White-tailed deer are ubiquitous in North America. It seems like half of the country heads out into the woods to pursue the enigmatic species every fall and winter, to experience the great outdoors and fill their freezers. But there’s one subspecies of whitetail very few hunters know about, in a habitat that you’d least expect them to inhabit. This is the Columbian whitetail deer, the only whitetail west of the Cascades, and the rarest huntable deer in North America.
When hunters think of the Columbia River Basin of Oregon and Washington, big game animals like Columbian blacktail, Roosevelt elk, and black bears usually come to mind. But the Columbian whitetail (Odocoileus virginianus leucurus) is the area’s habitat specialist. Today, they show a strong preference for riparian habitats thickly choked with willows, cottonwoods, and elder trees, coexisting with larger game species by living in places they don’t want to be.
Historically, they also inhabited upland prairies and deciduous woodlands in the Columbia River drainage, along with parts of the Willamette River Valley of Washington and Oregon, but human disruption has pushed them out of these areas.
While unique in their own right, they do share many key attributes with their eastern cousins. They rut at the same time of year with similar behavioral patterns, are roughly the same size as southern subspecies of whitetails, and apart from having noticeably narrower antlers on average, sport exactly the same antler configuration.
One notable difference is that while most other whitetails can breed at just six months old, Columbian whitetail does have to wait 18 months to do so, making them far more vulnerable to habitat disruption and human disturbance. In any other habitats on the East Coast, most hunters would consider them just another deer, but in Washington and Oregon, they’re a unique and endemic subspecies worth conserving.
Like many North American big game species at the turn of the 20th century, Columbian whitetail was in dire straits. Most whitetails thrive in human-disrupted landscapes, but Columbian whitetails evolved to take advantage of a narrow habitat niche along the floodplain thickets of northwestern rivers. So even as market hunting subsided, their population decline only continued as locals built massive hydro dams, drained wetlands, and removed the forest cover they were specialized to live in. By 1950, there were under 2,000 of these deer left, and shortly after the creation of the Endangered Species List in 1964, they joined it in 1968. Down from tens of thousands of individuals prior to European settlement, market hunting and widespread habitat degradation of their isolated habitat left just a fraction of their former numbers.
It makes sense that conservationists’ first actions to protect the species involved protecting the remaining slivers of habitat they had left—such as the 1994 purchase of a 6,500-acre ranch in the southern Umpqua Valley of Oregon, one of the last suitable habitats for Columbian whitetails left in the country at the time. Tenasillahe Island’s Julia Butler Hansen Refuge in Northern Oregon is another example, conserved for the few remaining deer that inhabited it, and used as a trap-and-transfer site in later years in order to boost local populations.
Beyond habitat protection, much of their population recovery has been due to relocations. Since their habitat has been so fragmented over the past 150 years, it’s the only way for them to start recolonizing their historic range, and a great way to ensure genetic diversity in the process. This conservation work has left us with two key herds, the larger Roseburg herd confined to Douglas County, Oregon, and a smaller herd restricted to the lower Columbia River in Clark, Cowlitz, and Wahkiakum Counties in Washington, and Clatsop, Columbia, and Multnomah Counties in Oregon, as well as a few islands. By 2022, numbers had risen to 6,000 individuals spread out over these two populations.
Though still very rare in Washington, their populations had grown in Oregon enough that by 2005, Oregon Fish and Wildlife administered the first hunt for the species in almost 40 years, focusing on the larger and more prolific Roseburg herd, which still to this day is expanding in range. It’s still an incredibly limited hunt. Hunters can only pursue the species in Unit 123 in Western Oregon, where just 65 archery and 25 archery deer tags are issued under a controlled hunt system.
Even then, finding a whitetail to harvest amongst a sea of blacktails is far from guaranteed, which is why these available permits are “either-or” tags, where hunters may only harvest one species or the other. Check out this video from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife that details the differences between the two species.
The majority of the permits are issued for Unit 123 A for the general season and 123R1 for the archery season, a section of the Umpqua Valley that is mostly just made up of private land. For hunters, getting access to that private land is perhaps the single greatest obstacle to hunting this species. Due to how rare this species is, very few landowners will allow unguided hunters on their lands, and guided hunts are far from cheap. The average Roosevelt elk or blacktail hunt might set you back $2,000 to $6,000, Columbian Whitetail hunts could cost you at least $7,000, and perhaps as high as $10,000. But the local knowledge of an experienced guide is incredibly important, given how few deer are on the landscape and how hard it is to draw the hunt in the first place.
The recovery of the Columbian Whitetail over the last 40 years has been a remarkable success story, but they’re far from out of the woods. They still only occupy around 10% of their historic range, and within that area, their habitat is under serious threat. It’s also one of the few threatened species where future conservation success relies not on the restoration of public land but on the restoration of private lands, where the species has historically made its home.
Climate change and human impact will likely continue affecting this species, especially if its habitat remains so limited. Changing climate patterns threaten the lowland habitat of this deer through increased flooding—and deforestation is still occurring at an increasing rate in the area.
Preserving more of the species’ historical habitat, as well as conducting further translocations between thriving populations and struggling ones, is essential for this species to survive. A minor threat to its preservation is hunters mistaking the whitetails for blacktails during open deer season. Unlike whitetails and mule deer, blacktails and Columbian whitetails are roughly the same size, and from a distance look remarkably similar. It’s a threat that both Oregon and Washington have worked hard to combat, but their identification guide has lowered incidences to near zero.
The Columbian whitetail is a prime example that highlights the importance of habitat preservation. Without the continued preservation (and hopefully expansion) of this animal’s habitat in future years, the fate of the subspecies will undoubtedly be in jeopardy. But, if we keep supporting habitat expansion and population growth, we might just see this unique sub-species on the whitetail hunter’s menu a bit more often.
Feature image via Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.