One of the original endangered species – the Columbian white-tailed deer – is slowly making its way toward recovery.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed downgrading its protected status from endangered to threatened.
The new status will mean these deer are no longer on the brink of extinction. But they're not fully recovered yet, either.
Their numbers along the Columbia River were down to around 450 back in 1967 when they joined the bald eagle and California condor in the first group of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. Now there are more than 900 deer in the lower Columbia River area.
"We are actually making tremendous progress in recovering this species," said Paul Henson, state supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Oregon. "We now have more deer in more places. The population has essentially more than doubled since the species was first listed."
Columbian white-tailed deer populations declined as a result of habitat loss as farming, logging and development took over the river valleys and bottomlands the deer call home.
To rebuild the population, Henson said, his agency has moved deer into wildlife refuges and relocated elk that compete with the deer for food. Wildlife officials have even killed coyotes to protect the deer from their natural predators until their numbers rebound.
In 1971, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created the Julia Butler Hansen Wildlife Refuge specifically to harbor and protect Columbian white-tailed deer.
Jackie Ferrier, a project leader for the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the Julia Butler Hansen refuge, says refuge staff have put a lot of energy into maintaining habitat for the deer.
They've also moved deer from the refuge to other areas to help expand the population.
"We do a lot of intensive habitat management," Ferrier said. "We do pasture work and riparian plantings because they like both grass and woody species. We do that and invasive species control."
When the elk population in the refuge grows too big, she said, master hunters are invited in to reduce their numbers, though that hasn't happened in many years. When predation rates get too high or predators grow too numerous, she said, the refuge will call for predator controls.
Their strategy appears to be working. This year, Ferrier said, many deer in the refuge have twin fawns.
"That's really good," she said. "We like to see it. It means the habitat is good. The does are comfortable and getting the resources they need."
The plan for easing protections on the deer includes implementing a new rule that will allow landowners to manage deer on their property. Henson said his agency hopes that will make people less nervous about having the deer on their land.
"From our perspective that will then allow the white-tailed deer to expand into more places and actually have higher population numbers across greater parts of its historic range because people will be more receptive to having them on their property," he said.
The current population numbers are nearly high enough to consider removing the species from the Endangered List, Henson said. But he said he wants to see more deer populations in more places before delisting.
The current range of the Columbia River population of Columbian white-tailed deer includes areas on the Washington and Oregon sides of the river, including islands in the river.
Another population in Southern Oregon has already been deemed recovered and was removed from the Endangered List in 2002.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is taking public comments on the proposal to ease protections for the Columbia River population before making a final decision.