Can Whitetails Stake a Claim in Alaska?

Can Whitetails Stake a Claim in Alaska?

Other than humans, few mammals besides white-tailed deer have the flexibility and fortitude to live wherever they choose.

As Rollin H. Baker details in the 1984 book “White-tailed Deer: Ecology and Management,” South America’s whitetails thrive from Peru’s humid, sea-level tropics to just above tree-line at 13,450 feet in northwestern Bolivia. And whitetails in North America vary from herds thriving in cypress swamps across the Deep South to loners trying to stretch the species’ range to Canada’s 60th parallel of latitude.

That’s no exaggeration. As Jim Heffelfinger wrote in the 2011 book “Biology and Management of White-tailed Deer,” a hunter in 1996 shot a healthy white-tailed doe on the north side of the MacKenzie River near Norman Wells in the Yukon Territories. Roughly speaking, that doe died 65 miles south of the Arctic Circle and 615 miles east of Fairbanks, Alaska.

More recently, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (DFG) confirmed sightings of individual whitetails in the state’s southeastern panhandle. In a July 2019 article, wildlife biologist Roy Churchwell said whitetails have been seen near Hyder, population 87. That small town lies just 2 miles west of the Canadian border in northwestern British Columbia, and 235 miles southeast of Juneau, Alaska’s capital. Churchwell also said a reliable eyewitness identified a whitetail near Haines, a small town 75 miles north of Juneau and 20 miles south of Skagway, which borders the Yukon Territories.

Alaska biologists expect more whitetails to follow in the years ahead, mainly because of warming temperatures. Biologists in Alberta, Canada, voice similar expectations, forecasting the whitetail’s range to extend over 60 miles farther north by mid-century.

Muleys a More Likely Pioneer

Even so, no one in the Alaska DFG expects whitetails to establish a thriving herd anytime soon anywhere in the state. Mule deer seem the more likely candidate, however modest, given that individual muleys have been appearing for decades around Tok, a community 80 miles from Alaska’s eastern border with the Yukon. The agency also confirmed a mule deer road-kill farther inland near Fairbanks in May 2017, and other sightings between Fairbanks and Tok; as well as near Eagle, Chisana, and Skagway.

Still, Alaska biologists aren’t busily crafting a mule-deer management plan. The nearest established herds of mule deer live near Whitehorse, Yukon, roughly 100 miles north of Alaska’s border near Skagway. Those muleys numbered about 200 in 2005, and biologists suspect they’re the source of mule deer showing up in Alaska. Most of these pioneering deer tend to be loners or a doe with fawns, but the Alaska DFG has received reports of up to 10 muleys around Skagway, as well as evidence they’re bearing fawns.

Meanwhile, Alaska biologists receive occasional reports of whitetails, but can’t substantiate most of them. Many reports are simply misidentified Sitka black-tailed deer. These mule-deer cousins are native to Southeast Alaska’s coastal rainforests, but they’ve also been transplanted and established populations near Yakutat in Prince William Sound; and on Kodiak and Afognak islands.

“Sitka blacktails are typically what people see and report as whitetails,” said Carl Koch, the Alaska DFG’s area wildlife biologist in Juneau. “Most reports we hear on whitetails make no sense. A ‘whitetail’ will show up on the tip of a long peninsula, but somehow no one noticed them going by on their way up there. People send photos of what they think is a whitetail, but I’ve still yet to see one that looks like a whitetail.”

Piggybacking Intruders

Koch told MeatEater that Alaska DFG’s main interest in transient muleys and whitetails is more about what they bring with them. It’s possible some deer are carrying ticks or diseases that would harm native moose, blacktails, or other wildlife. Alaska hasn’t documented chronic wasting disease in its many native wildlife, but the DFG also worries that nonnative whitetails or mule deer could spread mange, mites, brain worms, stomach worms, blue-tongue, or liver flukes wherever they go.

Alaska also doesn't have ticks common to the Lower 48, such as dog, deer, moose, or Rocky Mountain ticks. When Alaska veterinarians identify nonnative ticks, they typically trace them to a cow, horse, dog, or person from the Lower 48 or Canada. Farm animals brought into Alaska must be inspected by a veterinarian, but people aren’t required to get themselves or their pets inspected.

The agency has yet to find evidence of disease or problem ticks in nonnative deer. As part of its monitoring efforts, the DFG encourages nonhunters to photograph deer they doubt are blacktails, and it lets hunters shoot whitetails or mule deer year-round. Hunters can keep the meat, but they must report the kill and provide samples the agency specifies, such as the head with brains intact, as well as the heart, lungs, liver, hide, hoof, and a fecal sample.

Koch said the agency is especially wary of winter ticks, which can infest moose and cause severe anemia from blood loss. Winter ticks have plagued moose along the U.S./Canadian border the past century, but their numbers have exploded recently in parts of Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and southern Canada. Studies in Maine have found moose infested with 40,000 to 90,000 winter ticks. Maine researchers also reported 90% losses in moose calves monitored during their first year.

Koch said moose are inherently more susceptible to tick infestations than deer. “Mule deer can self-groom and groom each other, but moose don’t do that,” Koch told MeatEater. “All moose can do is try to rub them off. They’ll rub so hard their fur falls off. Even if ticks don’t kill a moose directly, they can weaken it enough to leave it vulnerable to predators and illness.”

Expanding their Range

Koch said Alaska is no stranger to new species coming in on their own, expanding their native range, or showing up with help from people. In November 2021, in fact, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy suggested the DFG transplant Sitka blacktails to create a huntable herd in the Mat-Su Valley, a populous area north of Anchorage that’s expected to warm in the decades ahead. Dunleavy suggested the blacktails could provide a new food source and unique wildlife viewing opportunities for locals.

DFG biologists, however, doubt blacktails would survive the region’s normal winters, which typically feature severe cold and little food. They also fear hungry blacktails would devastate crops, backyard gardens, livestock forage, and ornamental plantings.

Meanwhile, transplants or other human interventions aren’t options for whitetails or mule deer. As of July 1995, Alaska policy forbids introducing nonindigenous species to the state. If whitetails ever establish a viable population in “The Last Frontier,” they’ll have succeeded on their own.

Feature image via Matt Hansen.

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