Kodiak residents have taken to social media to report sightings of Sitka black-tailed deer in residential areas and along the road system in recent weeks.
“It is something we don’t see very often,” said Nate Svoboda, area wildlife biologist with the Department of Fish and Game.
The cold and snowy weather in Kodiak has pushed deer down to lower elevations, where they can more easily forage for food, Svoboda said, adding that in these conditions, they can often be found on beaches, where they can travel more easily and forage for kelp.
“We don’t get cold snowy winters like we used to,” he said, explaining the increased presence of deer in residential areas. However, he said it “isn’t unusual” for deer to seek lower ground in cold-weather conditions.
Svoboda said the only danger to Kodiak residents posed by the increased presence of deer comes from traffic hazards. In some cases, residents have spotted herds of more that 40 deer walking on Chiniak Highway in the Middle Bay and Kalsin Bay areas.
However, the cold weather may present a greater danger to the deer. When they descend to lower elevations, “It’s usually a sign that things are tough for the deer,” Svoboda said. “We might see large die-offs if the winter conditions persist.”
The Kodiak deer population is controlled by the weather, not by annual harvest numbers. With temperatures expected to remain below freezing in the coming week, the deer likely will continue to roam the roads for the time being.
The deer hunting season in the Kodiak Road System Management Area ended Dec. 31, but a subsistence hunting season will continue until Jan. 31 on Kodiak Wildlife Refuge land. In 2018, 4,987 deer were harvested by 4,005 hunters in the Kodiak management region. Statistics for the 2019 hunting season will not be available until May.
According to Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Biologist John Crye, the management objective for the Kodiak deer population is 70,000 to 75,000, with an annual harvest objective of 8,000 deer. However, he said “there’s no good way to estimate deer,” so it’s hard to tell the current deer population size in Kodiak.
“When you have light winters, the population is up, and when you have severe winters, the population is down,” he said, noting that the population has fluctuated between 40,000 and 70,000 in recent years.
Crye said the harsher winter this year will likely mean fewer deer to hunt next season.
“Sitka black-tailed deer evolved in a forest climate,” he said. Forests help with thermoregulation, keeping the ground temperature warmer throughout the winter. Since Kodiak is only partially forested, strong winds combined with subzero temperatures cause the deer to die of starvation and hypothermia, Crye said.
Each spring, The Kodiak Wildlife Refuge and the Department of Fish and Game team up to estimate the severity of the winter’s impact on deer population, with input from hunting guides and lodge caretakers.