Why does Lewis County produces big blacktails?

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

Published:

 

The Boone and Crockett Club has released a list of the top 125 counties in America for trophy big-game animals taken by hunters.

The list is based on Boone and Crockett's records, the universally accepted standard for North American wildlife trophies. All this is part of B&C's commemoration of its 125th anniversary.

Washington has six counties in the top 125 and Oregon has eight counties.

The Washington counties are: No. 42, Lewis County, 48 typical Columbia blacktail deer; No. 81, Pierce County, 34 typical blacktail; No. 87, Pend Oreille County, 32 Shiras' moose; No. 107, Clallam County, 29 Roosevelt elk; No. 123 Chelan County, 15 Rocky Mountain goats, and No. 124 Okanogan County, 15 Rocky Mountain goats.

Boone and Crockett has explicit criteria for determining trophy antlers and the measurements are done by official scorers.

Every six years, the club publishes "Records of North American Big Game,'' containing all trophy listings that meet the all-time qualifying score.

That score is 135 points for a typical blacktail deer.

Lewis County has 48 qualifiers, including 10 of the top 186. Skamania County has 18 qualifying blacktails. Cowlitz County has 16 and Clark County has six.

All this begs the question: Why does Lewis County have more qualifiers than Clark, Cowlitz and Skamania combined?

Ray Croswell of Washougal, a serious deer hunter, Boone and Crockett Club member, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation consultant and former lands agent for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, has a pair of theories regarding Lewis County and big blacktails.

First: The county has good deer habitat.

"Lewis County is a blend of private lowlands with excellent habitat and some high semi-alpine ridges with good summer range,'' Croswell said.

Second: The county is home to the Lewis County Game Farm, where the state rears pheasants in pens for release at hunting sites.

"In the 1930s to the late 1960s, the game farm took in fawns that folks had picked up and the Department of Game took away,'' he said. "Some of these were mule deer fawns.''

The young fawns were bottle fed and allowed to mature before being returned to the wild. Croswell has copies of 1936 to 1939 biennial reports from the Department of Game showing ophaned fawns, bear cubs and raccoons being fed and cared for at the game farm.

"I doubt they hauled a mule deer back to the east side to kick it out,'' he said.

Mule deer are larger than blacktails. Adding mule deer genes could result in larger blacktails, he added.

"I think there is plenty of speculation as to why Lewis County cranks out large blacktail bucks including the blacktail-mule deer hybrid theory in eastern Lewis County,'' said Dave Ware, game management chief for the Department of Fish and Wildlife in Olympia. "But I really don't know.''

State wildlife biologist Eric Holman, who works in the Southwest Washington counties, said it is an interesting question.

"It doesn’t seem to me that Lewis would have any particular advantage over Skamania as far as the mixing of mule deer and blacktails,'' Holman said.  "I suppose that Lewis is quite a bit bigger than Skamania.  It could just be a local effect of big healthy deer in Lewis.''

Allen Thomas covers hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor recreation topics for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4555 or by email at al.thomas@columbian.com. He can be followed on Twitter at @col_outdoors.