Eleven rescued deer previously slated for euthanization by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are now standing on the brink of wild release.
That twist in the ongoing saga at For Heaven’s Sake Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation in Rochester was revealed by WDFW Wildlife Manager Brian Calkins last week.
“We’ve made the decision to allow them to release all of the deer, and further, we are going to let them do that in the manner that they have done in the past,” said Calkins. “We’re working on a press release, but our strategy at this point is, it’s written to follow the first release of some deer.”
That development came 10 days after Calkins took part in the final WDFW observation of the herd of orphaned deer that had previously been deemed to be “too friendly” for wild release by the WDFW. During that onsite inspection conducted by Calkins and WDFW Conflict Specialist Matt Blankenship, Calkins said nine of the deer exhibited wild traits and caution around humans. However, he also reported that he was able to approach two young does and repeatedly touch them on the head.
While all indications from the WDFW since that March 16 visit to For Heaven’s Sake have signaled that the nine deer that fled the advances of the WDFW would be approved for wild release, the fate of the two offending does was left hanging in the balance while WDFW staff engaged in extensive internal discussions.
The decision to allow all 11 remaining deer to be returned to the wild comes nearly eight months after concerns were first raised about the instincts of the young ungulates at For Heaven’s Sake. At that time, the rescue center had 15 fawns and an elk calf under their care.
After several months of internal dialogue and an inspection of the animals by WDFW staff, the determination was made to euthanize all 15 fawns and the elk calf at For Heaven’s Sake. The WDFW argued that the animals had become habituated to humans and would become easy prey in the wild, or even worse, could wind up causing injury to humans. When WDFW staff showed up at For Heaven’s Sake in November to round up the animals for euthanization, they were able to coax four of the youngest deer and the elk calf that was still being bottle fed, into an enclosed space where they were sedated. The animals were then loaded into a trailer and later euthanized.
However, the remaining 11 deer on the docket for dispatch refused to approach WDFW staff and fled into nearby woods in order to evade capture. Even after that flighty display, those 11 deer remained targeted for euthanasia by the WDFW. It wasn’t until mounting public outcry came to a head at a Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting at the state capital in December that the WDFW began to relent.
One week after that meeting in Olympia, the WDFW came to an agreement with For Heaven’s Sake that allowed the deer to remain under the care of the rescue center until March 16. The agreement allowed for three inspections of the deer by WDFW between mid-December and the middle of March in order to determine their suitability for wild release.
On Monday, Calkins noted that since that final inspection, the WDFW has dropped its requirement that the deer be sedated and ear-tagged prior to their release. Instead, the operators of For Heaven’s Sake, Claudia and David Supensky, will be allowed to facilitate the release much as they have in the past.
“When (Calkins) came here on Friday he said, ‘We’ve had some changes in the plan.’ And man, it scared me at first,” said Claudia Supensky. “What they’ve decided is that they are going to let us try to round them up in our trailer and then move them, just like we always have.”
The ear-tagging requirement was intended to help WDFW keep tabs on the deer once they are released back into the wild. The thought was that if any of the deer wound up causing conflict, then WDFW would be able to figure out where the problem deer came from. Calkins said the decision to drop the ear tag requirement was not made lightly.
“That took quite a bit of discussion and it wasn’t an easy decision for us to make, but any time we handle animals with drugs or other capture methods you do run the risk of injuring or even killing an animal. In this case we didn’t feel that the risk was warranted,” said Calkins.
For her part, Suspensky was grateful for the opportunity to round the deer up as she always has and release them to their new home on the range. She said she plans on baiting the travel trailer with apples and other sweet fodder in order to entice the deer, as instructed by the WDFW.
“They haven’t had apples in a very long time because the state said not to do that, so they are just going to love that and I think we are going to be able to get them in the trailer,” said Supensky.
She noted that it will likely take multiple trips to safely transport the deer to their new location, but the plan is to release them all in the same area so that they can remain a herd.
“It’s clear that at this point in time, based on two of our evaluation visits, that most of the deer, nine, seem to be acting pretty wild,” said Calkins. “There are two that humans could physically touch during two of our evaluations. That said, there is also a herd mentality amongst this group of animals. They tend to follow each other when they take off and we are hopeful those two animals will continue to run with the others.”
He explained that the WDFW believes any risks to the public presented by the deer will be mitigated by the remote location where they will be released, as well as the animals’ inclination to stick with the herd.
“It may sound kind of harmless that a couple of these deer came up to us and we were able to touch them and what not, but if that behavior is reinforced in wild animals, and that’s what these are is wild animals, it can result in damage to landscapes and even injuries to humans,” said Calkins. “We’re putting them in a large enough space with not too many homes and so forth around that we are hoping that it will be a good scenario in this case.”
Calkins noted that there is no specific timetable for the release of the deer. He said that the Supenskys will be allowed to lure the deer into the trailer at whatever pace the deer choose to cooperate.
“They are going to do this as quickly as they can. They are basically all ready to go,” said Calkins.
Suspensky was hopeful that all of the deer could be released later this week.
While a happy ending seems to be in store for the 11 surviving deer at For Heaven’s Sake, Calkins called the killing of the first five animals justified. The entire episode will likely serve as a cautionary tale for wildlife rescuers and WDFW personnel alike for years to come.
“I think it is. I also think we’ve learned a lot from this experience,” said Calkins. “I don’t think we’ve ever had something quite like this happen before.”