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Governor proposes importing Sitka black-tailed deer to Mat-Su region for additional hunting

Governor Mike Dunleavy is proposing additional hunting opportunities in the Matanuska-Susitna region by bringing in Sitka black-tailed deer. A state document obtained by the Anchorage Daily News points out a number of potential issues with that plan.  KTNA’s Phillip Manning spoke with ADN report Zachariah Hughes about the story.

Phillip Manning: I’ve got with me today Zachariah Hughes from the Anchorage Daily News, and we’re here to discuss a story that you wrote recently about the governor’s proposal for potentially moving Sitka black-tailed deer to the Mat-Su Borough.  Can you give us just a little bit of an overview of how this story came about?

Zachariah Hughes: So it’s pretty common for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) 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, you know, 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.

What does Fish and Game have to say about the feasibility of that?

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.

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.

Yeah, and that’s actually one of the big topics of discussion in the scoping document among the biologists is that 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 Matanuska- Susitna Valley. 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.

I should clarify to where exactly in the Mat-Su is this potential relocation being looked

Mostly areas around Palmer and Wasilla: Knik area, the Palmer Hay Flats were considered but mostly the lower part of the borough.

There’s also some pretty strong implications in there that even if it were to be established successfully, that there could be some potential problems associated with that. Can you go into that a little bit?

Yeah, one of the interesting things about this report is it paints not just a pretty bleak picture of what the deer survival prospects are. But it then paints are very, in some ways, even bleaker picture, should they survive and thrive. The new problems that would be created and some of those are minor nuisances, like deer eating flowers and, and gardens out of people’s, you know, private property. Some of them are pretty major–the potential for roadkill. Deer, like moose, are most active around dawn and dusk, which makes it really hard to see them on the road. This is an area that already there’s around 300 moose vs. vehicle collisions a year. And then the potential for deer to be vectors for parasite and disease transmission.

One of the other things that you pointed out in the article was the potential for competition between imported deer and the current moose population for browse.

There’s plenty of forage out throughout the Valley. It’s a very verdant and productive landscape, but it’s particularly in heavy snow years when you know, snow is burying willows, shrubs, alders, sources of forage for ungulates, it gets very scarce and the the suggestion in the report is not that deer wouldn’t do well, nine months out of the year, it’s that there’s, you know, those three winter months through November, December through about February.

This is still a very early stages document. And there’s not–the wheels haven’t really started moving all that much on actually trying to do something like this.

Yes, the scoping document, as one policy advisor told me and as 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 collect stuff 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.

(Editor’s note: This story has been edited for clarity.)