The Sacramento River in northern California is magnificent.
With cool waters running from the Klamath Mountains in the shadow of magnificent Mount Shasta it flows over smooth, gray stones along wooded shorelines.
As I made my way up a game trail leading from the main river, a shocking scene unfolded before me.
Lying on the edge of the trail was a massive, dead blacktail buck.
With antlers that would make any hunter proud it was evident this buck had died within the last 24-36 hours.
For a moment I pondered if I might have come across a mountain lion’s kill but it was not buried and there were no marks in the neck. Upon closer examination it was evident coyotes had started eating the hind quarters but there was no sign they killed the buck.
There were also no gunshot wounds. Only a single hole with no exit wound could be found near the base of the neck and judging by the diameter it was made by the antlers of another buck.
It seems like this old buck met his match and I had been fortunate enough to get a glimpse before nature had its way and all of its parts went back into the ecosystem.
The blacktail is America’s forgotten deer.
Whitetail dominate conversations among hunters and wildlife managers and mule deer take up the slack but but blacktail barely make a blip on the radar.
Scientists believe blacktails split off the whitetails eons ago and at some point mule deer arose out of the blacktail.
There are two varieties of blacktail, the Columbia which can be found from California through Washington and the Sitka, which roams British Columbia and Alaska.
Blacktail are facing a number of issues in the Pacific Northwest ranging from an exotic louse introduced to the region in 1995 to loss of habitat and decline of quality forage in available habitat.
A 2018 report by the Mule Deer Working Group of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies features concerning observations from a majority of states and provinces in the blacktail’s range.
Oregon: Both mule deer and black-tailed deer are substantially below the long-term statewide management objectives and benchmarks.
Washington: Regional harvest trends indicate black-tailed deer in western Washington have decreased. Loss of black-tailed deer habitat due to encroaching human development continues to be a concern.
British Columbia: Predation from wolves and cougars on black-tailed deer continues to be a concern in most areas as well as the need for effective measures to conserve high quality habitat. Black-tailed deer buck harvest has dropped by approximately half since the early 1990s.
California’s population seems to be stable but habitat problems proven in other states seem to be rearing its head there. Alaska’s numbers have faced ups and downs but seem to be holding steady overall.
Things are changing quickly in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest and it is my opinion that blacktail and their close cousins the mule deer are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine.
What happens to them is an indicator of what is happening at a much larger level ecologically and I have committed to monitoring this issue.
Finding this massive buck inspired a deeper look at blacktails and gave me an even deeper appreciation for these majestic forest dwellers.
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