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Alaska’s Trophy Blacktail Deer
by Riley Woodford, ADF&G
Alaska is home to bigger, more dangerous and more glamorous big game, Sitka
blacktail deer hold a special place in the hearts of some hunters.
Two islands 700 miles apart consistently produce Alaska’s biggest deer -
Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska and Kodiak Island in Southwest.
Most Sitka blacktail average in the 90 to 120 pound range, but big deer on
Prince of Wales and Kodiak are much larger, reaching weights between 175 and
Blacktail are closely related to the mule deer of western North America, and
the species even hybridize where their ranges overlap. Blacktail deer range
up the Pacific coastline from Northern California to Juneau, and have been
introduced to Yakutat, Prince William Sound and Kodiak Island. An attempt to
introduce deer to the Kenai Peninsula in 1923 was unsuccessful.
Sitka blacktail are the only deer in Alaska. There are two subspecies of
blacktail deer, Columbia blacktail, found in the Pacific Northwest, and
Sitka blacktail in British Columbia and Alaska. Columbia blacktail are
significantly larger on average than Sitka blacktail.
Although blacktail are indigenous and abundant on the islands of Southeast
Alaska, there’s something special about Prince of Wales Island. Boyd Porter,
the Area Biologist based in Ketchikan with the Alaska Department of Fish and
Game, said Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof Islands (known as the ABC
Islands) have small deer - and a lot of them. Prince of Wales has fewer
deer, but they have larger bodies and bigger antlers.
“People brag about the fact these deer get up to 180 or 190 pounds,” he
said. “A lot has to do with predators, but it’s also genetics, weather and
food, all those working in an intricate relationship. Prince of Wales has a
lot of things that deer need, and in good supply. It’s a very rich
Porter said the old growth forest on Prince of Wales is a fertile
environment. The island is underlain by limestone, and limestone-influenced
soils tend to produce nutritious vegetation.
“There’s some talk that plants that grow over limestone have higher
nutritive quality, and that may contribute to larger antler growth,” said
former Ketchikan Area Biologist Doug Larsen. “Predators keep animals well
below carrying capacity, and where deer densities are not as high, they tend
to produce larger deer. There’s less competition for food because of fewer
animals. Mild weather makes a big difference, because food can be available
through out the year.”
Black bears and wolves prey on deer on Prince of Wales, but wolves aren’t
found on the ABC Islands. Bear are seasonal and opportunistic predators of
deer, unlike wolves. Bears kill fawns in the spring, but when fawns are just
a few weeks old they are better able to avoid bears. Wolves are effective
predators on adults, and 90 percent of the wolves’ diet on Prince of Wales
Island is deer.
“The ABC Islands do have brown bears, but the birthing event swamps the
predators,” Porter said. “For the most part, bears don’t take many adult
deer year round, it’s a spring phenomena. On the other hand, wolves take
them year around, and a lot more of them.”
Predation is a dramatic influence, but Porter pointed out that it’s an
interaction of different factors. Vancouver Island, a few hundred miles
south of Prince of Wales Island, has wolves, bears and mountain lions all
preying on the island’s population of Sitka blacktail deer. Deer persist
there, but the animals are small.
Winter weather is a major issue for deer. Deep snow, and especially snow
that persists into the spring, can wreak havoc on a deer population. When
snow gets brisket-deep on deer they expend a lot of energy getting around.
It also makes finding nutritious food difficult, and predators are more
likely to be successful.
“Deer can survive on fat reserves and a maintenance diet if snow doesn’t
persist,” Porter said. “Deep snow by itself not a big issue, but harsh
winter weather combined with persistent snow is very bad.”
When snow is deep, deer are restricted to the beach. If the snow persists to
the spring deer can exhaust the available food supply, and their fat
reserves. Consequently, deer populations fluctuate widely in some areas
depending on the severity of winters.
“We see heavy mortality those severe winters, so it’s a boom and bust
situation,” Porter said. “If you have back to back hard winters - you knock
the population back and then hammer them again - it can decimate deer
populations. After the hard winters of ’70 and ‘71 in Southeast Alaska there
were piles of dead deer on the beach fringes, and the season was closed for
over ten years in some areas.”
In recent years, conditions have been favorable, and Porter said that bodes
well for deer on Prince of Wales and surrounding islands. Hunters should
find the coming seasons a good time to look for trophy-sized deer in
southern Southeast Alaska.
“We’re going on six mild winters on a general scale, and more like 10 to 12
on a larger scale,” he said. “I think we’re seeing more large body (deer)
and large antler size than we have in a long time.”
Kodiak Island is very different from Prince of Wales, and is even more
renowned for producing big deer. The majority of Alaska’s trophy blacktail
have come from Kodiak and adjacent islands - and all those deer are from a
source population of about two dozen animals.
Kodiak Area Biologist Larry Van Daele said there is some evidence that deer
may have been introduced to Kodiak around the turn of the century, but
numbers weren’t high. Territorial records show in 1924, 14 deer from the
Sitka area were released on Long Island, adjacent to Kodiak. In 1930, two
deer from Prince of Wales were released. There was little indication of
success, so in 1934, nine deer were captured near Petersburg and introduced
to Kodiak Island. A population established and grew, and legal hunting began
in 1953 and 38 bucks were taken. By the late 1960s deer had moved to
adjacent Afognak Island as well. By that time, it was apparent that deer
were thriving – the harvest in 1967 was 1,500 deer.
Van Daele attributes the success of deer on Kodiak primarily to the habitat.
The northern end of Kodiak Island, and Afognak Island, is dense Sitka spruce
forest. The rest of the island is open alpine terrain of brush, grass and
tundra. When winters are mild, deer are able to put on body mass, and with
it, big antlers.
“You get the bad with the good, though,” he said, “When we have hard
winters, there’s not a lot of cover from deep snow, and we can have some
pretty severe winter kill. The winters of 1998 and ‘99 hit Kodiak pretty
Predation is not a big factor on Kodiak, unlike Prince of Wales. Although
Kodiak is famous for its big brown bears, they are not a significant
predator of deer, Van Daele said.
Mike Flores of Alaska Deer Hunter, a hunter transport service, said writers
and film crews visited Kodiak Island this fall to feature the island’s deer
hunting in two nationally-televised outdoor programs, “Cabela’s Outfitter
Journal” and “Americana Outdoors,” on the Outdoor Life Network. The episodes
are schedule to air in the spring.
Flores said deer on Afognak Island and the northern, more wooded end of
Kodiak Island average 90 to 110 pounds, although larger animals are
sometimes taken. The bigger deer come from the more remote south and west
“People kill the bigger bucks in the alpine areas where they are harder to
get,” he said. “There are no roads for 60 miles.”
That’s where Anchorage-based hunter John Frost has taken three Pope and
Young record book blacktail with his bow. He said most people like to hunt
when the deer are in rut in the fall, but he prefers hunting in August and
September, to take advantage of the longer daylight hours. A big part of the
appeal of Kodiak is the visibility in that open country.
“The deer tend to be in bachelor groups in the high alpine,” he said. “I do
a lot of glassing in the high alpine and I pass up a lot deer. I look for a
trophy buck and then try and stalk it as best I can.”
He said it’s a lot like sheep hunting. In the summer, the bucks are not
running around chasing does and tend stick to the same place, making them
easier to stalk. The meat is far better quality in summer than fall, he
said. The only disadvantage is that the cape is prettier in October, and
makes a more attractive mount.
Frost has seen the population fluctuate in extremes, and concurred that the
hard winters in the late 1990s killed deer in large numbers on Kodiak.
“The population is coming back now, and I’ve been seeing more big deer,” he
said. “The best time is ahead. I expect good hunting in coming years.”
Webmaster's note: this story appeared originally in Alaska Wildlife News, a
publication of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It is
republished here by permission.
More information on Blacktail Deer Hunting in Alaska