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Oh Deer, Oh Deer : Survey Says Local Populations Have Increased, but Urban Sprawl Makes It Difficult to Maintain Numbers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The invitation was to go deer hunting.

In Los Angeles.

No fooling. The hunting season was closed, but the California Department of Fish and Game wanted to see where the deer stood once the smoke had cleared. The hunting would be by helicopter, with cameras and statistical charts, in the San Gabriel Mountains that separate the basin and the desert of L.A. County.

Wildlife biologist Jim Davis at first drew a gloomy picture--like, why not just try counting the deer in MacArthur Park? That’s in the D-11 hunting zone, too.

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“Most of the deer herd populations in Southern California in the last four or five years have bottomed out,” Davis said. “It’s probably the lowest point in a long, long time, if not forever.”

But there are deer in those hills, as the flights proved--more than one might expect in the seventh year of a drought. Even more than there were three years ago. But not as many as there will be if it ever really rains again.

Hunters who have worked the Angeles National Forest might not believe it. Only 5% got venison there last year--the worst success ratio in the state. But Los Angeles’ deer, despite being squeezed on all sides by a continuing urban explosion that offers no accommodation for wildlife, are more than merely surviving. If they are less endangered by hunters, it’s partly because they live in rugged country that’s difficult to hunt.

Davis coordinated the eighth year of post-hunting aerial surveys in five Southern California regions and concluded, “The deer populations are continuing to increase over the last two years . . . (but) with the continued habitat loss in Southern California, we’re going to be real lucky to keep the deer populations at the levels that they are now.”

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Southern California deer--mostly mules, with some blacktail around Santa Barbara--don’t tend to look for greener pastures, even if there are any.

“Most of these deer have a home range of about a mile,” Davis said. “Essentially, all the herds in Southern California are non-migratory, so they’re stuck with whatever habitat is available to them.”

Funding for the surveys is from the Deer Herd Management Plan Implementation Program initiated in 1984 by what is known as the “Hill Bill,” written by State Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier). The purpose is not to count the deer, but to determine the balance of herds among bucks, does and fawns.

“We want to know the post-hunting season ratio of bucks per hundred does,” Davis said.

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Davis considers a ratio of 20 to 30 ideal. With a few special-hunt exceptions, only bucks are hunted in California, so if the ratio is higher than 30 bucks to every 100 does after the hunt, either the deer were hard to find, the hunters were bad shots or there were more bucks than anyone thought.

The figures help to determine hunting quotas for the following season. There’s a name for such programs: wildlife management.

The fawn-to-doe ratio tells the managers about reproduction rates. In normal conditions, California deer can produce 150-185 fawns per hundred does annually, but they can’t reproduce survivable fawns without food and water, so 70 is an acceptable figure.

The Los Angeles herd showed 46 bucks and 64 fawns to every 100 does--highly encouraging numbers, considering that the first few years of the surveys showed a plunge to about 30 fawns. Davis credits a little rain at the right time--not enough to break the drought, but enough to save the deer.

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As the survey wound down, Davis also said: “We’re seeing a large number of spike bucks, and those will be available for the hunting public next year. And the fact we’re seeing (almost) 70 fawns per 100 does indicates that the population is increasing somewhat. That’s good for the general public that wants to just go out and see deer.”

*

Dawn is merely a pale pink promise in the east as the party prepares to ascend from a clearing in the Antelope Valley across County Road N6 from the U.S. Forest Ranger Station at Valyermo, elevation 3,700 feet. It’s cold, and it will get colder in the helicopter because Brian Watts, pilot for the Landells Aviation charter company, has taken off the doors for better viewing.

Chanelle Davis, the wildlife unit manager for L.A. County, warms her hands on Jim Davis’ lit pipe.

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Watts lifts off and climbs to 7,000 feet to clear the nearest ridge. Mt. Wilson, with its forest of TV towers, is far to the south as the helicopter steadily descends into the heart of the San Gabriels, where California 2 snakes its way across the range from Wrightwood to La Canada. This will be a wake-up call for the deer.

“That’s why we do this so early,” Jim Davis explains. “They’ve been bedded down.”

He and Chanelle Davis--they are not related--search from opposite sides of the rear bay as Watts slips and slides up and down slopes and canyons and along Alder Creek, often at 15 feet below treetop level.

“The lower the better to scare them out of the brush,” Watts says.

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Jim Davis calls out sightings on the intercom to Watts--"doe fawn, 1 o’clock"--and the pilot maneuvers into close position so the biologists can verify age and sex.

“See that wire, Brian?” Jim Davis asks the pilot.

Trees are easy to see but, in the gray early light, power and phone lines are almost invisible. Yet, Watts seems to enjoy his work.

“Yeah, it’s challenging,” he says.

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It’s difficult country to fly or hunt, with deep, steep gullies and thick brush in some places. An hour and a half later, the helicopter is back on the ground to refuel from the 55-gallon drums of kerosene in Davis’ pickup truck, as he assesses the morning’s survey.

“We didn’t see a single buck,” he says. “That’s kind of discouraging. (Until now) our buck ratio was up there pretty high. This is going to knock it down.”

But the count will bounce back in the afternoon, until high winds ground the chopper.

*

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When Jim Davis assesses his final figures, he will say that whereas the Cleveland National Forest of San Diego County has slightly better ratios than the San Gabriels, its deer are more sparse.

“San Diego is a unique area,” Davis says. “Very checkerboard . . . has a lot of intermixed private land in it (and therefore) has had a lot more impacts to the deer herds than any other in Southern California. They don’t have the massive blocks of contiguous land that are reserved as national forest land.”

The Hill Bill also provides money for habitat work, including controlled, prescribed burning of land by the Forest Service.

“The new shoots of chaparral plants that come up after you do a burn are very nutritious . . . a very good source of protein,” Davis said.

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Some of the public gets nervous about fire--controlled, prescribed or otherwise. But even more people, including some hunters, become downright outraged when wildlife biologists talk about hunting does. The problem is, Davis says, there are too many old does out there eating, drinking and taking up space for younger, productive females.

“We have a lot of controversy with that, but ultimately we would like to get into some doe hunting in Southern California,” Davis said.

Meanwhile, Davis said, “A minimum of 100% increase in fawn production over the last two years indicates that people will be able to see a few more deer in the future.”

Deer Ratios Per 100 Does

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County/Area Bucks Fawns Los Angeles 46 64 San Diego 54 69 Santa Ana Mtns 33 57 Santa Barbara-Ventura 39 68 Camp Pendleton 52 67

Source: California Dept. of Fish and Game. (20-30 bucks, 70 fawns considered optimum ratios).


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