Fewer openings, fewer deer in Cascade units

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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Look at a map of the Southwest Washington game units and straddling the Cascade Mountains are Siouxon, Lewis River and Packwood — hundreds of square miles of public land.

Then look at the bottom of the state statistics for deer harvest and there are those same units — with single-digit success rates about half or less the regional average.

Hunting season

WHEN: Most of Western Washington is open Oct. 15-31 and Nov. 17-20. Grayback and East Klickitat are open Oct. 15-28.

COST: A state resident deer license is $45.90. For youth age 15 and younger, the cost is $19.80

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Blacktail deer harvest

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Hunters know deer are more dense in the Klickitat units, or the low-elevation areas closer to Interstate 5, than in the units high in the southern Cascades of Washington.

“Habitat is really what controls the deer population,’’ said Eric Holman, a wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Those 20- and 30-year-old clearcuts (in the Cascade units) are not good habitat for deer. Those have dense canopies that don’t allow light to get to the forest floor and grow much in the way of preferred food for deer.’’

To understand the relative scarcity of deer in places like Siouxon, Lewis River and Packwood, it’s necessary to know the land management history of the area.

Deer benefit from large disturbances to the land — like insect infestations, tree disease outbreaks, wind storms, volcanic eruptions and fires.

Fires are especially good.

“When a forest comes on after a natural disturbance you might have 25 to 30 years where a lot of deciduous tree species and shrub species and things that are better deer food come on.’’ Holman said. “It’ll be good habitat for quite a long time.’’

Native Americans knew fire helped the land produce many of their favorite foods.

“We forget the native people who lived here used that tool as a regular means of managing the landscape,’’ he said. “We often think of them as living right by the river, eating a whole lot of salmon. But they burned these prairies around here to make camas grow. They burned in the higher elevations to make the berries grow. It’s certain they knew that fire is a good thing to be doing for the deer and elk they liked to eat.’’

Southwest Washington had the huge Yacolt Burn in 1902, another big fire in 1929, and smaller ones into the 1950s.

“A lot of those places grew back into very good habitat for deer,’’ he said. “Fire tends to burn in a mosiac, in an irregular pattern, and make more edge. Deer like the security of a forested edge...A fire is a messy event and that’s better. It makes more variety.’’

Fires into the 1950s helped make good deer habitat into the 1970s and 1980s.

Then, extensive clearcutting in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in the 1970s and 1980s made openings in the landscape that benefit deer and elk.

“A lot of that Gifford Pinchot stuff wasn’t in those fires, so they were logging older forests and making openings in Lewis River, Siouxon, Packwood, in the Cascades,’’ Holman said. “With those openings, sunlight hit the ground and made a lot of forage opportunities.’’

But logging is a small fraction of what it once was in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Timber sales in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest were 284 million board feet in 1980 and 640 million board feet in 1981, according to Chris Strebig of the U.S. Forest Service.

By contrast, timber sales dropped to a total of just 5.7 million board feet for the years 2000 through 2002 combined. The cut was 17.3 million board feet in 2009 and 16.5 million in 2010.

Clearcuts are a rarity in the national forest, Holman said.

“Those forested stands harvested in the 1980s are now largely at an age (20-30 years) where forage production is minimal,’’ he said.

The deer population — before hunting season — in Southwest Washington is estimated at about 70,000 animals. Hunter numbers have dropped from about 40,000 a year in 1996 to 30,000 now. The annual deer harvest was about 7,000 then and about 5,000 now.

“The deer population is not evenly distributed,’’ he said. “The population in lower elevation portions remains relatively robust, while those in the Cascade Mountain units remain suppressed.’’

Much private, industrial forest land exists in the lower elevations of the region.

“We have strong populations of deer and elk on the industrial forest land,’’ Holman said.

Some private forest holdings are called tree farms, and the name is correct, he said.

“It’s appropriate to think of it very much like an agricultural crop rather than a forest like the Forest Service would be taking care of,’’ Holman said.

The management cycle on those private forests goes like this: They are logged, then herbides sprayed the next year to discourage the start of competing vegetation. They are then soon stocked with dense plantations of seedlings and sprayed with herbicides again a year or two later.

From about ages 4 to 12, those lands are good deer habitat.

“Then those canopies close and they are basically closed for the next 30 years until the timber is cut again.

Deer harvest is relatively stable in Southwest Washington, with 15 percent to 20 percent of hunters filling a tag annually.

Holman does not look for 2011 to be a bonanza year.

“This season should offer no better than average deer-hunting opportunity since the previous winter and spring were unusually cool and rainy with above average snowpack in the Cascades,’’ he said.

The March survey at the Klickitat Wildlife Area found 45 fawns per 100 adults, slightly below the number seen during the 32 years of the tally.

The survey tends to predict the general trend of harvest in the Klickitat units.

There’s one bit of advice Holman gives every year: Hunt in the four-day late season in November. About one-third of the buck harvest occurs in that short late season.