Intensively managed private timberlands hold the highest concentrations of blacktailed deer in western Washington. Access to those areas is becoming more and more difficult, but success is possible.
By Doug Rose
Deer hunters in Washington can almost be excused for wondering if the Evergreen State has shrunk over the last 20 years. Each year, it seems as though more land is removed from production as wildlife habitat.
Some is lost to development, usually in the form of trophy homes for immigrants from Texas and California, or it goes to car lots and shopping centers. What hasn't been paved or "improved" with structures is now typically adorned with city ordinances and other restrictions prohibiting the discharge of firearms - laws that simply didn't exist a generation ago.
Large areas of national forests have been designated as late successional reserves, a euphemistic reference for old-growth habitat reserved for spotted owls and native salmon production. While these areas remain open to hunting, few deer and even fewer elk can survive in these large swaths of maturing forest because their canopies darken forest floors and prevent undergrowth from surviving. Other areas have been set-aside as Cooperative Road Management Areas, which is a cumbersome way of saying no vehicles are allowed.
Even with all of those closures and changes, nothing has provoked more controversy among the hunters of black-tailed deer in Washington than the growing number of gated roads and entry fees on private timberlands.
Located between the increasingly urban lowlands of western Washington and federally owned forests, millions of acres of industrial timberlands have been the hunting destinations of blacktail hunters for generations. The active cutting rotations on these private forests create a checkerboard of multi-age habitats that black-tailed deer prefer. Blocks of mature timber that provide thermal and safety cover are broken by clear-cuts where nutritious early-stage vegetation grows, and stands of timber of various ages and densities provides travel corridors.
Photo by Chuck & Grace Bartlett
Over the last decade, all of the western Washington game management units that have yielded the highest black-tailed deer harvests have one thing in common: They contain large areas of actively managed, private forests.
During the 1990s, however, these prime deer hunting areas became increasingly difficult for hunters to access. Gates that block vehicular access were erected on many roads, and many timberlands started charging entry fees. The reasons for the changes were obvious and understandable - garbage dumping, habitat destruction from off-road vehicles, timber theft, safety issues for company employees on haul roads, and the growing problem of methamphetamine labs.
Private timberlands near my home are not immune. Their roads are a dumping ground for refrigerators, sofas and water heaters, which, in turn, become handy targets for slob marksmen. No one bothers to pick up their shell casings, and timber company signs are routinely riddled with bullet holes. Piles of black plastic garbage bags are strewn around, and every few miles you encounter an abandoned car or truck. If I owned the land, I would gate all of it. You would too.
"Most of the private land and much of the DNR in this area is gated," said Ruth Milner, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife district wildlife biologist for Snohomish County. "But the timber companies are not doing it to be mean. They have shared the cost of removing those dead cars and refrigerators with me. It's hard for some families, for the grandpas and sons and grandsons who liked to hunt together, because grandpa can't walk as far anymore and the grandson has short legs."
Fortunately, virtually all of the major timber companies still allow hunting on their properties. But hunting in western Washington is far more complicated than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Today, many areas are gated year-round, requiring hunters to walk, bike or ride stock. Other timberlands are open to vehicles on weekends only.
The situation is further complicated by the frenzy of takeovers and mergers in the corporate world that have produced a musical chair of ownership and names for many industrial forests. Hunters need to understand who owns the land that they intend to hunt. They should also know whether they need a to obtain a permit or to pay a fee, and they should understand the types of access available well before the season begins. Otherwise, you can end up driving up to an area you have hunted for decades only to discover that it has a new gate across it.
"You can't just go out on opening day without scouting and doing some research," Milner said.
There are positive sides to the increase in gated land, of course, not the least of which is less hunting pressure. This results in a greater chance of a deer reaching trophy age. Less crowding also tends to create a higher quality hunt. Indeed, the WDFW's Milner says that although there has been significantly less hunter effort in her district in recent years, the harvest has remained basically the same in many areas. That suggests that serious hunters are still getting deer.
Washington-Oregon Game & Fish has spoken to officials of the major private landowners in blacktail country. Here is the rundown for access to their properties during the 2003 season.
|Timber Company Contacts|
Contact these Northwest timberland companies and tree farms to inquire about accessing their lands for deer hunting in 2003.
Weyerhaeuser — www.weyerhaeuser.com/recreation; Snoqualmie Tree Farm, 1-800-433-3911; Vail Tree Farm, 1-800-361-5602; Mount St. Helens Tree Farm, 1-866-636-6531.
Hancock-Rainier Timber Company — Kapowsin Tree Farm (PLWMA 401), 1-800-782-1493.
Olympic Resource Management — Coyle and Olympic Units, 1-360-697-6626.
Merrill-Ring Company — Pysht Tree Farm, 1-800-998-2382.
Simpson Timber Company — www.simpson.com. — Doug Rose
PUGET SOUND The foothills and river valleys between the suburbs east of Lake Washington and the Mount Baker/Snoqualmie National Forest contain the most productive blacktail-hunting habitat in north Puget Sound.
In recent years, the Snoqualmie Unit (GMU 460), which basically extends from I-90 on the south to Highway 2 on the north and is bounded by the Cascade Crest on the east and Puget Sound on the west, has been the most dependable unit in the region. For many Puget Sound deer hunters, the mid-elevation timberlands of the Weyerhaeuser Company's Snoqualmie Tree Farm are the traditional places to pursue blacktails, and the active harvest rotation in the tree farm are much more to the liking of deer than the higher elevation areas on the national forest to the east.
In recent years, Weyerhaeuser permitted access to a handful of roads in both tree farms for hunters who purchased an annual permit. That will not happen this year. "The Snoqualmie Tree Farm is for sale," said Julie Keough, a Weyerhaeuser spokesperson, "and there is a sale pending." The company is not - let me emphasize not - barring access to its property. "As long as Weyerhaeuser owns the tree farm, hunters on foot, bicycle and horseback are welcome at any time," Keough said. All motorized access, however, is prohibited this year. In addition, Weyerhaeuser has already sold its White River Tree Farm to the Hancock Company, and motor access there will also be unlikely.
Hancock also owns thousands of acres of timber north of the Snoqualmie Tree Farm, and it is in the process of purchasing more. "Most of it is gated," said the WDFW's Milner, "but it's open to non-motorized hunting - if you are willing to walk, or ride a mountain bike or horse. It's open to that." Hancock does not charge an entry fee, and Milner says the company is good about posting its gates. However, she warns that hunters should not assume an open gate means it is okay for them to drive on the road. It is more likely that there is an active timber harvest in the area. Anyone driving in not only faces encountering loaded log trucks but they also run the risk of being locked behind the gate at the end of the work day.
The Rainier Timber Company now owns the large Kapowsin Tree Farm near Orting in the foothills west of Mount Rainier. Formerly controlled by Champion International, the property is within the Mashel Unit (GMU 654), and has been managed as a Private Land Wildlife Management Area (PLWMA 401) in recent years, with limited entry and gated roads.
The Mashel Unit has been one of the most productive in Puget Sound, with more than 300 deer tagged in 2000. While that is not the largest harvest within Region 6, it is easily larger than any other mainland Puget Sound GMU. The Kapowsin Tree Farm offers general-season hunts for archery, modern firearm and muzzleloader, as well as permit hunts and raffle deer permits.
SOUTHWEST WASHINGTON Southwest Washington was the hands-down winner in blacktail deer harvest during the 1990s, and a majority of those deer were bred on its private industrial timberlands.
Eight Region 5 GMUs produced more than 300 deer kills during the 2000 hunting season. As in Puget Sound, however, deer tend concentrate in the band of mid-elevation, industrial forests that lie between the river bottoms and the mountains.
While several timber companies operate in southwest Washington, Weyerhaeuser dominates. Its Mount St. Helens Tree Farm is by far the largest forest. Sprawling from Highway 12 to the Columbia River, the farm covers more than 400,000 acres. The Mossyrock, Winston and Toutle units that lie within the St. Helens Tree Farm have historically hosted some of western Washington's best blacktail hunts.
Of all the changes in regulations and access to private forests in recent years, none were as shocking as the decision by Weyerhaeuser in 2001 to limit access to the northern portion of the tree farm. After years of basically unlimited access to the immense Toutle River watershed, hunters were suddenly limited to two large corridors along the north and south fork Toutle River valleys. Specifically, the 1900 Road provides access to about 5 miles of land north of the Spirit Lake Highway near Kidd Valley, while the 4100 Road opens about 10 miles of the South Fork Toutle. The company allows vehicle access to the Green River Fish Hatchery, via the 1901 Road (off the 1900 Road), and to Washington DNR holdings west of Mount St. Helens. These roads have been open throughout the week and on weekends, although camps, fires and vehicles are not permitted on spurs and secondary roads.
To the south, hunters also have access to Weyerhaeuser property in the Kalama and Coweeman drainages during deer hunting seasons.
Although it is now managed as part of Region 6, the Skookumchuck Unit (GMU 667) is similar to the heavily managed forest in southwest Washington, and Weyerhaeuser's Vail Tree Farm comprises a large part of the unit. The Skookumchuck Unit usually vies with the Grayback Unit in eastern Region 5 as the most productive blacktail GMU in western Washington. It has turned out more than 900 deer each of the last three seasons for which harvest numbers are available.
Vehicle access to the Vail Tree Farm has been limited to weekends in recent years. Hunters who want to enter the property via non-motorized means during the week are required to call the farm and find out which areas are open to hunting. On the west side of I-5, companies other than Weyerhaeuser own the bulk of the forest lands, but gates have become more common in the highly productive Ryderwood (GMU 530), Lincoln (GMU 501), Stella (GMU 504) and Willapa Hills (GMU 506) as well.
OLYMPIC PENINSULA The vaguely circular Olympic Mountains funnel the weather systems from the Pacific Ocean into distinct tracks that create a wider range of habitat conditions than any other region in western Washington. Similarly, a large number of timber companies maintain significant holdings on the Olympic Peninsula, and each of them offers slightly different access and hunting opportunities. As a result, blacktail hunters have a wider range of options on the peninsula than in any other region. These range from the Sitka spruce and moss-draped big leaf maple of the peninsula's West End to the madrone and rhododendron of the Olympic rain shadow; from fee hunts to free hunts, and from gated areas to wide-open road networks on private land.
The Merrill-Ring Company's Pysht Tree Farm is one of the oldest commercial tree farms in the state. Located along the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Clallam Bay, the farm lies within the Pysht GMU. Year in and year out, it is the most productive black-tailed deer unit on the western Olympic Peninsula, turning out between 250 and 300 deer in recent years. Merrill-Ring charges a modest fee for entry onto the tree farm, and it also offers permit and raf
fle hunts for deer and elk as a Private Land Wildlife Management Area. Archery, modern firearm and muzzleloader hunts are available during general seasons on the Merrill-Ring PLWMA 600B South Unit, while the 600 North units are only open to permit and raffle hunters.
Olympic Resource Management, a branch of Pope Resources or Pope and Talbot, owns thousands of acres in eastern Clallam and Jefferson counties. Sections of the company's property west of U.S. 101 are within the Olympic GMU; those east of the highway are within the Coyle Unit. These GMUs are easily the most productive blacktail units on the eastern Olympic Peninsula, typically yielding more than 200 deer each annually.
Olympic Resource Management allows hunting on most of its timberlands, with some areas open to vehicles and others only accessible by foot; and in the past, it has set aside special areas for bow or shotgun hunting. It does not charge entry fees, but camping and fires are prohibited. In areas open to vehicles, ORM usually leaves a few main-haul roads open during the modern firearms seasons, but all other roads are gated. All gates are closed, but hunting is allowed during early and late archery season.
The vast majority of Simpson Timber Company lands on the Olympic Peninsula are open to deer hunters. Based in Shelton, Simpson's holdings extend from Puget Sound to within sight of the Pacific Ocean and from the foothills of the southern Olympics to the broad Chehalis River Valley.
Simpson has gated increasingly large areas of its property in recent years. That apparently hasn't diminished the productivity of hunters, however. During the 2000 season, hunters killed 346 deer in the Wynoochee Unit and 452 in the adjacent Satsop GMU.
PLANNING IS THE KEY It is a well-known fact that blacktail hunters who spend time in the woods during July and August eat a lot more venison than those who wait until opening day to begin their search for deer. In this era of changing ownerships and access to timberlands, successful hunters are the ones who research and plan even before going afield to scout.
"Hunters need to get a map and go out well before opening day," the WDFW's Milner said. "It's a good idea to call regional biologists and talk to them about potential areas. Once you find an area you want to hunt, then go back and call the company. Double check to be sure you can hunt there, and that there are not any active timber sales going on."
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