But the Columbian white-tailed deer came off the U.S. endangered species list before the refuge even began to recover from 45 years of cattle grazing
CATHLAMET, Washington––Thanks to wetland restoration, the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge for the Columbian white-tailed deer now looks more like protected habitat than a feedlot.
Fifty years after Congress in 1971 appropriated funding to create the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge, there are finally more deer there than cows.
Not that there are many deer on the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge even now.
The resident Columbian white-tailed deer population, for whom the refuge was created, remains sparse.
From 214 deer to fewer than 100
The rare deer, geographically separated from all other white-tailed deer since the ice ages, were removed from the federal endangered species list in 2016.
The Columbian white-tailed deer had received 49 years of official protection, but during that time the actual refuge deer count declined from 214 to fewer than 100.
Occasional spikes upward to as many as 350 were inevitably followed by steep crashes, because the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge just could not support that many deer for long––certainly not in the presence of cattle outnumbering them by as many as ten to one.
From cow manure to skunk cabbage
Columbian white-tailed deer lost endangered species status, not because they ever really recovered from the brink of extinction at the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge, designated specifically to save them, but because small herds removed from the refuge at sporadic intervals reproduced well in quasi-captivity at other locations.
There are now more than 900 Columbian white-tailed deer altogether, but barely 10% of them live at the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge, the last place they were known to exist when first federally protected.
Two U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service web pages that once touted the purported benefits from allowing nearby farmers to pasture cattle on the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge for free are still indexed by Google, but the links are down.
The now boggy former fields are no longer clipped short by hay harvesting. The pungent scent of fresh cow manure has at last yielded to the odor of skunk cabbage.
Julia Butler Hansen
The Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge lies on the lower Columbia River between the near-ghost towns of Cathlamet and Skamokawa, Washington. Both, once Native American cities, became 19th and early 20th century fishing and logging boom towns.
About half of the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge sprawls along the northern side of the Columbia River. The other half occupies boggy islands across the river from Clifton, Oregon, another former boom town now consisting only of pilings supporting what remains of a salmon cannery that operated from 1873 to 1906, and tracks from a narrow-gauge railway that continued to serve the vanished community until 1958.
Julia Butler Hansen (1907-1988), a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1960 to 1974, may have approved of the cattle grazing on the refuge, which acquired her name by Act of Congress after her death. Hansen, after all, was a lifelong resident of Cathlamet, daughter of the county sheriff, wife of a local logger, either related to or at least acquainted with practically everyone in either Cathlamet or Skamokawa.
Regardless of whatever Julia Butler Hansen herself may have thought of the refuge management, however, the evident decades of mismanagement there led ANIMALS 24-7 to ask in a February 6, 2015 headline, “Is this the most mismanaged U.S. National Wildlife Refuge?”
At that point there were few if any deer left to be seen along the Washington shore portion of the refuge. Roosevelt elk, though subject to intensive hunting at times to thin their population, were thriving, but were often officially blamed for depleting the browse and forage upon which the Columbian white-tailed deer depend for their sustenance.
And of course there were abundant cattle, who also depleted the refuge food supply for ungulates, while trampling the grass providing cover to Columbian white-tailed deer fawns.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologists tromping in to fit each fawn with a radio collar did not help the situation. Coyotes, also preying upon newborn calves, were blamed for the persistent failure of the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge population of Columbian white-tailed deer to grow and thrive.
Therefore USDA Wildlife Services was called in to trap as many as 20 coyotes each winter.
These days, though, reported Marissa Heffernan on September 8, 2021 for The Daily News of nearby Longview, Washington, “After seven years of tides, it’s hard to tell the restored tidal wetland portion of the Julia Butler Hansen Columbian White-Tailed Deer National Wildlife Refuge was once dry land,” inundated more by cow poop than irrigated by the Columbia River.
As of 2015, the management of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge Complex, including the Julia Hansen Butler National Wildlife Refuge, had been well aware for more than a year that the 90-year-old Steamboat Slough dike protecting the western mainland part of the refuge was in imminent danger of failing.
The wakes from large vessels and barges heading back and forth along the Columbia River between Portland, Oregon, and the Pacific Ocean were taking a daily toll, adding to the annual damage done by spring flooding after snowmelt in the upper Columbia watershed.
“If erosion fully undercut the dike,” wrote Heffernan, “the refuge could have flooded, as well as possibly State Route 4,” the highway running west from Longview to Johnson’s Landing on the Naselle River, just south of Aberdeen, where the Olympic Peninsula meets the Pacific.
Repairing the dike, however, was delayed, Heffernan continued, “because the dike and road were not owned by the Fish & Wildlife Service, so they could not do any repairs, and the county and diking district, which did own the road, were not able to afford the repairs.
“The dike was not under the Army Corps of Engineers’ jurisdiction, either,” Heffernan said.
But designating Steamboat Slough for tideland restoration, however, did enable the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to initiate the 68-acre, $6 million project, Heffernan explained, “and federal salmon recovery funds were available.
“The changes included building a new mile-long dike to replace the failing section of the Steamboat Slough levee and opening that land back up to salmon.”
Exulted Willapa National Wildlife Refuge Complex project manager Jackie Ferrer, “It’s proven to be a real success. There is some deer use, the deer are protected [from floods,” which have killed as many as 100 Columbian white-tailed deer at a time in recent decades, “there’s a really good fish response, which is great, and the waterfowl response has been fantastic as well.”
The biggest benefit to the tideland restoration, however, is that many of the former Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge cow pastures have become protected wetlands.
Wetlands, as it happens, are more stringently protected in the U.S., by more levels of law enforcement, than most other portions of National Wildlife Refuges, including the endangered species who live there.
And that means no more bullshit about why the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge exists.