OLYMPIA – State wildlife managers are working with Okanogan landowners to protect their crops from deer displaced by area wildfires and are assessing the fires’ damage to wildlife habitat.
In addition to burning hundreds of homes, the Carlton Complex fire has scorched tens of thousands of acres of habitat used by wildlife, including mule deer, wild turkeys and western gray squirrels. The fire, which is still burning in some areas, has damaged 25,000 acres within five wildlife area units managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
“A fire of this magnitude will have both short and long-term effects on wildlife populations and the landscape and that will have implications for hunting and grazing in the area,” said Jim Brown, WDFW regional director. “This is not a problem with easy answers.”
The burned area is home to a local mule deer population, which lives there year-round, and supports thousands of migratory deer during the winter. Some of the areas may still provide winter habitat depending on weather throughout this summer and fall.
Even if conditions are ideal, however, there will be too many deer for the area to support this winter and possibly for several years to come, said Scott Fitkin, WDFW district wildlife biologist in Okanogan County.
“We know we need to take steps to reduce the size of the herd,” Fitkin said. “That effort will focus initially on minimizing conflicts between deer and agricultural landowners.”
WDFW is working with local property owners to stop deer from moving into orchards, hay fields and pastures to seek food and cover. The department is helping landowners replace a limited number of fire-damaged fences and seek state and federal emergency funding.
“We expect more issues to arise as migratory deer return to the area this fall, but we are taking steps now to minimize those problems,” said Ellen Heilhecker, WDFW wildlife conflict specialist in Okanogan County.
WDFW likely will increase the number of antlerless deer permits issued this fall and winter, reaching out first to youth and senior hunters and hunters with disabilities. The department will directly contact hunters who already applied for deer permits in the area, so a new application process is unnecessary, Fitkin said.
The agency plans to draw deer and other wildlife away from agricultural lands with feed this summer and fall. WDFW is considering a feeding program for deer this winter.
“Winter feeding is not a long term solution,” Fitkin said. “At best, it’s a stop-gap measure until the deer population and habitat are back in balance.”
Sustained supplemental feeding is neither efficient nor beneficial to wildlife and often creates problems, he said. Feeding concentrates animals, making them more vulnerable to predators, poaching and disease, such as hair slip, which is already a concern for deer in the region. Having so many animals clustered in one area also causes damage to the land and can hinder restoration efforts.
In the winter, deer prefer to eat shrubs and bitterbrush, which WDFW plans to re-seed on department lands within the burned area. However, it will take many years for shrubs and bitterbrush to re-establish in the damaged area. Likewise, western gray squirrel habitat could take several years to recover. In some areas, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir tree stands sustained significant damage.
WDFW will work with other government agencies on restoration activities such as timber salvage and weed control. The agency also has located alternate wildlife units in Okanogan County with suitable forage for emergency livestock grazing. This grazing will be offered to department permit-holders first, then to others if enough land is available.
Like other public land managers, WDFW likely will close roads in some wildlife units due to hazardous trees, said Dale Swedberg, WDFW’s Okanogan lands operations manager. That could reduce access for hunting in the burned areas this fall.
“We’re developing contingency plans in anticipation of what happens during the remainder of the fire season, fall green-up and winter severity,” Swedberg said.
Hunters and others should check WDFW’s wildfire webpage at wdfw.wa.gov/wildfires for updates on conditions and access on WDFW lands. Information on wildlife and restoration efforts in the affected area also can be found on the webpage.