Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a series about native wildlife on the island.
By James Cottrell
For The Beachcomber
The steady increase in the deer population on the island is largely due to a lack of apex predators and has led to overbrowsing of native flora on which deer and other species depend.
That has also led to an increase in conditions such as Deer Hair Loss Syndrome (DHLS) and related mortality across the Winter season, and increased incidence of roadkill and motor vehicle accidents.
To better balance the deer population with the carrying capacity of the local habitat, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has extended an additional, lottery-based Special Hunt Second Deer season for antlerless-only deer in the Vashon-Maury Game Management Unit, that now runs continuously from Aug. 1 to Dec. 31. By increasing public awareness of the overpopulation impacts and the regulatory response to it, and improving harvest counts and access to private property on which to hunt, we can both address the biological balance while returning the Special Hunt season to fit within the normal, general seasons.
Since the mid-1990s, when my wife and I first moved to the island, we have been appreciative observers of our local Columbian Blacktail deer. We have enjoyed their delightful and ubiquitous presence as we have noted the steady and significant growth of their numbers in forest, field, and out on the roads. But the current abundance of deer on the island threatens their health and long-term well-being, as evidenced in part by the increasing numbers of animals with stress-related conditions such as Deer Hair Loss Syndrome in the Winter. And so many voracious herbivores eating a daily average of seven pounds of plant matter per animal per day has led to over-browsing of native flora upon which deer and many other species depend.
Islanders can and do help address the current imbalance either by harvesting deer themselves or by hosting other hunters to do so on appropriate properties. Hunting here is a traditional way for many people to access a valuable, inexpensive, healthy, high quality, and low carbon footprint protein source.
I recently spoke with Mike Smith, wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Region 4, about the deer population boom on Vashon. WDFW is tasked with responsibly preserving, protecting, and perpetuating wildlife in the state while maximizing hunting opportunities for all residents. Smith explained that the deer count on the island is now high enough that WDFW has determined a Vashon-specific approach to population management is necessary. This is due in part to the lack of apex predators, like cougars, and the relatively low number of deer annually harvested by hunters.
While local coyotes are another potential predator, they are no match for healthy deer. Despite their sleek and generally graceful appearance, deer can be extremely fierce and aggressive. Bucks have the obvious benefit of their antlers and strong necks, but female deer also wield significant defensive capabilities as they can quickly rear up on their hind legs, rapidly pedal their sharp front hooves, and deliver powerful downward lacerating blows with them. We have observed does herding wary coyotes away from their fawns with the threat of kicks or blows. We also know a handful of islanders whose dogs have been severely injured either by doe kick, or buck antler goring.
For years, WDFW’s efforts at deer population management have included the designation of the Vashon/Maury Game Management Unit (GMU) 422 as an “Any Deer” area, meaning hunting here is not limited to bucks, as deer of either sex and any age in the proper season are fair game. The deer on Vashon and throughout the state are legally considered a shared natural resource of the people of Washington, but access to that public resource on Vashon is extremely limited. While anyone can hunt deer in GMU 422 with a valid license, a tag for the designated season, and the proper equipment, the limiting factor continues to be access to, and permission from owners of properties on which to hunt. According to the biologists at WDFW Region 4, this limited access is the primary reason that the annual deer harvest here has been insufficient to bring the deer population into better balance to maintain the biodiversity of flora and fauna on the island.
The main area for public hunting on Vashon is Island Center Forest (ICF), which has been managed by King County Parks and Recreation for deer hunting over the past 9 years during the Modern Firearm General season, which runs for two weeks starting in Mid-October.
This year ICF will once again be open for deer hunting only from Oct. 17 through Nov. 1. For more information, visit online at tinyurl.com/y2gd3ay3.
Outside of ICF, the only other legal areas to hunt on the island are on private property with permission from the owner. Gaining permission to hunt on private properties can be challenging enough for local hunters, and even more so for hunters from off-island, who don’t have relationships with locals or adequate knowledge of the placement of roads, driveways, houses, other infrastructure and livestock that are often well hidden from view. To better know where things are, the go-to mobile phone app for many hunters is OnX Hunt, which combines satellite imagery with the display of property lines and the names of property owners, along with users’ locations in real-time. With such technology in hand, there is no excuse for anyone hunting where they are not welcome or allowed.
Unfortunately, every year there are trespass incidents on the island in which hunters have entered properties without permission to pursue and shoot at deer, or have trespassed to recover one shot on a neighboring property, or one-shot illegally from a vehicle or a road. The urgency for some hunters to “fill the tag” and not come home empty-handed has on occasion led to disregard for private property and basic public safety, and that puts islanders at risk of injury or worse. Such irresponsible actions by some hunters rightly raise anger, fear and resentment in the community towards hunting in general. And it is really difficult to tell at a glance who is responsible or not when most hunters look the same in their camo and blaze orange.
In terms of responsibility, when buying a Deer License and a General Season Transport Tag, each hunter must commit to the equipment type they intend to use and hunt during only the related general and late seasons for that equipment type. Legal hunting light begins ½ hour before sunrise, and ends ½ hour after sunset, and all hunters are responsible to know the times for each week as printed or online in the WDFW regulations, keeping in mind that the start and end of legal shooting light changes each week as the days shorten. A lot of deer activity happens in those pre-dawn and post-sunset windows, and that can be a very productive time for harvest.
According to WDFW biologists, reducing the number of does is the most effective way to bring a deer population back to biologically healthy levels. But the small number of does — compared to the number of bucks harvested during the general deer hunting seasons in GMU 422 over the past decade — has not been sufficient to achieve that goal, so WDFW has been offering a Special Hunt lottery for Second Deer permits. These additional tags are for antlerless deer only, which includes both females, and young males before they grow antlers. To participate, a hunter must first buy their General Deer License and a Special Hunt Application, then submit their entry online in early May before the lottery drawing at the end of that month.
For 2020, WDFW extended the Special Hunt Second Deer season in GMU 422 to run from Aug. 1 to Dec. 31, and now Vashon has the distinction of having the longest, continuously open Special Hunt Second Deer season in the state. A consequence of this conservation-oriented decision is that this year, 200 hunters with Second Deer tags, many using Modern Firearm equipment, are legally allowed to hunt on the island across the entire five-month period. All equipment type users for the Special Hunt Second Deer season are required to wear 400 square inches of blaze orange or fluorescent pink when hunting.
The simultaneous use of all equipment types in field and forest from now through the end of the year is what initially alarmed and prompted me to contact WDFW. I pointed out my personal concern that under the current regulations, bowhunters are not required to wear orange when hunting the General and Late Archery seasons, but this year a Second Deer hunter on a neighboring property during that same time could easily mistake them for a deer. There was a much lower chance of such an incident previously when the Second Deer seasons were separated by equipment type. But for this year, as a risk-reduction measure, the men, women and youth in my circle of hunter friends join me in encouraging all islanders to improve their visibility and wear orange or pink at all times when out in the field, forest and trail.
A possible upside to this year’s extended Second Deer season is that more antlerless deer may be harvested, and having more of those tags filled should help justify containing the Second Deer season again to within each Archery, Muzzleloader and Modern Firearm season. That is the hope shared by many islanders to whom I have explained all the above.
Vashon is designated a Firearm Restricted area, meaning Modern Firearm tag holders may not use either high-powered or rimfire rifles (like .22’s), but may hunt with shorter range types of equipment, including compound and longbows, muzzleloaders, revolver-type handguns, semi-automatic handguns of .40 (10mm) caliber or larger, or shotguns using buckshot or slugs, so long as the equipment and ammunition comply with WDFW rules. Crossbows, considered to be Modern Firearms, were also legalized in 2015 for hunting in Washington, and many are now in use on Vashon. Muzzleloader tag holders may only hunt during muzzleloader seasons with muzzleloader or archery equipment, but not crossbows. And archery tag holders may only hunt archery season using vertical bows since crossbows are not considered archery equipment in the WDFW regulations.
My personal safety adaptation this year will be to wear orange or pink on every scouting and hunting outing now that the five-month-long deer season is officially on. And neighbors can help reduce risk by reaching out and checking with each other to stay informed about permission they have granted, and schedules for any hunter presence on their property. Many areas on the island are well suited to the harvest of our shared resource, and all those who would benefit from the practice need to be sure to keep it safe and sustainable.
Regarding WDFW’s efforts to improve access, Biologist Rob Wingard has created a very successful Private Lands Access Program over the past two years with a dozen property owners in the San Juan Islands, wherein properties of five acres or more are considered for a reservation system. More on that is available online at tinyurl.com/yylzk2at.
Hunters apply for specific days to hunt on specific properties, and owners have complete control over what days are open for hunting. Owners are given the names of the hunters who will be on their property and are protected from liability by robust private land-use protection laws. Such a collaborative approach holds promise for Vashon, and Wingard is willing and able to work with property owners to explore similar possibilities here.
Whether local property owners partner with hunters on their own or participate in the WDFW Private Lands Access Program, it is important for all involved to know what is required to legally hunt and harvest deer on Vashon.
First, all hunters born after Jan. 1, 1972, must show proof of a WDFW approved hunter education course completion before purchasing their first Washington hunting license. At present, there is an online course for general Hunter Ed online at hunter-ed.com/washington as well as excellent, free interactive courses on Bowhunting at bowhunter-ed.com/washington and Crossbow hunting at crossbow-ed.com/national. I require all of my students to take the relevant online course, and I believe that hunters of all levels of experience who are considering using archery gear or crossbow will increase their likelihood of proper shot placement and successful recovery by taking the course.
WDFW will be hosting a 2021-23 Hunting Season Setting Survey online, starting on Aug. 17 ending on Sept. 15. A virtual meeting on Deer Seasons is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Sept. 9. More information can be found online at wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/regulations/season-setting.
Public comments received through the virtual meetings and from the survey will help WDFW understand concerns, as well as the level of support for the proposed 2021-23 hunting regulations. I am looking forward to participating in the survey and comment session to advocate limiting the Second Deer to the General Seasons as it had been until the past few years. And I will continue to advocate for increased education and public access for hunting on the island.
James Cottrell is a dedicated locavore, environmental educator, hunting instructor, and public safety advocate. Over the past 15 years, he has worked with numerous island property owners to earn their trust and gain permission for access to properties on which to teach proper hunting and harvesting techniques to many grateful local and off-island students.