Document paints bleak picture of plan to bring Sitka black-tailed deer to Mat-Su

Sitka black-tailed deer
A Sitka black-tailed deer (Heather Bryant / KTOO)

Recently, Anchorage Daily News reporter Zachariah Hughes wrote a story about a proposal by Governor Mike Dunleavy to provide additional hunting opportunities in the Mat-Su by bringing in Sitka black-tailed deer. A state document obtained by ADN points out a number of potential issues with that plan.

KTNA’s Phillip Manning spoke with Zachariah Hughes about the story.

Listen Here:

This transcript has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Zachariah Hughes: So it’s pretty common for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to transplant animals. Currently, there’s a proposal to move Sitka black tailed deer into areas of the madness consistent valleys. And staff biologists wrote up a scoping document outlining, you know, what that might look like and some of the potential problems that it might bring. And I should say, there have been plenty of successful transplants all over the state, and Sitka black tailed deer are some of the earliest translocated species in the state. A lot of the places that they appear now like Prince William Sound, and Kodiak, those were transplanted colonies.

Phillip Manning: So the idea here is to establish a large enough stable population that they could be hunted by Alaskans for food. What does Fish and Game have to say about the feasibility of that?

Zachariah Hughes: This scoping document from the state — which initially the Department of Fish and Game would not release through a public records request — we obtained, and it painted a pretty bleak picture of the prospects for relocating deer there.

Phillip Manning: When I read your article, one of the first things that occurred to me is how much colder parts of the Mat-Su can be than Southeast where these deer originate.

Zachariah Hughes: Yeah, and that’s actually one of the big topics of discussion in the scoping document among the biologists. Deer do survive in Alaska, certainly, and in some pretty cold places. But a lot of the factors that allow them to survive in colder years are kind of absent from that area of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. The cold really is the biggest problem, along with the snow. In Kodiak, they’ve been observed eating kelp off the beach, which helps to keep them from starving. There’s one sort of dry line in the scoping document that I thought was kind of funny, which is there is no kelp in the Matanuska and Susitna Valleys — or very little of it.

Phillip Manning: So I should clarify to where exactly in the Mat-Su is this potential relocation being looked at?

Zachariah Hughes: Mostly areas around Palmer and Wasilla: the Knik area. The Palmer Hay Flats were considered but mostly the lower part of the borough.

Phillip Manning: Okay, so you’ve laid out some of the concerns that the biologists had for why the deer population might not be able to be established. But there’s also some pretty strong implications in there that even if it were to be established successfully, that there could be some potential problems associated with that. Can you go into that a little bit?

Zachariah Hughes: Yeah, one of the interesting things about this report is it paints not just a pretty bleak picture of what the deer survival prospects are. But it then paints a very, in some ways, even bleaker picture, should they survive and thrive. The new problems that would be created — and some of those are minor nuisances, like deer eating flowers and gardens out of people’s private property. Some of them are pretty major — the potential for roadkill. Deer, like moose, are most active around dawn and dusk, which makes it really hard to see them on the road. This is an area where already there’s around 300 moose vs. vehicle collisions a year. And then the potential for deer to be vectors for parasite and disease transmission.

Phillip Manning: One of the other things that you pointed out in the article was the potential for competition between imported deer and the current moose population for browse.

Zachariah Hughes: There’s plenty of forage out throughout the Valley. It’s a very verdant and productive landscape, but it’s particularly in heavy snow years when you know, snow is burying willows, shrubs, alders, sources of forage for ungulates, it gets very scarce and the the suggestion in the report is not that deer wouldn’t do well, nine months out of the year, it’s that there’s, you know, those three winter months through November, December through about February.

Phillip Manning: So we should mention one other thing that you bring up in the article, is that this is still a very early stages document. And there’s not — the wheels haven’t really started moving all that much on actually trying to do something like this.

Zachariah Hughes: Yes, the scoping document, as one policy advisor told me and as quoted in the story — this is very, very, very early in the process. So this is could easily just be a 13-page document that lives on a shelf and collects dust somewhere. I thought it was interesting. I thought it was a novel proposal. The other thing that interested me about this is if it’s the start of a public process, then the public ought to know about it.

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