After nearly 50 years on the endangered species list, Columbian White-Tailed deer are moving up in the world.
Their numbers along the Columbia River have more than doubled since the species was listed in 1967. On Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is upgrading their status from "endangered" to "threatened."
Officials are celebrating the occasion in Ridgefield, Washington, where the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge has played a key role in the deer's recovery.
In 2013, a dike at the Julia Butler Hansen Wildlife Refuge was faltering, putting the refuge that was created specifically to harbor white-tailed deer at risk of flooding.
Officials moved 88 deer from the Julia Butler Hansen refuge to Ridgefield’s protected habitat with help from dozens of community volunteers.
“We had Boy Scout troops, families. We had hunting and fishing groups,” said Megan Nagel, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We had all these folks from the surrounding communities investing in the recovery of this endangered species.”
Since then, staff and volunteers with the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge have planted more than 30,000 trees to create ideal habitat for the white-tailed deer, and the population there has grown to at least 110, according to refuge Deputy Project Leader Eric Anderson.
The relocated deer have been tagged so biologists can track them and their offspring.
“It's exciting. They're doing great,” Anderson said. “Last weekend I was here and literally saw a female that was fawned on the refuge with her fawn. So, it's kind of like a grandparent moment – actually seeing your young having young on the refuge.”
Columbian white-tailed deer populations declined as a result of uncontrolled hunting and habitat loss from farming, logging and development that took over the river valleys and bottomlands the deer call home.
Their numbers along the Columbia River were down to around 450. Now they're up to more than 900 deer.
To rebuild the population, officials have moved deer into wildlife refuges and relocated elk that compete with the deer for food. Wildlife officials have even killed coyotes to protect the deer from their natural predators while their numbers rebound.
Officials say the success thus far is the result of collaboration by the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, the states of Washington and Oregon, conservation groups, volunteers and the U.S. Wildlife Service.
The new “threatened” status is a major milestone for one of the original endangered species, said Paul Henson, state supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Oregon.
“In 1967, when the first version of the Endangered Species Act was passed by Congress, this deer, along with many other iconic species like the bald eagle and the brown pelican and the California condor, was originally listed as endangered,” Henson said. “They were in very low numbers and now they've come back.”
The deer are no longer on the brink of extinction. But they’re not fully recovered yet, either.
“It's like a patient being released from the hospital after pretty serious surgery," he said. "They still have to come back and check in with the doctor."
The plan for easing protections on the deer includes implementing a new rule that will allow landowners to manage deer on their property. Henson said he hopes that will make people less nervous about having the deer on their land.
The current population numbers are nearly high enough to consider removing the species from the endangered list altogether, Henson said. But he said he wants to see more deer populations in more places before de-listing.
The current range of the Columbia River population of Columbian white-tailed deer includes areas on the Washington and Oregon sides of the river, including islands in the river.
Another population in Southern Oregon has already been deemed recovered and was removed from the Endangered List in 2002.