Commentary: Deer population in PWS still looking good

Two Sitka Black-tailed bucks peer from cover on Hawkins Island. Preliminary signs point to an abundant deer season. Photo courtesy of Milo Burcham

As we emerged from the craziest spring that anyone can remember, I was worried about our ability to get any fieldwork done. My family had enjoyed climbing the ski hill for late-season skiing when everyone was cooped up, but had great skiing come at a cost for deer? With fall hunting around the corner, many are looking forward to our favorite way of “social distancing,” slinking around quietly in the woods. It’s a good time to talk about what our best information says you might find.

Deer pellet counts are our primary tool for monitoring the deer population. The counts are usually done in late May and early June, before green-up but when most of the snow is gone. Counts have been conducted in the same spots every year since the late 1980s. We collect data at numerous points on Hawkins, Hinchinbrook, Montague, Knight, and Naked islands. At each location, two to three teams of two people take compass bearings from the same trees used year after year, and hike along those bearings from the sea-level to the alpine. While one team member drags a thin cord, the other looks for deer pellets within half a meter on either side of it. The number of pellet groups is recorded for every 20-meter section, called a plot. We then can calculate the mean pellet groups per plot, the index used to monitor the population. The method isn’t perfect, but it’s a systematic way of looking at the population and it gives us a way to understand what is going on.

Stars represent deer pellet transect locations. Colors indicate deer pellet densities.

Because we actually had winter conditions this year, we started transects May 18th, later than in recent years that followed mild winters. COVID-19 restrictions hampered our ability to access Knight, Naked and Montague Islands but we were able to complete all locations on Hawkins and Hinchinbrook Islands. Almost every location had more pellet groups observed than the previous year. Comparing this year’s data for Hawkins and Hinchinbrook with the previous 19 years at only those two locations reveals that this year’s mean pellet count is the highest. Hawkins and Hinchinbrook always have a lot more deer pellets and presumably more deer than the islands that are further west. This is a result of habitat and warmer temperatures that result in more precipitation falling as rain compared to other areas where more falls as snow.

We observed six carcasses while hiking this year. It was slightly alarming because it was more than we observed in 2012 following snowpocalypse. However, the two “population crashes” we have observed (1999 and 2012) showed an initial drop in pellets observed accompanying the carcasses. It is likely that the number of carcasses observed is just a result of a high population. When deer are more plentiful, you are more likely to stumble upon them, alive or dead. The winter of 1998-99 was probably so hard on deer because snow came steady and stayed late. The winter of 2011-12 was colder and resulted in early and massive accumulation. This winter didn’t have much snow until late January. January and February were colder than recent years (and the “big winters”) but all other months were warmer, the spring came fast and strong and overall precipitation received for the winter was just average.

Hunters last season reported abundant deer and that the animals they harvested were remarkably fat. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what is out there for myself and hearing your reports!

Deer pellet surveys are conducted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service. Transect crews this year included the following people: Milo Burcham, Charlotte Westing, Vanessa Lane-Miller, Sarah Hoepfner, and John Reid. Air charters were provided by Ridgeline Aviation and Alaska Wilderness Air.


Charlotte Westing is area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.