Whitetails of the Columbia

Columbian White-tailed Deer Columbia County oregon

Our county’s most unique mammal may be the Columbian White-tailed Deer. Just 50 years ago these beautiful creatures were nearly extinct, hanging on in a few islands in the Columbia River. In 1978 another small population was discovered at the southern end of the Willamette Valley. The subspecies was added to the federal Endangered Species list and a recovery program began.

It became a conservation success story.

The Columbian White-tailed Deer is a unique subspecies of Whitetail, distinct from those that frequent the east, midwest, and mountain states. In the 1800s, these Columbian Whitetails roamed from the Umpqua River Basin in southwest Oregon up to Puget Sound in northwest Washington. They dwelled in river valleys and oak savanna while avoiding the coniferous upland forest where Blacktail Deer dominate.

Unfortunately, White settlers preferred the rivers too. Towns were planted next to every waterway and farms sprung up in the rich soil. Wetlands were filled in, riparian woodlands cut down and built over. Soon the unique species of the Willamette Valley – from the Oregon Spotted Frog to the Giant Oregon Earthworm – were in serious danger of extinction. With agriculture and residential development filling every flat spot from Seattle to Eugene, there wasn’t anywhere left for the deer to live.

By the time we saw what we had done, it was almost too late. Only two bits of leftover habitat still supported the unique deer. One was in the relatively wild Umpqua River Basin near Roseburg. The other lived on undeveloped islands and shore wetland on the Columbia River’s waters. Each population numbered just a few hundred animals. That’s how close they came to being gone forever.

Today the comeback is remarkable. Over 6,000 Columbian White-tailed Deer roam the oak woodland and riparian forests in the Roseburg area. In Columbia County the deer face greater habitat pressure and so the recovery has been slower, but there are now nearly 1,500 whitetail deer living along the river from Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge near Sauvie Island to Tenasillahee Island just west of Clatskanie. Their official federal status has been improved to “Threatened.”

Julia Butler Hansen NWR on Tenasillahe Island (© Blu Chaney/USFWS)

My sister’s family is a small part of that story. They live on about 17 acres of land in the river floodplain near Rainier. Whitetails are common visitors to their hayfield. An official from the ODFW met with them to discuss how they could improve their property for the deer, which they have done by replacing barbed wire with smooth (so the deer can travel under and over the fence easier), planting a couple thousand trees to improve the travel corridor, and waiting longer to cut hay so fawns can hide from predators for a few extra weeks.

As a result, I’ve been able to see whitetail about every third time I visit her house.

So how do you tell a whitetail from a blacktail? While tail color helps, it doesn’t tell the full story. All deer tails are white below. For Columbian Black-tailed Deer the top of tail is often black, but not always. For Columbian White-tailed Deer the top of the tail is often lighter brown, but it can sometimes have some black like a Blacktail. Confusing, eh?

Some more helpful characteristics are:

  • face color – whitetails often have white rings around the eyes and nose
  • tail shape – whitetail tails are longer and hang down against the body rather than slightly away from it
  • antler shape – blacktail antlers form forks, while whitetail antlers branch off a single main line. Also, the eyeguard (1st point) on Whitetail antlers tends to be taller than it is on Blacktail antlers.

If you’re fortuitous enough to see a large buck’s antlers, the difference can be especially clear.

Any one characteristic may not be enough, especially since the deer can hybridize. Look at all characteristics to see which species the deer matches as a whole. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has an identification video and quiz here:

I’m so used to talking about things that we’ve lost that it is heartwarming to be able to talk about positive progress. The recovery of the Columbian White-tailed Deer is a success story, and they should be with us for many years to come.

Columbian White-tailed Deer at a glance

What: A Federally Threatened deer subspecies found only along the Columbia River near Columbia County and in a small area near Roseburg

Where: In Columbia County they’re best seen in the Clatskanie Bottoms north of Highway 30 near Westport, on Wallace Island north of Clatskanie, along Dike Road in Rainier, and at the northernmost end of Sauvie Island.

Property status: The Julia Butler Hansen Refuge is a federal refuge for Columbian White-tailed Deer managed by the USFWS. The Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge of the USFWS supports whitetail populations, as does ODFW’s Sauvie Island Wildlife Area. A small reserve managed by Columbia Land Trust near Deer Island is looking to build a translocated population. Whitetail are also found on private land near Clatskanie and Rainier.

Website: Julia Butler Hansen Refuge
Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge
ODFW – Columbian White-tailed Deer

Published by Jonathan

Educator, Herpetologist, Hiker.

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