The idea came from Gov. Mike Dunleavy: “Establish a huntable population of Sitka black-tailed deer in the Mat-Su,” according to the first page of an internal state report.
In a populous part of Alaska that climate change will warm in the decades ahead, an established deer population might provide a new source of food and wildlife viewing for residents without the means to fly or boat around the islands and coastlines where the elusive ungulates live, according to the administration.
“The governor has directed his commissioners and other officials to look into a host of game enhancement opportunities, including the relocation of species for hunting,” said a statement emailed from deputy press secretary Patty Sullivan. “The creation of new hunting opportunities is a priority of the governor’s.”
“While many Americans see food security strictly through food charities, Gov. Dunleavy believes the opportunity for Alaskans to obtain food through traditional means, such as hunting, is just as important,” Sullivan wrote.
Plenty of species have been relocated all over Alaska to advance hunting and food security: musk oxen, moose, wood bison, reindeer, elk and many of the Sitka black-tailed deer that have lived for decades on Kodiak Island and in Prince William Sound. Wildlife relocations are a normal enough management policy to have a lengthy bureaucratic review process within the Department of Fish and Game, one weighing ecological risks, community benefits and other factors.
As an initial step in that process, Fish and Game staff developed a scoping report this year laying out the feasibility of deer relocation. The Dunleavy administration denied a public records request for the proposal, deeming the documents “predecisional and deliberative,” and as such “protected from disclosure under the deliberative process privilege.”
But a copy of the report obtained by the Anchorage Daily News described bleak prospects for any deer moved into the Matanuska or Susitna valleys. What’s more, according to the report’s authors, even if millions of dollars in public money are spent and the deer come to thrive in a populous area crisscrossed with roads, farms and established wildlife populations, they may ultimately mean more problems than benefits.
A short history of progress
Many wild animals taken for granted as historic local stocks in Alaska were in fact moved there to propagate and hopefully one day be eaten.
“Translocating and reintroducing animals in Alaska is not an uncommon policy. Sitka black-tailed deer have been translocated throughout Alaska,” wrote Sullivan.
The moose living around Berners Bay, about 40 miles north of Juneau, were transplanted from Southcentral Alaska in 1959 and 1961. Musk oxen were entirely killed off in Alaska by 1900, and the herds that now huddle in the hills through Western Alaska winters are descendants of Greenlandic stocks brought to Nunivak Island in the 1930s and gradually reintroduced to the mainland in the decades since. Both species are now harvested by Alaskans for food.
Sitka black-tailed deer have long been a popular pick for relocation projects. As early as 1916, the Cordova Chamber of Commerce moved a number of deer into the Prince William Sound region, and nearly two decades later the animals’ presence was robust enough to allow for hunting. Deer introduced to the Kodiak Archipelago in 1934 survived. A hunt was opened there 19 years after the introduction.
Plenty of other deer relocation projects, however, have failed or are viewed as partial successes, according to a section of the scoping document dedicated to the history of shuffling deer around the state. The animals were brought into areas around Skagway, Yakutat and Petersburg with limited success, and harvest limits remain low to nonexistent. In 1923, according to the report, “Seven (Sitka black-tailed deer) were released on the Homer Spit, but the animals disappeared and the transplant failed.” Starting in 1973, the state looked at moving deer to the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. The proposal moved through the public process for more than a decade but eventually stalled because state wildlife officials had to focus on the Exxon-Valdez oil spill.
Nowhere that deer have been transplanted is as cold in winter as the Matanuska and Susitna valleys, which is the most likely obstacle to the animals’ survival.
“All ADF&G deer managers and biologists agree that an SBD (Sitka black-tailed deer) introduction is unlikely to succeed in the Mat-Su,” according to the scoping report.
“The Mat-Su is far colder than anywhere within the SBD’s current winter range with mean daily maximum temperatures far below freezing from November through February,” it adds. “It is unlikely SBD can live in the Mat-Su under normal winter conditions.”
The report goes on to explain how deer survive winters in mountainous coastal environments: forest canopies prevent snow from deeply covering forage, and after big snow events the deer can descend toward shore areas to look for more food, even eating kelp on Kodiak beaches to avoid starvation.
“Kelp is rare to nonexistent in the Mat-Su valley,” the authors note.
What’s more, deep snow pack and relatively spare tree cover is likely to leave the deer’s main food supplies buried too long for them to survive through the year.
There is also the question of predators: The valleys of Southcentral Alaska have a lot of them: “Wolves, black bears, brown bears, coyotes and others (e.g. lynx, wolverines, and feral or free-roaming dogs),” the document says. “In years of heavy snow, limited mobility of SBD could lead to higher predation rates by wolves or coyotes.”
The risks of success
Even if a translocated deer population survives, they may create a number of new problems for the humans and animals already living there.
The report notes it would probably take “two or more decades before a harvestable surplus exists.”
During that time, along the roads and highways, there will likely be more roadkill.
“Abundant deer would increase the potential and number of wildlife-vehicle and train collisions in the Mat-Su, which is an ongoing issue in the Mat-Su with moose-vehicle collisions,” according to the report, which notes elsewhere that the area already sees upward of 300 moose-vehicle collisions a year. “Dark winter days combined with the crepuscular activity pattern (active at dawn and dusk) of SBD means the highest density of deer and deer activity will occur when drivers have limited visibility.”
The other consequence for moose would be more competition for food.
“A large population of deer in the Mat-Su could result in decreased browse availability for moose and result in lower productivity of the moose population,” the report says.
The potential release sites for the deer under consideration are the Palmer Hay Flats, Knik River Valley, Goose Bay State Game Refuge, Susitna Flats Game Refuge, and the Point Mackenzie area, “including many of its agriculture fields.”
That could invite more trouble, if deer foraging through commercial farms and areas grazed by livestock then retreat up into mountains, potentially introducing “pathogens and parasites” to mountain goats and Dall sheep in alpine environments.
In a section of the report dedicated to socioeconomic impacts of the proposal, the authors spell out that a successful deer population in a “wildland-urban interface” like the populous portions of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough could lead to new nuisances for residents.
“Depredation of crops, livestock forage, gardens, and ornamentals are typically major issues,” the report says.
“Part of a long, long, long discussion”
The Fish and Game report estimates the transplant project would cost $2 million to $3 million. A large chunk of that estimate comes from dedicating staff to the myriad steps involved, from public outreach to meetings with game advisory committees to capturing live deer. Though the report notes that if the relatively recent and successful wood bison relocation in Western Alaska is instructive, additional staff will likely be brought into the project for unforeseen work.
Some of the money to pay for such a project, said Fish and Game special assistant Rick Green, could come from grants or donations from nonprofits and outdoor advocacy groups.
“This scoping document was just the first step in a very long process that may or may not materialize,” Green said. “Part of a long, long, long discussion.”
The idea first sprang from the governor, who tasked Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang and and Division of Wildlife Conservation Director Edward Grasser to gauge the feasibility.
“The governor says to Doug and Eddie, ‘Hey, what about putting deer in the Mat-Su Valley?’” Green said.
Green said Dunleavy is passionate about creating opportunities for more Alaskans to be able to view and engage with wildlife, particularly residents who might not have access to expensive equipment for getting far afield. Dunleavy, whose home is in Matanuska-Susitna Borough near some of the proposed deer relocation areas, is also an avid sportsman.
“The governor likes to hunt,” Green said.
“He got a musk ox this year,” he added, saying the governor was drawn for a permitted hunt on Nunivak Island. According to Sullivan, the governor shared harvested meat with residents in Mekoryuk.
The deer relocation process is on hold pending further review, according to Green, and the scoping document will eventually be examined and discussed by biologists and wildlife teams before its future is determined.
“It’s really super early,” he said. “They may further evaluate it.”