A population proliferates: Vashon struggles with deer

The deer population appears to be more robust than ever on Vashon. - Mike Urban photo
The deer population appears to be more robust than ever on Vashon.
— image credit: Mike Urban photo

Drive the back roads of Vashon and you’ll soon notice small trees encased in plastic mesh, flowers imprisoned behind chicken wire and gardens growing inside fenced fortresses. Anyone who has spent time on the Island knows of the perennial struggle with deer, animals that will help themselves to any berry, branch or begonia within reach.

And if talk is any indication, Vashon’s iconic ruminants seem to be causing even more problems than usual this summer.

Bob Norton, a veteran fruit-tree grower who lives next to his small orchard on Maury, said he has seen more deer than ever show up on his property this year.

“They wiped out my strawberries. … They got in my fenced-in orchard two or three times,” he said.

“They seem to be more aggressive this year, and there seems to be a larger population than in the past.”

Joe Nurik, who runs Tahoma View Farm with his wife, Carolina, has also noticed more of a deer presence on the Island this summer. After he and his wife finished pruning their fruit trees, he added, “they turned over the stems we (left) on the ground, which shows that they’re hungry.”

Russell Link, a wildlife biologist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and author of the book “Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest,” agreed that deer populations in any place can experience natural fluctuations in number.

He said that while the department has never quantified the number of deer on Vashon, it is likely that there are currently many more deer on the Island than there were 30 years ago due to the absence of natural predators, such as coyote and mountain lions.

One sobering indication of deer presence is how often they are struck by Island drivers.

According to King County records, last year road crews received 43 calls to remove large animals, most if not all of them deer, from Vashon roads, compared with 10 such calls in 1995. Though other factors could affect the number of calls to clear deer, the data also seem to support a fluctuating population. The number of calls rose to 24 in 1998 and fell to seven in 2005 before rising to 27 in 2008 and hitting last year’s record of 43.

Tom Dean, director of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, has seen increased deer browsing harm young native plant species. “That’s worrisome,” he said. “That’s a problem for other species that may depend on those.”

An explosion in deer population can ultimately change the Island’s ecology, Dean said. For instance, he said, deer are likely to blame for the decline in native cottonwood trees along Shinglemill Creek, which ultimately affects the salmon that spawn there.

David Warren, head of Vashon Forest Stewards, echoed Dean when he expressed frustration at the deer’s grazing of young native species such as cottonwood, dogwood, alder and cedar, grazing that thwarts already difficult reforestation efforts on Vashon.

“People buy young seedlings that are a year or two old and they plant them in the woods, and the deer destroy a lot of those,” he said. “When they eat the top, it stunts the trees and kills them.”

Warren added that bucks will even destroy 5- to 7-year-old trees by rubbing their antlers on them. “That’s a problem, if there are no new trees coming up, you’re not generating new forest,” he said.

Reestablishing forests that were clear cut in the early 1900s or are reaching the end of their lifetime is especially critical to maintaining the Island’s aquifer, Warren said. “They create a sponge and soak up the water instead of allowing it to run into the Sound,” he said.

For now, Warren said, Islanders must simply take extra efforts to protect young plants from the abundance of deer. Since deer cannot be easily removed from the Island and sterilizing them would likely prove too costly, Vashon’s best hope of curbing its deer population lies in hunting, he said.

In 2006, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife began issuing 100 extra special permits for hunting on Vashon that would allow hunters to take two deer instead of one. Department spokesman Craig Bartlett said this was due to the large number of complaints the department received about deer on the Island.

However, the 140 special permits now offered for various types of hunting have yet to sell out, with around 90 people applying for them each year.

“One of the difficulties with hunting on Vashon, or any island near metropolitan areas, is there aren’t that many areas to hunt,” Bartlett said. The department has been making extra efforts in recent years to match hunters with Islanders who have nuisance deer on their property.

Brad Shride, who lives and hunts on Vashon, said he is constantly hearing complaints about deer eating flowers and ruining gardens. He receives calls year round from irritated Islanders who ask him to hunt on their land.

“For the most part I would say people are positive about hunters who come and use their property and keep the deer population down,” he said.

Though Shride can’t help everyone who calls him, he said it’s never difficult to find places to hunt when the season begins in the fall.

“It’s a win-win situation; I get to harvest their deer and they get them off their property,” he said.

However, deer’s natural predators, which were killed off decades ago, may be making a comeback on Vashon, said T Yamamoto, director of Wolftown, a nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation and education facility. She has verified that both coyotes and bobcat now exist in very small numbers on the Island.

Though Yamamoto said it’s difficult to know whether the deer population has grown significantly in recent years or Islanders are simply seeing the deer more because of increased development, she said one thing that is certain is that the deer population on Vashon is large but unhealthy, as the weak and sick animals aren’t weeded out by predators.

She hopes that if the coyote and bobcat stay on the Island, they could restore a natural balance to the Island’s wildlife.

“We could be at the very end of a population curve,” she said.

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