Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / August 8, 2005
When Bur Lydic told Tony Hollis at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game he saw a mule deer standing in a ditch along the Alaska Highway earlier this week, Hollis put it to him straight.
"He asked me if I'd been drinking and I said, 'Not to excess,'" Lydic said with a laugh.
Never mind that there aren't supposed to be any mule deer in Interior Alaska, Lydic knows what he saw and he has no doubt in his mind that it was a mule deer.
"I got to look at it long enough that it turned and walked away from me and I saw the mule deer tail," said Lydic, an accomplished woodsman who knows what a mule deer looks like. "It was not a black tail or a white tail; it was a spindly white tail with a black tip."
Longtime state wildlife biologist Steve DuBois doesn't doubt Lydic saw a mule deer. While he has never seen one himself, DuBois has received reports of several mule deer sightings in the Delta Junction area over the years, though it's been a few years since the last one.
"We've had mule deer sightings in the area ever since I've been in Delta," said DuBois, who showed up in 1985. "It's unusual but not unprecedented."
Neither are reports of mountain lions around Delta and Tok, but we'll get to that later.
Mule deer have been reported from Chena Hot Springs Road to Salcha to Tenderfoot Mountain to the Delta agriculture project to Dry Creek, the same area where Lydic saw one Monday, which is about eight miles north of Dot Lake.
Lydic recalled finding mule deer tracks on the Salcha Ski Trails sometime in the 1980s. He tried to track the animal but never saw it.
"I found several beds," he said. "I even took some scat in to Fish and Game."
Experts speculate that the mule deer seen in Alaska are outcasts from the Yukon Territory, where there is an established population around Whitehorse.
"Our thinking has always been that it's just a few animals coming over from the Yukon," said DuBois. "I've never heard of more than one (being seen) at a time. It's not like we have herds coming through."
Biologists don't know how many mule deer there are in the Yukon but there are indications the population is on the rise, said Yukon wildlife biologist Rick Farnell. A survey a few years ago around Whitehorse turned up more deer than biologists expected.
"With a little bit of searching, they found 200 deer right in the immediate valley," said Farnell, adding that there are usually a few mule deer killed on roads in the winter. "We had no idea there were that many.
"There were some big trophy bucks, too," he added.
Mule deer are protected in the Yukon and there is no hunting for them, though that could change if the population continues to swell, Farnell said.
Lydic, 54, was making the 300-mile drive home to Salcha from Eagle, where he and his wife are building a house, when he spotted the mulie.
"I saw it loping along the road," said Lydic. "I knew it wasn't something ordinary. I thought it might be a moose calf.
"It stood up on the road and let me pull up and stop," he said. "It was a young buck."
Chances are it's just a young male mule deer doing what young male mule deer do, said DuBois, the Delta biologist. As is the case with most wildlife species, young males tend to roam more than cows and older males.
"It wouldn't surprise me if they were young males dispersing out," DuBois said.
The sighting doesn't surprise state wildlife biologist Craig Gardner, who fielded several reports of mule deer sightings around Tok when he worked there.
In fact, Gardner saw one himself one day as he was backing out of his driveway.
"I pulled out of my driveway and here's a mule deer standing at the corner of the driveway and the road," said Gardner. "I had my retriever in the car with me and that dog just about went through the windshield, I slammed on the brakes so fast."
Whether or not mule deer could become established in the Interior remains to be seen, but the fact they haven't yet indicates there is some kind of limiting factor. The snow in the eastern Interior may be too deep for the animals to find enough food to make it through the winter, experts said.
"I think there are enough animals coming over that if they were going to get established, they would have by now," said DuBois. "There's something limiting them, whether it's the weather or whether it's the forage or something else."
Gardner pointed out the fact that none of the mule deer sightings have come in the winter, only in the spring and summer.
"Either they're getting eaten or they aren't able to pull through," said Gardner.
Mule deer aren't the only invasive game animal that has been reported in the eastern Interior.
Biologists have heard about several mountain lion sightings in Tok and Delta Junction, though none have been confirmed.
A "handful" of people have claimed to have seen mountain lions in the Delta area over the past 20 years, DuBois said.
According to the reports, mountain lions have been spotted on top of Donnelly Dome, on Clearwater Road, and in the Delta agriculture project, and one was glimpsed near Dot Lake between Delta and Tok, the same area Lydic saw the mule deer.
"One year we'll get a mule deer report and the next year we'll get a mountain lion report," said DuBois.
Gardner, too, heard about mountain lion sightings when he was in Tok.
"We got a few reports, but we could never verify them," said Gardner.
The same was true in the Yukon until four years ago, when a dead mountain lion was found in an abandoned vehicle in Watson Lake, 300 miles south of Whitehorse.
The emaciated cougar evidently climbed into the vehicle and starved to death, said Farnell, the Yukon biologist.
"That's the first validated record of the species in the Yukon," he said, adding that it appeared there was another set of tracks detected around the vehicle the cat was found in.
Prior to that, cougar sightings in the Yukon were "treated like Sasquatch sightings," he said.
Now, mountain lions are listed as an indigenous species in the Yukon. What's more, trappers in the Northwest Territories village of Inuvik, 500 miles north of Whitehorse, have reported seeing cougar tracks in recent years, though nobody has actually seen a cougar.
In Alaska, meanwhile, sightings of mountain lions continue. Firefighters battling a fire near Eagle last year reported seeing a mountain lion near Eagle Creek, Lydic said.
It might not be long before Alaska sees its first whitetail deer, either. There have been a handful of whitetail sightings around Whitehorse and two have been killed on the road, confirming their presence in the Yukon, said Farnell.
News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at 459-7587 or email@example.com.
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