As far as any more threat of significant winter kill on Kodiak, I think the deer get a reprieve until next year. This winter was nearly unprecedented, at least for recent decades, in terms of sustained bitter cold temperatures, but the precipitation that would have turned the island into a deer morgue never fell. Had it, kill-offs exceeding 50% of the total population would have almost assuredly been widespread with pockets of 70-90% mortality in particularly exposed portions of Kodiak. Thankfully, precipitation levels were below average – disaster averted for all hunters who took advantage of Alaska’s 2016 license/permit prices and booked Kodiak adventures earlier than normal.
Just last week, temperatures hit 50 degrees and the snow line is up above 600-800’ in elevation. Though there was some winter kill, mostly last year’s fawns, it was localized (reports seem to suggest ~50% of northwest corner of the island’s fawn crop is toast). I’ve heard multiple explanations from different folks on what reasons are truly behind die-offs on Kodiak Island, and though I don’t claim to know exactly which line of reasoning holds the most water, it is interesting.
To me, the one that makes the most sense (to me at least) is one twist on an ecological trap. To steal a definition from Wiki, an ecological trap is any scenario where rapid change in the environment leads organisms to actively select poor quality habitat. Browsing exposed alder and willow brush tips or any other available terrestrial forage would provide the highest quality nutritional profile for Sitkas in the dead of winter. However, when winter storms drop high snow amounts in short periods of time, deer are pushed down to the beaches. At low tide, beaches provide not only refugia from the deep snow but lots of green vegetation, kelp and seaweed that exposed by a receding tideline. Deer take advantage of an apparently fortuitous circumstance, but the trap lies in the extraordinarily low amount of nutrients provided by such aquatic forage. For deer already in poor and stressed condition, Sitkas literally starve to death on full stomachs.
(This hypothesis stands in slight contrast to a post I made 2 years ago on the blog regarding deer over-abundance which examined some data from another of Alaska’s seaward islands.)
For dad and I, we are still planning to hunt the northwest quadrant of the island, and I have not re-scheduled our drop location from the original alpine lake we chose. I will wait until the Kodiak game and fish biologists have had a chance to do spring surveys before contacting them to get one final verdict on how the Sitka deer population fared through the 2016-17 winter. In the meantime, here is a forum thread that I’ve followed the past month and there are a few other anecdotes floating around on the Interweb that provide some insight as well.