Oregon’s Columbian White-Tailed Deer Was Endangered Until 18 Years Ago. Now, a Closely Regulated Hunt Celebrates the Species’ Recovery
The westernmost whitetail in North America has made a comeback, so much so that our Hunting Editor was able to draw a coveted tag
The fourth time I saw the Columbian white-tailed buck, he was slipping through a stand of moss-draped oaks at first light, following twitchy does into the blackberry briars that bristle the shoreline of the South Umpqua River like unruly razor wire.
The third time I saw the buck as a series of spectral images from a trail camera, his glowing eyes buggy in the flash and enough of his many-pointed rack frozen in the phosphorescent night to get me jacked.
The second time I saw him from an aluminum jet sled, circa 1999, as I drifted three pounds of dead herring along the sandy bottom of the Columbia River. He was standing in tag alder on an island that my sturgeon guide told me the government had bought for the remnant population of deer. Sort of like an Indian reservation, only for floodplain whitetails, not the coastal people of the Cowlitz or Chinook tribes.
The first time I saw the buck was a picture in a pamphlet published by that same government. That was back in 1994, the year the federal Bureau of Land Management purchased a 6,500-acre ranch on southern Oregon’s Umpqua River, one of many efforts to restore this little whitetail to its historic range.
You’ll know by now that I’m not describing the actual same buck, but rather several members of his extended family. My relationship with this sub-species of deer, the Columbian white-tailed deer (the westernmost whitetails on the continent), dates back to the Clinton Administration, and for most of that time, I used the modifiers “protected” and “endangered” to describe its status as a game animal when I wrote about it. Which was pretty often.
The Columbian White-Tailed Deer Recovery
My beat as an outdoor writer for the last three decades has been conservation, natural-resource politics, and Western big-game hunting, and there are few species that occupy the confluence of those topics quite as squarely as the uncommon Columbian whitetail. You’ll have heard of the black-tailed deer, which lives along most of the Pacific coast and interior mountains west of Interstate 5 from central California north to Vancouver Island in Canada. Maybe you’re also familiar with its cousin, the Sitka blacktail, which roams north to coastal Alaska.
But the Columbian whitetail is no blacktail. While the latter love the fog-shrouded timber and misty mountains of the Coast Range, the Columbian whitetail prefers boggy swamps and river sloughs in a small and familiar home range. In this way they’re like the whitetails that dominate most of the country from Kansas eastward. Like the rest of the continental deer population, populations of Columbians declined as land was cleared and frontier hunters provided venison for urban markets. As early as the mid 1850s, Oregon Trail pioneers began clearing land, draining swamps, and going about the business of settling. All that disruption to the fertile flat land along the Columbia River and its tributaries undid the Columbian whitetail, to the degree that the species living on wooded islands in its eponymous river was declared endangered in 1968. Ten years later, a small population of the deer was discovered along the Umpqua River in southwest Oregon, and subsequently added to the federal endangered species list.
Oregon’s whitetails weren’t the only species to lose habitat as Americans plowed and tamed the continent. But unlike Odocoileus virginianus (the dominant deer species of North America; biologists recognize 29 subspecies of whitetails across the continent), the Columbian whitetail (Odocoileus virginianus leucurus) isn’t as adaptable as whitetails elsewhere. Across the rest of the country, whitetails thrive on disruption and habitat conversion. Not so in Oregon, where the Columbian deer evolved to take advantage of a narrow habitat niche along the floodplain thickets of Northwestern rivers.
Dams that stopped flooding, timbering that removed cover, and farming that drained wetlands all pushed Columbian whitetails into small shreds of shrinking habitat.
Among the actions that state and federal biologists undertook to protect remnant populations of Columbian whitetails was the purchase of that ranch on the South Fork Umpqua that contained critical deer habitat. Another was the purchase of that island in the Columbia River that I drifted past as I fished for sturgeon, a fellow species that has been impacted by human development, specifically hydro-power dams on the Columbia. Tenasillahe Island was set aside for the last few Columbian whitetails that biologists could trap and transfer there. Wildlife managers reckoned that this dramatic effort to establish a breeding population of captive deer was the last best hope for the species.
Property acquisitions, habitat stewardship, and other recovery efforts worked so well that, in 2003, the Umpqua population of deer was removed from federal protection (though the Columbia River population is still listed as threatened). Hunting seasons were approved, small numbers of permits were issued in the draw.
It’s still a relatively long shot to draw a Columbian whitetail tag. In 2021, for instance, Oregon will issue just 97 permits, all in the Roseburg area. Only 22 are for rifle hunting in the Umpqua Zone (Hunt #123A). Another 55 are for archery hunting in the same area, and a handful of other tags are for muzzleloader hunting and other archery seasons. Last year, several hundred hunters applied for these tags.
But last year I was one of the few with the good fortune to have my name called. Another was Shawn Skipper, who runs media relations for Leupold, the Oregon-based optics company.
Considering that Columbian whitetails occupy mostly private land along the heavily settled forks of the Umpqua, unless you draw one of three rifle tags (Hunt #123B) for the North Bank Habitat Management Area—that’s the ranch that was purchased by the BLM to accelerate the recovery of the Columbia whitetails—you have the daunting task to find a place to hunt.
Happily, Skipper had taken care of that detail. He had arranged to hunt with legendary guide Jody Smith, who had leased the hunting rights on a couple of farms and ranches in the Columbian whitetail’s core range. In fact, we’d be hunting within rifle shot of the North Bank Habitat property.
Skipper’s directive was clear: put aside any other plans for the first week of October and get to southern Oregon. This was as close to a once-in-a-lifetime hunt as we’d get in, well, this lifetime.
Jody Smith’s family has been in Oregon longer than it’s been a state. His ancestors were among the thousands of pioneers who churned across the Great Plains behind yoked oxen, all their worldly possessions tucked into creaky wagons.
“They came across on the Oregon Trail and then up the Willamette Valley,” says Smith. “But they settled on the Umpqua River.”
They helped found the little town of Elkton in the 1850s, and Smith says the two sides of his family can be understood as archetypal Westerners.
“Half my family were settlers. They cleared land and planted crops and became county commissioners and state legislators,” he says. “The other half were hunters and trappers. They stayed in the valley only long enough to build cabins and prove up on homesteads, then they were in the mountains and up the rivers, hunting elk and deer and trapping and logging.”
Smith, whose own homestead on the banks of the Umpqua was handed down from the settling side of his family, has a foot in both worlds. He’s at home in the hills, hunting and fishing and finding game. His reputation as a go-to guide for Roosevelt elk, coastal blacktails, salmon, steelhead, Rio Grande turkeys, and especially the Umpqua’s legendary smallmouth bass keeps him hopping year-round through country blazed by his ancestors.
The recovery of the Columbian whitetail has given him another season, and a different type of hunting. Instead of cruising logging roads and glassing forest clearcuts for elusive, semi-migratory elk and blacktailed deer, Oregon’s whitetails are relative homebodies, staying in the same half section of low-country habitat for most of their lives.
Smith had set out trail cameras on a couple of riverside properties and found a dandy buck hitting his camera site just frequently enough that we descended on the ranch before light on opening day. We were focused on finding that distinctive deer.
As the sunlight rubbed its way through the dense Umpqua fog, we saw the buck. He was precisely where Smith expected him, but to kill him legally, I’d have to jump out of the pickup, worm my way through a roadside gate, and make a snap shot as he milled through a handful of nervous does. It was the first minutes of the first day, and I wasn’t ready to end my 30-year relationship with Columbian whitetail quite that quickly, or unceremoniously.
So I watched things unfold. The buck gathered the does and disappeared in a wilderness of blackberry briars. By this time I had entered the field where I first saw him, propped my Savage Model 110 Ultralite on shooting sticks, and waited for him to reappear in a riverside fescue field. He never emerged from the tangle.
If you’ve ever hunted the Pacific Northwest, you know it’s a landscape defined by ridges, valleys, rivers, and peaks, a jumble of folds and hollows that’s further confused by impenetrable timber. Its river valleys aren’t much different, only the shrouding cover isn’t fir or hemlock trees but rather undergrowth that could hide a division of Panzer tanks. Here on the Umpqua, it’s mainly a blackberry-and-burdock screen of thornbush, and it was enough to hold more Columbian blacktails than I had any expectation to see.
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Hunting the Columbian Whitetail
Our first-light gambit over, Jody and I conferred about next steps. We knew that buck was in the neighborhood—in fact, on the same property where Jody had his trail camera. And we knew we hadn’t bumped him hard enough to disrupt his patterns.
So we backed out. Leaving the river bottom, we hunted the ascending hills and ridges above the Umpqua, huge foothills pastures of cured cheatgrass and scattered woodlots adjacent to the BLM’s North Bank property. Skipper was on the trigger for these upland bucks. But whitetails being whitetails, even when they don’t have intense hunting pressure, they get evasive, and we saw few deer in the heat of the day. In areas we could hunt, that is. We actually saw plenty of whitetails, but they were mainly in backyards of riverside homes, or in small orchards and hayfields between the river and the road, in places we couldn’t hunt. In that way, Columbian whitetails are becoming just like other whitetails: as their numbers grow, they are learning to gravitate to sanctuaries, no matter how proximate they are to human settlement.
Skunked in the high country, we returned to the riverside hayfields and planned a last-light ambush. We knew the buck would emerge from the blackberries at some point—the trail camera footage indicated his presence shortly after sunset—so we set up on a line of haybales and waited. If there was any confirmation this was not a wilderness hunt, it was the pair of ranch dogs that came to visit us in the hayfield, and then stayed, squirming for affection and playing grab-ass with each other in the field, compromising any sense of seclusion that the bales offered us.
Right on cue, just as the light left the valley, I spotted a square-backed deer work his way out of cover and along a fence a good 400 yards across the fescue. My 10×42 Santiam binocular couldn’t quite make out his rack, but my VX-5 riflescope zoomed to 18X could, barely, as I steadied my rifle on top of a bale. I had my safety off twice, but couldn’t bring myself to make the shot in such dubious conditions.
So he walked again.
For two more days, that buck eluded us. Skipper had a tag in his pocket, and it’s to his grace and credit that he gave me first go at this specter of the fescue, which we saw often enough to know by his thick and webbed rack. In the day, we’d cruise the uplands, hoping to see a doe pull a rutting buck out of cover for Skipper. And every evening we’d set up on the bales, only to see the camera buck move well after legal light.
Watch a deer long enough, and you’ll see patterns of behavior, even if it’s in country you don’t know well. That’s how I realized where the buck was spending his days, in an unholy tangle of blackberries and spiderwebs in a field adjacent to our haybale stand. We didn’t have much time left, so we hatched a plan to shoot him as he moved out of cover, hopefully in daylight. Jody went high, onto a ridge above the river to watch for movement. Skipper covered a nearby field. I left photographer Justin Moore on the bales and I moved upstream to a remote bank of the river where I could watch the field where I thought the deer might be holed up. With all his egresses covered, there was no way we could miss the buck.
This story has taken far longer to tell to this point than the penultimate finish. With just a half hour of light remaining in the October sky, I spotted movement across the field. All I saw was antler—I didn’t have time to count points or notice distinguishing features. I centered my scope on the buck, trotting on a slight rise that separated floodplain from river bench, and shot. I saw the buck stumble, slide into a morass of blackberry briars, and then nothing, only the report of my shot reverberating down the Umpqua.
It turned out my 155-grain Federal Terminal Ascent bullet—I was shooting my favorite deer caliber, .280 Ackley Improved—had ripped through that buck’s near front shoulder, but hadn’t found the vitals. In fading light, we located scant blood, not a consistent trail but enough to know that he was hurt. Working slowly under our headlamps, we jumped him once out of the reeds, and found enough blood in his bed to convince us to pull out for the night. He was hit and hurt, and I didn’t want to push him across the river to a property we couldn’t hunt.
It was a restless night, but in the grainy light of the next morning’s freezing fog, Justin and I spotted a pair of does tending another deer near our haybale blind. It was the buck, obvious with a shattered left leg and heavy antlers. One more shot ended my hunt, 30 years in the making.
I lingered over the buck, apologizing to him for inflicting the worst night of his life, but thanking him for the chance to hunt him in such a distinctive place. His size, about the stature of a yearling doe in my home country of northeastern Montana, was smaller than I expected. I studied his tarsal glands and his facial features. He looked more like the little Coues deer of the desert Southwest, with a narrow nose but without the blocky body or the pot belly of those little bucks. His coat was heavier, too, in order to weather the cold, damp winters of the foggy Northwest.
Then I moved to his antlers. His left side was webbed, carrying a satisfying measure of mass along his main beam and his flourish of points. In short, he was a buck worth waiting for. Jody Smith, who has far more experience with these recovered deer than I do, kept whistling as he inspected the buck’s distinctive rack.
If I had any doubts about the caliber of the buck, they were alleviated in Sutherlin, the little town just downriver where we went for a mid-day meal. Mike Jackson, the owner of the local hardware store, Central Feed and Supply, has hunted all around the West. But his collection of outsize Columbian whitetail mounts above bins of garden seed and carriage bolts caught my attention, and he waved me over after Jody showed him a photo of my buck.
“Son, that’s a tremendous deer,” Jackson said to me, as I looked closer at his collection of heads. There were picked-up skulls with drop tines, mounts of deer with wrist-thick antlers, and photos of even larger bucks on the hoof. I realized I was in the presence of a man who had witnessed firsthand the recovery of the Columbian whitetail.
“Been watching them since before we could hunt them, seeing them fill in the country and return to places they hadn’t been in probably a hundred years,” Jackson said. “A lot of people didn’t think we’d ever have a season. But a lot more people gave years of time and effort to finally be able to hunt them. It’s our deer, a true Oregon original, and you’ve taken a real trophy.”
Gone Too Soon
October burns too fast for any of us hunters, and I had to leave Oregon before Skipper shot a buck. Our whitetail tags also allowed hunting blacktails in the unit, and as I left Skipper with one day remaining in the season, he told me he’d settle for a blacktail if he didn’t see a whitetail.
I had just reached Portland when I got his message. A texted photo showed a buck on the ground, his walnut-colored forked horns looking like many of the blacktails we had seen during the week up in the ridgeline manzanita and white oak groves. The next photo was of a white tail.
“Full disclosure, we had no idea it was a whitetail when I shot it,” says Skipper, who later told me the encounter happened so fast and in such close quarters that there was no time to consider the species of the deer. “I walked up to it and saw its eyes and then went to its ass and was like, well, hot damn!”
With that snap shot, Skipper joined me in the ranks of the few American deer hunters to have taken the westernest whitetail on the continent. Based on the expanding range of the Umpqua population, and the anticipated lifting of protections from the Columbia River population, I expect the number of hunters wrapping tags around this curious, furtive, ghost of the thornbush to increase in the years to come.
I only hope they get the chance to encounter a wise, wary old buck like the one I did.