Mild winter helps Kodiak Island deer population rebound

Posted: Wednesday, June 14, 2000

KODIAK (AP) -- Results of deer winter mortality studies conducted this spring bode well for the success of hunters on Kodiak Island this season.

There was a substantial deer die-off last year, Kodiak Wildlife Refuge subsistence wildlife biologist Robert Stovall said. Fewer animals died this year, he said.

''The number of good-size bucks should increase (and hunting is expected to be) definitely better than last year,'' said Larry VanDaele, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game.

The deer are in excellent condition, VanDaele said, ''180 degrees from last year.'' But while the deer population is recovering, it won't be as high as it was a few years ago, he predicted.

Chief Cove on the Spiridon Peninsula is one of the sites state and federal biologists survey for blacktail deer that did not survive the winter.

''Last year we found over 80 carcasses; this year we found only five,'' Stovall said. ''(This is) representative of what we found all over the island.''

Deer winter mortality surveys provide an indication of how the population fared under the pressures of their greatest threat.

''Winters are the main thing that kill deer off. (They are) the limiting factor on deer around here,'' VanDaele said. Hunters kill a lot of deer but harsh winter weather usually kills more.

The Kodiak blacktail deer's only potential natural predator isn't much of a factor in limiting population. ''Here in Kodiak we've got bears but our bears are pretty lazy. They usually don't go after deer,'' VanDaele said.

Sitka blacktail deer were introduced to Kodiak Island in the 1920s, VanDaele said. They never were naturally suited to survive a harsh Kodiak winter, he said

The winter of 1998-1999 was harsh for the Kodiak deer population, and it may have cut their numbers in half, biologists said. There were heavy snows, but more importantly, ''spring was delayed at least a month,'' VanDaele said. The deer were ''hanging on for spring, but spring never came.''

Deer feed mostly on bark, kelp, and evergreens found under the snowpack in winter. In severe weather, the animals are forced to concentrate in certain overwintering sites with an accessible supply of food, water and shelter. Deer don't require much food during the winter, but they are dependent on a lush spring, VanDaele said.

''This was a good year,'' said VanDaele. ''Down low it wasn't that harsh. In January and February (the deer) were able to move a little bit higher up the ridges (and expand their ranges).''

This spring has provided lush foliage and ''when grass grows that fast it's full of nutrients,'' VanDaele said.

''Last year they looked like they had 'starving horse syndrome' with their ribs showing, but this year they look healthy,'' Fish and Game biology technician John Crye said. ''The deer look really good, but after the harsh winter of '98 to '99, it's going to take a few years for the population to rebound.''

Determining the number of deer on Kodiak can be problematic.

''Everyone thinks there's some magic number we can come up with, but there isn't,'' Crye said. The best population estimate is provided by questionnaires filled out by hunters, he said.

The number of bucks taken last season dropped from the five-year average of 6,771 to 2,742 in 1999-2000, and the number of does dropped from 1,831 to 923.

The total harvest dropped from the five-year average of 8,602 to 3,665 last season.

Fewer hunters were in the field (3,166 down from the five-year average of 4,360), but hunter success also dropped, from 78.3 percent to 57.3 percent.

Those numbers indicate the deer population is down, VanDaele said.

The best hunting last year was found on the south end of the island on the Aliulik Peninsula, and the worst was on the south side of Ugak Bay, said VanDaele.

''The bottom line is there's still lots of deer around to be hunted, and this winter didn't make it any different,'' Stovall said.

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