet and puffin burrows, their hooves fall through burrow roofs and crush nests, sometimes killing nestlings. The island's refuge status protects the seabirds so it's a catch 22 situation. Does one maintain the island's ecosystem as it is now and support both the deer and seabirds or does one eradicate some or all the deer to preserve precious nesting ground for seabirds?

The US Fish & Wildlife is part way through a study which consists of stationed cameras overlooking seabird colonies which are motion-triggered. Hopefully captured images will better inform officials on the level of damage the deer are actually responsible for.

In the mean time, I got to enjoy the fawning season.

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And how can you resist these bucks?

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Whether or not the deer belong on the island, I welcomed their company during my months there.

I hope you're enjoying the mammalian presence on this bird blog lately. If you want more fur to go with all the feathers, let me know!