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CATHLAMET, Wahkiakum County —

Relocating a deer can be tricky.

Their powerful kicks and sharp hoofs have been known to break ribs — and that’s if biologists can get close enough to the animals to try to restrain them. The timid creatures are wary of humans, and waiting for them to wander into a baited trap can mean hours of sitting in a car with the windows rolled up.

But for employees and volunteers at the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge for the Columbian White-Tailed Deer, discomfort is a small price to pay if it means saving the deer from extinction.

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Crews began trucking deer from the 7,000-acre federal refuge, in Wahkiakum County near Cathlamet, at the end of January to save them from a possible flood. The dike protecting the area from the Columbia River could fail at any time, said Doug Zimmer, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The dike was built in the 1920s to protect farmland and began eroding in 2011 when the river flow changed.

“The dike could breach today, it could breach next week, it could breach next year,” Zimmer said. “We just need to be prepared for when it does happen.”

With no date set to replace the dike, biologists hope to move 50 of the refuge’s 100 deer before April, when does are too far along in their pregnancies to be transported. So far, crews have caught and relocated 14 deer.

This species of deer is unique to southwestern Washington and northwestern Oregon. Unlike their abundant cousins, the black-tailed deer, the Columbian white-tailed deer cannot be legally hunted.

Decades of over-hunting during the 19th century decimated the species. When Lewis and Clark arrived in Washington, they documented seeing the deer as far east as the Yakima Valley. Now the species can only be found at a handful of wildlife refuges in Western Washington and Oregon.

The Columbian white-tailed deer was one of the first to be classified as endangered after the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973.

Biologists aren’t necessarily thinking the deer would drown in a flood. Rather, they worry the animals would starve. With part of the refuge under water, the deer would be forced into in a much smaller area, where there wouldn’t be enough food to go around.

So a team led by Paul Meyers, a wildlife biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service, is working quickly to move them to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, 60 miles south.

The transported deer are starting a new colony in the area, which is part of the Columbian white-tailed deer’s historical habitat. Before the relocation, there were no deer at the Ridgefield refuge.

Meyers and his team are using nets to catch deer, as it’s the best way to catch more than one at a time. The nets are suspended on poles and the trap is baited with pears and apples, which Meyers said are like Snickers candy bars for deer. The teams then wait in their vehicles for the deer to walk into the trap.

When a deer walks into the trap, biologists drop the net using a remote. The teams then work quickly to bind the deer’s legs and place the animal in a narrow wooden crate — all while watching out for defensive strikes.

“Being kicked by a deer feels about the same as being hit by a hammer,” Meyers said. “We do our best to avoid that.”

Crews load the crate ontothe bed of a pickup and drive to the animals’ new home. The deer tend to stick around the release site for about a week to get their bearings, but aren’t affected long-term by the relocation, said Refuge Complex manager Jackie Ferrier.

The biologists note the ages and gender of the captured deer to ensure the new colony’s demographics will help the deer survive. Ferrier said the teams are trying to capture more females than males so the deer will breed and the colony will grow. Five of the deer captured so far are bucks, nine are does. Catching the animals in family groups is also important, as fawns can’t survive without their mothers

“It’s best to have a doe, a fawn and a yearling,” Ferrier said. “[The deer] usually stick with their mothers for a while.”

While a dike breach could be catastrophic, successful relocation of the deer could ultimately help the species. Meyers explained it’s better for conservation efforts to have Columbian white-tailed deer populations at as many locations as possibleso that threats, such as disease, at one location won’t wipe out the entire species.

Zimmer said the Fish and Wildlife Service still hopes to rebuild the dike to allow for population growth at the colony. But the project will require cooperation among Wahkiakum County, the district responsible for the dike, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps offered to fund a $5 million project to modify the damaged portion of the dike using money set aside for salmon-habitat creation. The new dike would arc off the current dike away from the river. The old dike would be breached in a few spots, creating a calm body of water between the two structures for salmon to spawn in. The diking district has yet to approve the plan.

“Here they have a piece of federal land, and they have an opportunity to build a salmon habitat,” Zimmer said. “And we have the opportunity to put in a new dike. It’s a win-win situation.”

Amelia Dickson: 360-236-8267 or Twitter: @ameliadickson

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