Biologists’ report paints bleak picture of Dunleavy’s pitch to bring Sitka black-tailed deer to Mat-Su

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

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has proposed bringing Sitka black-tailed deer to the Mat-Su to provide additional hunting opportunities, reported the Anchorage Daily News.

But, according to a report obtained by the ADN, state biologists say the project is likely to fail.

ADN reporter Zachariah Hughes spoke with KTNA’s Phillip Manning about the array of potential issues detailed in the report.

Listen here:

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for 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 Matanuska and Susitna valleys. And staff biologists wrote up a scoping document outlining 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?

ZH: 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.

PM: 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.

ZH: 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 Mat-Su. 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.

PM: So you’ve laid out some of the concerns that the biologists have for why the deer population may not be able to be established. But there’s also some pretty strong implications in there that even if the deer population was established successfully, there could be some potential problems associated with that. Can you go into that?

ZH: Yeah. One of the interesting things about this report is it paints not just a pretty bleak picture of what the deer’s survival prospects are, but it then paints a very, in some ways, even bleaker picture of, 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 on people’s private property. But some of them are pretty major, like the potential for roadkill. Deer, like moose, are most active around dawn and dusk which make it really hard to see them on the road. This is an area where already there’s around 300 moose-vehicle collisions a year. And then the potential for deer to be vectors for parasite and disease transmission.

PM: One of the other things you pointed out in your article was the potential for competition between the imported deer and the current moose population for browse?

ZH: There’s plenty of forage throughout the valley, it’s a verdant and productive landscape. But particularly in heavy snow years, when snow is burying willows, shrubs, alders — sources of forage for undulates — it gets pretty scarce. And the suggestion in the report isn’t that deer wouldn’t do well nine months out of the year, it’s that there’s those winter months, November, December, through about February.

PM: 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 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 is 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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