GHOSTS OF THE RAIN FOREST

GHOSTS OF THE RAIN FOREST

Thomas, E Donnall Jr

The under-appreciated Sitka blacktail deer is among Alaska’s greatest game animals

High in Southeast Alaska’s subalpine muskeg, the vegetation underfoot formed an intricate floral mosaic of color and texture. At another time, the naturalist in me might have yielded to the temptation to stop, explore and analyze. But after catching a glimpse of brown hide in the stunted evergreens between the muskeg and the towering forest below, I’d made a sudden transition from observer to predator. Easing gently back and forth into the wind, I finally re-established visual contact with my quarry, a Sitka blacktail buck feeding along the edge of the trees.

The deer was only 50 yards away, a range that would have marked the end of the hunt had I been carrying a rifle. But as usual, I was hunting with my bow and I needed to cut that distance in half. Gauging the wind and terrain, I plotted an approach to a tree that looked like an ideal spot to intercept the buck.

Steeped in caution by the area’s robust wolf population, local blacktails usually find a way to avoid the proximity that bow and arrow demand. But this stalk, like a well-conceived gambit on a chessboard, worked to perfection. Just as 1 reached the tree, the buck wandered back into view less than 20 yards away, his red summer coat glowing in the midday sun. At that range, I could count his eyelashes and listen to the sound of his teeth grinding as he browsed. Despite the enormity of the wild terrain surrounding us, I felt as if the buck and I were sharing a room.

But my hunt still wasn’t over. Discipline is paramount to the bowhunter and, with the deer quartering slightly toward me, I needed him to turn and expose his ribs without interference from his shoulder. Of course, this needed to happen before the fickle mountain wind swirled and betrayed my presence to that keen nose, but there was nothing I could do but wait. While the middle three fingers of my right hand played nervously against the bowstring and the buck continued to feed, I took advantage of our impasse to consider what a remarkable and under-appreciated game animal the Sitka blacktail deer can be.

Back when I first moved to Alaska, I promptly fell under the spell of the North’s signature big game animals and had difficulty imagining why anyone would want to travel to wet, windy places to hunt a miniature version of the West’s familiar mule deer. Common to new arrivals, that attitude reflects nothing more than ignorance about the Sitka blacktail and the lure of the wild places this unique little deer calls home.

While caribou, moose, wolves and grizzlies typify Alaska wildlife in the common imagination, all are relative newcomers to the area, at least according to the time frame of biological history. These species are all descendants of Eurasian animals that crossed the Bering Sea land bridge as recently as 10,000 years ago, along with human immigrants. On the other hand, fossil records indicate that deer have inhabited North America for some four million years, developing from common ancestors into whitetails in the East and blacktails on the Pacific coast, eventually producing the hybrid mule deer.

Today’s Sitka blacktail, Columbian blacktail and mule deer are all members of the species Odocoileus hemionus, but the first has changed least of all over time, as reflected by certain anatomic similarities to the whitetail. Sitka blacktails run with a peculiar, splay-legged gait reminiscent of caribou, no doubt an adaptation to the slick footing in the damp climate familiar to both. In contrast with the whitetail, which relies on speed, and the mule deer, which uses its bounding gait to outdistance pursuers in rough terrain, the Sitka blacktail primarily depends on stealth to elude predators in thick coastal forests. Both structurally and functionally, the Sitka blacktail is anything but a pint-sized version of the mule deer.

They aren’t even that small. Mature bucks generally weigh 120-140 pounds, but weights of 200 pounds have been recorded. (Believe me, by the time you’ve packed one through several miles of typical coastal habitat, an average buck can feel even heavier.) And every pound of that venison should be cause for celebration. Many experienced Alaska hunters regard blacktail meat as the best of the best, surpassing even sheep and moose on the table.

Sitka blacktail antlers lack the dimensions of their cousins’ farther south. The Pope and Young Club archery record book, for example, establishes a minimum entry requirement of 65 inches for Sitka blacktails, 90 inches for Columbian blacktails, and 145 inches for mule deer according to its standardized measurement system. But Sitka blacktail antlers display a special character of their own, compact yet massive in structure, often stained a deep mahogany through rubbing on undergrowth. Besides, if you share my conviction that the true measure of a trophy lies in the effort expended in its pursuit, few deer in the world can rival Alaska’s.

Whether motivated by a desire for antlers, prime table fare or both, increasing numbers of hunters are heading to the field for deer in Alaska each fall. For out-of-state visitors and residents of Southcentral Alaska’s population centers, that usually means a trip to Kodiak Island, which offers abundant game and relatively open terrain conducive to spot-and-stalk hunting. While I’ve enjoyed many memorable weeks chasing blacktails on Kodiak, I’ve recently spent more time hunting them in Alaska’s southeastern panhandle, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, that’s where Sitka blacktail deer belong, and I’m the kind of hunter who appreciates that kind of thing. Blacktails have inhabited Kodiak and the Prince William Sound area for so long it’s easy to forget that these deer are the result of planned introductions decades ago. In fact, the Sitka blacktail is native only to Alaska’s panhandle, the northern coast of British Columbia and adjacent islands. This coastal terrain constitutes the world’s largest temperate rain forest, and even after all the time I’ve spent there, the scenery and proximity to the sea are still enough to take my breath away.

As an added bonus, it’s possible to hunt deer in parts of Southeast without worrying about brown bears, which, in that area, inhabit only the mainland and so-called ABC islands (Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof). I enjoy calling blacktails as discussed below, but I learned years ago on Kodiak that deer aren’t the only animals that respond to fawn bleats. Since I hunt big game exclusively with the bow, and dislike lugging around a firearm for bear protection, I find hiking through thick brush in the dark a harrowing experience in brown bear country, especially with a load of meat in my pack. Hunting the numerous islands in Southeast that contain deer but no brown bears obviates those concerns.

Harvest statistics confirm the wisdom of choosing Southeast as a blacktail destination for purely practical reasons. Game Management Unit 4 (the ABC islands) produces more deer than any other in the state, and the harvest in GMU 2 (Prince of Wales and adjoining islands) rivals Kodiak’s.

Deer season in Southeast generally begins in early August. (Alaska hunting regulations are complex, and hunters always need to check seasons and bag limits in the specific area they plan to hunt.) At that time of year, mature bucks concentrate in bachelor groups at high elevations. Coastal alpine provides superb stalking conditions as well as stunning scenery, with open terrain that allows glassing but enough contour to allow stalking, even into archery ranges. Early season bucks will likely still be in velvet. In many ways, August hunting offers the most predictable opportunity to locate big deer, provided you can reach them. Accessing the alpine often requires hours of steep climbing through thick brush at lower elevations, although flying to a high mountain lake can reduce the workload considerably.

Bucks generally begin to filter out of the alpine to join does at lower elevations in mid-September, although weather can affect these seasonal movement patterns considerably. For the next month or so, finding deer in thick cover at intermediate elevations can optimistically be described as a challenge.

Fortunately for frustrated deer hunters, the onset of the rut in late October initiates a surge in deer activity. Bucks move constantly in search of does. Nonetheless, deer can still be hard to locate because of thick cover, which makes them much more difficult to spot than in more open terrain like Kodiak’s.

But the rut also provides an opportunity to employ an exciting Alaska deer hunting technique: calling. Over the course of a long career in the field, I’ve enjoyed calling everything from turkeys to moose into bow ranee, but have seldom seen any animal respond to a call quite like a Sitka blacktail doe. Under certain conditions, their determined response to a fawn bleat can be amazing. A few seasons back, an experienced hunting partner had a doe knock him over when he made one bleat too many. Unlike most animals, blacktail does responding to calls often will remain in the vicinity for some time even when they have the hunter in sight. While solitary bucks are far less likely to respond, during the rut they will sometimes follow does to close range. And bucks will respond to calls on their own, too, although they tend to approach more slowly and cautiously. Over the years, I’ve coaxed does to touching distance with a wide variety of deer and predator calls, although those with a higher pitch produce the most consistent results. Whatever the choice of calls, this method offers a unique opportunity to get close to elusive bucks during the rut. But if you are hunting in brown bear country, remember to be prepared for an unpleasant surprise every time you blow a deer call.

Alaska’s generous deer seasons run through December in many areas, and heavy, late season snows can push blacktails all the way down to the beach. Short days and harsh weather can make hunting difficult, but relatively easy access by boat still allows a significant harvest.

Because of better security cover, blacktails in Southeast Alaska generally avoid the large fluctuations in population numbers that harsh winters sometimes produce on Kodiak. Nonetheless, good resource stewardship remains an obligation for every hunter. Because wolves arrived in North America relatively recently, blacktails are poorly adapted for defense against them, and wolves prey significantly on deer throughout many parts of Southeast. However, population studies show that deer generally select habitat with good cover and high wolf numbers over areas with poor cover and few wolves, reflecting the importance of good winter habitat to their survival. Oldgrowth forest, with trees at varying stages of development, provides that kind of habitat. Unpopular as this opinion may be in certain circles, the bulk of scientific evidence suggests that clearcut logging practices ultimately cost Alaskans deer, a factor to consider in future resource management.

Back on that lonely mountainside, all of this lore and natural history was about to reach a conclusion of its own. After what felt like an interminable wait on my part, the buck turned broadside before the wind betrayed me. Rising slowly from a crouch, I mentally isolated a spot on his side, drew my bow and released, sending a heavy cedar arrow through the center of his chest. He literally never knew what hit him and moments later, I watched him fold to the ground for good.

Sadness on my part? Sure, there always has to be a little. But I’d taken this deer from a distance at which a wolf would have been lethal, too. At the end of the day, I was just a descendant of another predatory species that crossed the land bridge 10,000 years ago trying to find something good to eat in the brave new world on the other side.

Fortunately, Alaska still has room for us all.

E. DONNALL THOMAS JR. divides his time between Montana and Southeast Alaska. He wrote about Labrador retrievers in our December/January 2004 issue.

Copyright Morris Communications Jul 2004

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