by Merritt Clifton
CATHLAMET, Washington––Traversing the Steamboat Slough dike at the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge with headlights and a jacklight on the night of January 29, 2015, the ANIMALS 24-7 team spotted a large Roosevelt elk herd, but not so much as a glimmering pair of eyes in the distance to indicate the presence of the Columbian whitetailed deer for whom refuge was created.
About 50 Columbian whitetailed deer persist on the Tennasillahe Island portion of the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Those deer probably would not have been visible to us––but we should have seen at least a few of the 50 deer said to live on the refuge along the north bank of the Columbia River, if they really were there and as abundant as the official estimates.
Lewis & Clark
Described by Meriwether Lewis in 1806, during his 1805-1806 cross-continental trek with William Clark, Columbian whitetailed deer are a relict of the last Ice Ages, somehow marooned on the west side of the glaciers that covered most of North America from the Pacific coastal mountains to the Rockies, while all other whitetailed deer species and subspecies were pushed to the east.
Blacktailed mule deer and elk dominated the Pacific Northwest ungulate habitat, then as now, but Columbian whitetailed deer found a niche on the islands of the lower Columbia River, from the vicinity of modern-day Yakima to their last bastions near the river’s mouth, and in the Willamette and Umpqua River basins of Oregon.
Peter Puget, who mapped the lower Columbia River in 1792, did not mention Columbian whitetailed deer, but Lewis reported that they were common below the major Native American trading location at the present day site of The Dalles.
Within 140 years, however, hunting, logging, damming, and agricultural development had reduced the numbers of Columbian whitetailed deer and damaged their habitat so severely that some authorities believed they were extinct.
Among 1st endangered species
Both the Columbia River and Umpqua River populations of Columbian whitetailed deer were on the first U.S. endangered species list, published in 1967, and in 1978 were among the first species to be protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1974.
The Umpqua River population gradually recovered from a few hundred to more than 6,000, were removed from endangered species status, and have been hunted since 2005.
Julia Butler Hansen
The Columbia River population, however, concentrated on the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge, remains as endangered today as it was more than 80 years ago, when Julia Butler Hansen herself first championed their survival. The refuge exists through her work as a member of the Washington state legislature, 1939-1960, and of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1961-1974.
Never before my January 29, 2015 visit had I failed to find even one deer while exploring the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge, but I was not surprised to see none. Indeed, I had anticipated eventually seeing none since my first visit eighteen years earlier.
To fairly and accurately designate any one U.S. National Wildlife Refuge the most mismanaged in the entire 560-odd-refuge system would require visiting and reviewing the history of each and every refuge. I cannot claim to have ever done this, and am not sure if anyone else has––even Russell D. Butcher, whose 2003 volume America’s National Wildlife Refuges: a complete guide is perhaps still the most detailed listing of the refuges in print.
But if anyone did find the time and budget to identify the most mismanaged National Wildlife Refuge, surely the Julia Butler Hansen refuge would be among the contenders for the dubious honor.
Neither is this exclusively my opinion. In December 2013, reported Andre Stepankowsky of the Longview Daily News, the Wahkiakum, Washington county commissioners opposed a plan to move up to 55 Columbia whitetailed deer from the Robert W. Little Preserve on Puget Island, adjacent to the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge, to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge and other refuges nearby.
“This opposition,” the commissioners wrote to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “is due to the county’s opinion of historical gross mismanagement of the white-tailed deer population at the Julia Butler Hansen Wildlife Refuge.”
100 deer drowned due to fence
Summarized Stepankowski of the Wahkiakum County commissioners’ arguments, “Since the Fish & Wildlife Service established the 6,200-acre Cathlamet-area refuge in 1971, the number of deer has dropped from 250 to fewer than 60, with 100 drowning during a flood because fencing erected around the refuge blocked their escape to high ground. More deer were killed by improper administration of inoculations.”
Then, earlier in 2013, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service relocated about half the remaining Columbia whitetailed deer population from the Julia Butler Hansen refuge mainland to the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge and Cottonwood Island. Eleven of the 49 relocated deer died.
“The move was a hedge,” Stepankowski explained, “against the possibility that the eroding Steamboat Slough dike could fail and flood the refuge, killing more deer. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has since begun construction of a backup dike,” originally to have been completed in 2014, at cost estimated at $2.7 to $4.5 million, but still unfinished.
The Wahkiakum County commissioners “concluded that deer thrived while local farmers managed the land that now is encompassed in the refuge,” Stepankowski wrote.
“We believe the history of the (federal) program … is sufficient not to allow this relocation of a healthy population of deer from Puget Island,” said the Wahkiakum County commissioners.
Thirty-six deer were moved anyway. “The 90-year-old dike keeps the Columbia River from inundating the refuge,” explained Dean Baker for the Portland Oregonian. “The likely breaching of the dike became apparent in late 2011 when pieces drifted away, leaving a 60-foot stretch of the churning Columbia River gnawing away at the rock base of the dike beneath the surface.”
As well as jeopardizing the remaining Columbian whitetailed deer at the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge, “A flood––if it happens––would also wash through $28 million worth of buildings, roads, trails, boat launches, camp sites and tourist facilities on the refuge,” Baker continued.
My perspective in all likelihood differs considerably from that of the Wahkiakum County commissioners.
To begin with, I favor relocating Columbia whitetailed deer from the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge and Robert W. Little Preserve to other protected habitat, whenever this can be done humanely, because even if the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge was a model of wildlife management, which it is not, the habitat is insufficient to ensure the survival of a fragile endangered species.
The Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge and the Robert W. Little Preserve together were never more than a small fleet of lifeboats for the Columbian whitetailed deer, with––as the past 44 years have demonstrated––a maximum sustainable carrying capacity of about 150 deer. The population has repeatedly been boosted to two and three times as many, only to crash, for a variety of predictable reasons always amounting to inadequate forage and cover to support 300, 400, or more.
Despite the repeated failures, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service continues to project that the habitat can support stable populations of more deer than it ever actually has.
For example, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service explained of the losses during the deer movements to Ridgefield and Cottonwood Island, “Because a single translocation effort normally results in a small population, multiple translocations are typically necessary to bring those numbers up to the sustainable level that the habitat can support. For example, Tenasillahe Island, which maintained about 40 deer in the early 1980s, required three translocation efforts to bring the subpopulation to a new sustainable level of between 80 and 120 animals.”
In view that Tenasillahe Island has rarely supported between 80 and 120 deer for long, the “new sustainable level” appears to be defined as “sustainable” only through extreme exercise of optimism.
Finally, I must emphasize the word “humanely,” because the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service procedures of netting, tranquilizing, radio collaring, and helicoptering the deer out of the wetlands in slings hardly meets any reasonable description of non-invasive gentle handling.
Even if the other aspects of the relocation procedure might be necessary, the radio collaring is not, and excessive use of radio collaring might in itself be a big part of the reason why the Columbia whitetailed deer population remains far from recovery after 44 years of alleged recovery efforts.
The Wahkiakum County commissioners also appear to favor the return of the entire refuge and preserve area to cattle grazing and fodder cultivation, the major uses of the mainland and diked habitat in the several decades before the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge was created through a controversial series of forced sales and expropriations.
But, the ownership issue aside, cattle have since the creation of the refuge grazed there free of charge, and hay and silage have been taken from the refuge as well. Whatever agricultural value the refuge land ever had, it still has.
Originally called the National Refuge for Columbia Whitetailed Deer, the refuge was renamed for Julia Butler Hansen soon after her death.
Hansen won passage of the legislation that authorized funding the refuge, promising her constituents that the chance to view and perhaps eventually hunt Columbia whitetailed deer might become a job-creating tourist attraction.
But neither the deer nor Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge have ever been actively promoted to potential visitors. The deer have at times been easily seen, especially at night, but the refuge is not prominently indicated by signage, has no interpretive center, and is not easily found on maps.
Hunting & fishing
The Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge is not even the major economic engine for the nearby town of Cathlamet, human population circa 550, nor for Puget Island, with a scattered human population of about 800.
That distinction has since 1925 belonged to the ferry connecting Cathlamet with Westport, Oregon. The link has since 1938 been completed by the bridge now also named after Julia Butler Hansen.
The refuge is mostly used for local access to fishing and waterfowl hunting along the Columbia River.
Explains the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge web site, “The habitat is also important for waterfowl, especially wintering populations of wigeon, mallard, pintail and Canada goose. Waterfowl hunting is permitted along the shoreline on the refuge portion of Hunting Island and Wallace Island in accordance with Washington and Oregon regulations. Temporary blinds may be constructed, but they must be available to everyone on a first-come, first-serve basis.”
The Clifton Channel
I first visited the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge in March 1997 to attend a hearing on a proposal to kill coyotes to protect Columbia white-tailed deer fawns. My arrival caused a bit of a stir among the attendees, mostly local U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service personnel and neighbors of the refuge, but not, I soon learned, because I was there to report on the situation for the international animal advocacy community.
Rather, I was a Clifton. The Clifton Channel flows between the Tennasillahe Island portion of the refuge and the ghost town of Clifton, Oregon, founded by Oregon Trail immigrant Henry Harrison Hunt in 1845 as site of a sawmill. Brothers James W. and Vincent Cook bought the site and built a salmon cannery there in 1873, which operated until 1906. The Clifton post office opened in January 1874; it closed in 1966. The tiny community was by 1898 served by a narrow gauge railroad, two saloons, a dance hall, and two stores, one of which closed in 1950 while the other struggled on until 1960. Accessible only by boat or the railway until 1937, Clifton was not connected to electricity until 1958.
Cathlamet gained a trading post founded by former Hudson’s Bay Company employee James Birnie in 1846. But Cathlamet was not incorporated until 1907.
Mysterious & mythical
The Cliftons for whom the channel and the community were named, I learned, were believed to have last been seen decades earlier, at about the same time I had ancestors living upstream in Yakima. The Cliftons of the lower Columbia River region were apparently scarcer and more mysterious than the endangered Columbian whitetailed deer––and, unfortunately, I was not able to satisfy any of the locals’ historical curiosity.
In truth, those Cliftons might never have existed.
“J.H. Middleton, who was living near Waldport in 1927 and who went to Clifton in the fall of 1873, told the compiler that Clifton was the name of the farm of Stephen G. Spear and that he was of the opinion that Spear named the place Clifton before the property came into the possession of V. and J.W. Cook. Members of the Cook family are also of the belief that Spear named the place before the Cooks became established there,” L.A. and L.L. MacArthur reported in Oregon Geographic Names (Oregon Historical Press, 2003.)
After talking history, we talked deer. Removing the Columbian whitetailed deer from the U.S. endangered species list will require establishing three “viable and secure” subpopulations, defined as areas supporting 50 or more deer and “not under threat of development or radical change in the foreseeable future.”
To achieve the recovery target, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service hoped to boost the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge deer population to 400 individuals, a density of 50-plus per square mile. Wildlife managers usually recognize five to 10 deer per square mile of good habitat as optimal, 20 as problematic, and 35 as dangerously high.
The initial Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge deer count showed 214 individuals. Over the next ten years the population grew only to 235.
Blaming Roosevelt elk
Concluding that the deer were not getting enough to eat to bear twins, as deer normally do, the refuge management invited hunters to shoot most of the resident Roosevelt elk population––about 350 in all.
Responding to public outrage over the elk massacre, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologists produced two studies purporting that Columbia whitetailed deer cannot eat mature grass, and would starve if cattle did not keep the grass short.
After the elk were killed, the Columbian whitetailed deer herd rose to 500 in just two years. As the elk recovered, however, the deer population declined, then crashed when spring 1996 flooding killed all but an estimated 60 members of the Washington mainland herd.
The refuge management then took a chapter from cattle ranch management and blamed coyotes for the failure of the deer to rebound.
Specifically, coyote predation on killing and newborn fawns purportedly kept the Columbian whitetailed deer from even remotely approaching the numbers that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service wanted.
Inspecting the refuge with other hearing attendees, including renowned wolf biologist Paul Joslin, I could see within five minutes that the biggest factor in the coyote predation on fawns was that much of the refuge had been left balder than the local bald eagles by grazing cattle.
The cattle on the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge outnumbered the deer by as much as 10-1, consumed enough forage to be on average seven to eight times heavier, and between grazing and trampling, did not allow much foliage to rise to the preferred height for deer, who are preferentially browsers rather than grazers.
Intensive grazing left only edge cover for the newborn fawns––and then, before the fawns could even walk, biologists tromped into what little cover they had, trampling down the high grass to put radio collars on the fawns. That created little highways for the coyotes to use to go straight to the fawns and pick them off.
Of 14 fawns who were radio-collared by refuge biologists in spring 1996, ten were allegedly killed by coyotes. None survived the summer.
FoA & PDI lawsuit
A lawsuit filed by Friends of Animals and the Predator Defense Institute brought a November 1997 out-of-court settlement under which the Fish & Wildlife Service agreed to suspend killing coyotes until spring 1998, while writing a supplemental environmental impact assessment that would analyze nonlethal alternatives for controlling coyotes.
Meanwhile, the refuge management credited killing nine coyotes for increasing fawn survival. Of 17 fawns who were radio-collared in 1997, only three were killed by coyotes. Thirteen survived the summer.
In both 1996 and 1997, however, the ratio of fawns born to adult does appeared to have been less than a third of the whitetailed deer norm.
In addition, the 1996 birthing season followed heavy flooding at the refuge, which stressed the already weakened deer herd and tore away much of their cover. There was no such flood damage in 1997.
The major longterm effect of the Friends of Animals and Predator Defense Fund lawsuit appears to have been escalated efforts by the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge management to defend continued heavy cattle grazing.
Defense of grazing
Alleges the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Service web site, “Partnerships with local ranchers and their cows help to control non-native reed canary grass by keeping the fast growing plant at a manageable height. These hungry cows are providing an alternative to the wide-spread use of herbicides, and thousands of staff hours and gallons of fuel used when mowing. Every five years, each field is plowed and reseeded with lower-growing native grass species that compromise 50% of the Columbian white-tailed deer’s diet. The benefits of native plants reach beyond deer and create an environment preferred by wintering waterfowl, and hawks.”
That might sound convincing––if one happened to be unaware that the Columbian whitetailed deer had survived in the region for more than 10,000 years before the first cow arrived.
Defense of leghold trapping
Meanwhile, a more persuasive reason why the nine coyotes were killed in 1997 emerged from a 28-page memo issued to “All Refuge Managers” on January 28, 1997 by Stan Thompson, acting U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Division of Refuges chief, leaked to media two months later.
The Thompson memo made clear, in thinly veiled language, that refuge managers were to back fur trade opposition to a twice-delayed proposed European Community ban on the import of pelts from animals possibly caught by leghold trapping.
Attachments including a four-page memo from Jim Beers, then heading the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Division of Federal Aid, outlined a strategy of emphasizing the use of leghold traps in association with endangered species recovery.
“The way in which this issue proceeds is probably more than a little indicative of the future of hunting, fishing, and fish and wildlife management,” Beers warned.
The use of leghold traps to kill the alleged coyote threat to Columbian whitetailed deer helped the U.S. government to kill the proposed European Community trapped fur import ban on December 1, 1997.
The Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge population of Columbian whitetailed deer are barely any closer to recovery and removal from the U.S. endangered species list now than they were then. But the proposed European Community trapped fur import ban has not been revived.