Central Washington fire burns mule deer winter range

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Considering its horrific impact on human lives and homes across Kittitas County, it may be a while before anybody gets around to considering how the Taylor Bridge Fire affects the area’s wildlife.

But it certainly will.

Much of the acreage is winter range to hundreds of mule deer. The county’s deer population was  already down some because of a parasitic infestation, but even last winter the now-burned area –  high-quality winter habitat with excellent forage — held between 1,000 and 1,100 deer.

“A lot of the area that is not farmland is sagebrush and shrub steppe habitat, and is deer winter range,” said Anthony Novack, a Kittitas County-based deer and elk conflict specialist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The mule deer come down out of the mountains to the north in the winter, say, January and February, and stay in part of that area for the whole winter.

“If this fire is really hot, it may have burned up all that forage that’s available, making it really hard for those deer to survive, especially if it’s a hard winter this coming year. They’re going to show up in their traditional winter range and the food’s not going to be there. What happens after that, they could end up being a problem for me — getting into people’s private property, ag lands — or they could starve to death.”

Depending on the ground-level intensity of the fire, the latter is a real possibility considering the habitual nature of mule deer, said WDFW wildlife biologist Will Moore.

Moore has done extensive research on the migration patterns of mule deer in the Wenatchee area following the castastrophic 1994 wildfires that blackened more than 180,000 acres between Leavenworth and Chelan.

“There were really great winter ranges prior to the burns up there, and those mule deer would come right back to the same spots,” Moore said. “The veg(etation) that had supported them for a long time was gone, but they’d just come back and sit right there. There wasn’t a good vegetation response (to the fires) up there; the ’94 fire burned really hot and a lot of the veg there had no seed source and was just not coming back.

“And (the mule deer) would come back to the same spot year after year.”

The fire’s impact on elk would be minimal because the current burn area, Novack said, “is an area where we don’t have — or want — elk anyway. There’s usually a group of 100 to 200 that show up in that area and cause problems for us. They’ll show up (foraging)  in people’s haystacks.”

Moore said the once-stagnant mule deer population in the burn area had “started to bounce back up” over the last couple of years.