Southeast Alaska hosts an array of accessible and eatable flora and fauna species. Sitka black-tailed deer are a commonly harvested animal in the region, upon which many residents rely as a primary food source. This is the second of a four part series focusing on the process of safely, ethically and efficiently harvesting the animals for food.
On the hunt: The science behind deer populations 112112 OUTDOORS 1 Capital City Weekly Southeast Alaska hosts an array of accessible and eatable flora and fauna species. Sitka black-tailed deer are a commonly harvested animal in the region, upon which many residents rely as a primary food source. This is the second of a four part series focusing on the process of safely, ethically and efficiently harvesting the animals for food.

Photo By Phil Mooney

Fish and Game biologist Karin McCoy sits with a yearling buck.

Photo By Amanda Compton / Capital City Weekly

Page 39 of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game 2012-2013 Alaska Hunting Regulations displays information pertaining to Game Management Unit 1.

Photo By Karin Mccoy

A collared fawn takes a rest on Prince of Wales Island.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Story last updated at 11/21/2012 - 3:14 pm

On the hunt: The science behind deer populations

Southeast Alaska hosts an array of accessible and eatable flora and fauna species. Sitka black-tailed deer are a commonly harvested animal in the region, upon which many residents rely as a primary food source. This is the second of a four part series focusing on the process of safely, ethically and efficiently harvesting the animals for food.

One of the most helpful resources for deer hunting - or hunting in general, is the Hunting Regulations guide, provided by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The 2012-2013 127-page guide is packed with information on bag limits, wildlife diseases, restricted weapons and specific information for each game management unit (GMU).

The state is divided into 26 units, with Units 1 through 5 comprising the Southeast region. Each GMU is further divided into subsections, as regulations can differ within one GMU. For example, GMU 1, which runs just north of Kake to the Canadian border north of Skagway, is divided into sub-regions 1A through 1D. You can hunt a doe beginning Sept. 15 on the islands within GMU 1C, but hunters are restricted to bucks in the other areas of GMU 1. Additionally, the season close dates differ within management units, and as people travel outside of the GMU in which they live, the regulations guidebook can be somewhat of a hunter's Bible.

Regulations on deer hunting in Southeast Alaska remain relatively similar each year, though the guide is organized so that changes to the regulations are upfront; one can tell quickly that, in the case of the 2012-2013 season, there have been no changes to deer hunting regulations. Should a change in regulations be proposed, it must be presented to and approved by the State Board of Game. However, individual GMUs can institute emergency orders, temporary changes that override the current regulations.

Ryan Scott, the Fish and Game Area Management biologist of the northern region of Southeast Alaska explained that these orders may be employed for a number of reasons.

"Every year something comes up, but everything you see (in the regulations) is appropriate based on the data," Scott said.

The data Scott is referring to includes mortality rates, deer pellet transects and hunter report cards.

Scott said that after an unusually harsh winter in 2006 and 2007, the doe seasons on the Chichagof Island areas have been closed for the past five seasons.

Pellet transects are established lines traveling vertically up hill, over which biologists will walk and count piles of deer pellets.

"We have over 30 years of data on deer pellets," Scott said.

Karin McCoy, a local Fish and Game wildlife biologist coordinates the deer pellet survey efforts, a coordination between ADFG and the Forest Service. Straight line transects are located in watersheds around the area, and biologists count the number of deer pellets located within half a meter of the transect in the spring.

"By counting the groups seen in a given area one year and comparing that to how many are seen there in a different year, biologists can try to evaluate possible changes in deer density in that area," McCoy said. "The number of pellet groups counted in different elevation zones is evaluated in comparison to previous counts, as an index to changes in deer density. The challenge is that more factors than just deer density can affect these counts."

One of example of these factors she gave was a high snow year, when deer concentrate more in their winter ranges. This may increase the pellet counts in a particular area, even if the deer density has not changed.

"Here in the Juneau area we have around 15 transects on the Islands around Juneau: Douglas, Shelter, Lincoln and Sullivan," McCoy said.

While the pellet transect data doesn't provide any hard numbers for projecting seasonal deer population fluctuations, it does aid the biologists in determining a broader spectrum of deer fecundity (reproductive power). The hunter report cards are also beneficial for biologists and those involved in game management.

When people pick up a set of deer tags, required for hunting deer, they also receive a harvest report card, said Riley Woodford, an information officer with the Fish and Game Division of Wildlife Conservation.

"We'll look at the hunter success, and effort," Woodford said. "If hunters are working a lot harder to get a deer, that tells you something. Ten trips per deer or one trip."

"We ask people where they went, how many days they hunted, the month, how they got there, did they use a boat, airplane, walk, and how many deer they took, in does and bucks," Scott said.

The data from last season told him that more than 400 deer were taken from Douglas Island alone, and showed how much effort hunters were willing to put in to obtain their meat. Well, that's the goal, anyhow, getting hunters to salvage all the usable meat. There are established regulations to prevent hunters from engaging in what McCoy refers to as high-grading, that is, taking the easiest salvageable sections of the animals and dumping the rest.

"If you have a bag limit of four deer, it's better to fully harvest two than high-grade four," McCoy said.

McCoy is more involved with deer biology than regulations, however, and said a little about known deer behavioral patterns.

"In Southeast Alaska we have both resident and migratory deer," McCoy said.

Resident deer tend to stay in particular forested ranges, generally below 1,500 feet. Migratory deer have both summer and winter habitats. They include the animals one would see higher up in the early season, feeding on alpine vegetation. In September, this is generally where the most fruitful hunting occurs. Deer feed on the herbaceous forbs, nutritious small green plants that are more abundant and accessible in the alpine terrain. The alpine also offers deer better vantage points, which can benefit both the predator and the prey.

As the season progresses, snow begins to fall and the vegetation higher up dies, the deer move farther down hill and into the timber.

"All deer will move," McCoy said. "Even resident deer will move within their home ranges. They'll head down to sea level as winter progresses. They're probably not moving down as early as the ones in the alpine."

As the snow level advances downward, it's more likely to find deer in old-growth forest areas than meadows.

"Open muskegs will have considerably deeper snow levels," McCoy said. "There's protection from the elements under the forest canopy. And less snow. It's easier for them to move around and access forage."

Besides seasonal movement, McCoy noticed daily movement trends as well.

"Deer tend to be crepuscular, active at dawn and dusk," she said. "That's not to say they're not active at other times, but some studies have shown that they have peak activity at those periods."

The rut season, when deer mate, generally begins sometime in November, and is regarded as an efficient time to hunt. The thinking behind this is that bucks, who have remained coy lurkers of the mountains, get so aroused that their radar for predators is shadowed by their intense biological urge to breed. Some hunters have referred to bucks during this time of year as "stupid."

Basically, as Scott and McCoy said, the bucks hop around areas they're familiar with and know to contain does, waiting until they get the signal that a potential mate is in estrous, their fertile period.

"Bucks are more distracted during a rut," Scott said.

The rut is thus a prime seasonal event of which to take advantage. And, as doe season opened on Douglas, Lincoln, Shelter and Sullivan Islands Sept. 15, it's legal to kill them during the rut. The main reason, if not the only reason, that doe seasons are shorter or nonexistent in some places is that the does are the axis of maintaining healthy population sizes.

"The most important reproductive unit for the continuation of a population is the does," she said. "They're the ones producing. There's a lot of people that think it's wrong to kill Bambi, but fawns are probably the least important as far as trying to maintain a population."

Come late November, or whenever the snow has advanced to sea level, deer will often congregate on beaches. Hunting from boats is prohibited, even if the boat is anchored or touching shore.

"The real reason we stay away from it is because it can be devastating to deer if they're stacked up," Scott said, "And it can be inaccurate."

That's because boats aren't nearly as stationary as two grounded feet.

"It's hard and it's not fair, but we make exceptions for people," Scott said.

These exceptions include a disability permit, issued by the Department of Fish and Game.

New data on deer is just beginning to surface. McCoy is working with a couple of people in other regions of the Southeast tracking collared deer.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to look at how deer are moving and assess their use of different habitat types in northern Southeast Alaska, where we have higher snowfall than we do in southern Southeast Alaska," McCoy said.

McCoy is also looking for a cost-effective way to use deer DNA found in the pellet groups to implement a regional population monitoring program for deer.

"This would either replace or augment the traditional pellet survey counts conducted for the last 30 years," she said.

McCoy doesn't work as a facilitator for hunting regulations; she is genuinely interested in biological research. However, if these studies continue, and they provide usable data, they could aid biologists and game management professionals in their ability to evaluate deer population densities and general behavioral patterns that could assist in determining the most adequate regulations for hunters.

Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at amanda.compton@capweek.com.