Too Many Deer

Environmental history and Odocoileus hemionus

The rise and fall of San Juan Island's blacktail deer is a lesson in the environmental history of the islands.

Humans have inhabited the San Juan Islands for at least 13,000 years. The first peoples didn’t appear to rely on fishing, rather they hunted land animals like deer. The Columbian black-tail deer are San Juan’s largest native land mammal, making them an enticing resource. Natives armed with stone arrows would kill deer for meat and utilize their bones and hide. Deer bones would be fashioned into weaving and woodworking tools and likely used for jewelry and ornamentation.

Wolves prowled in large numbers in the era before human habitation. Wolf populations stayed strong even when Natives inhabited the islands. Wolf and man kept deer populations in check. For thousands of years, the deer, wolves, and humans of San Juan lived in a balance.

In 1853 the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) established the Belle Vue Sheep Farm on the island, and the deer population began to decline. Several factors contributed to a steep decline in the deer population. HBC, American, and Native populations hunted increasing numbers of deer. With the arrival of alien forces came alteration of traditional hunting patterns. The combination of guns and greater market demand encouraged the Northern Straits Indians to hunt the decreasing number of deer in increasing numbers. The deer is an excellent four-legged example of market forces on culture, supply, and demand.

Sheep also played an unexpected role in the fate of deer. Not wanting their sheep to be consumed by predators, the HBC began a campaign of wolf extermination. By the 1860s, wolves had vanished from the islands. Hunters noticed more weak and sickly deer. Without predators to cull the herd, the traditional calculations of “survival of the fittest” changed.

This may have ushered in an era of unmitigated deer dominion, if not for the rabbit. Rabbit farmers released rabbits, a non-native species, into the island. Without predators to keep their numbers in check, rabbits reproduced with staggering success: as many as 500,000 lived on the island by the 1970s. The hordes of bunnies consumed seeds, foliage, and dug warrens. This prevented forests from regenerating and reduced prime deer habitat. Yet deer population rebounded.

In 1958, The Daily Chronicle boasted that San Juan was rated Washington state's third best deer hunting location, with the opening of deer hunting week yielding an average of 1 deer per 3.5 hunters. In the 1980s, the rabbit population stymied, likely due to reproductive issues. Rodents have filled the vacuum left by bunnies. Today San Juan boasts many, residents may argue too many, deer.