By Doug O'Harra
Anchorage Daily News
(Published: December 12, 2002)
After a Sitka blacktailed deer was seen on Potter Valley Road on Sunday, zoo officials checked to make sure its five deer, including this one, were accounted for. (Photo by Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News)
A Sitka blacktailed deer was reported bounding across a road near Potter Marsh this weekend in what was apparently the first modern sighting in Anchorage proper.
The species is common to Prince William Sound, Kodiak and Southeast. But Anchorage?
Physician John Erkmann was driving to church with his wife, Jane, about 8:45 a.m. Sunday when the animal bolted across Potter Valley Road into dense brush.
"It was a spectacular sighting," said Erkmann, an experienced big-game hunter. "It went uphill not 30 yards from the car. We got a good look at it, a good-sized buck."
Biologists and deer experts were amazed that a deer would show up on Anchorage's suburban fringe -- across a mountain range from the species' regular coastal habitat and 40 miles from the nearest previous sighting at the head of Turnagain Arm.
"It's a very interesting, unusual sighting," said state research biologist Matthew Kirchhoff, who specializes in the deer of Southeast Alaska. "It's scientifically noteworthy that this animal has moved to that location."
"That's astounding," added Audubon Alaska senior scientist John Schoen, who spent years studying the animals in Southeast. "Normally, we're pretty snowed in, and I think they would have a pretty hard time."
Erkmann, with 20 years of deer hunting experience in Kodiak and the Sound, was certain of what he saw. He said the deer looked to be about 100 pounds. It carried a six-point rack.
Could it be an escapee? The five deer housed at the Alaska Zoo were all safe at home this week, as were the seven that live at Big Game Alaska in Portage, zoo officials said.
The state Fish and Game Department's Anchorage-area biologist, Rick Sinnott, said it's possible the deer was someone's illegal pet that got loose. But he doubted that.
"My guess is that it came from Prince William Sound," Sinnott said. "People snowmachining have also seen them in Placer Valley ... in very occasional sightings. It wouldn't be out of the question that one could make it to Anchorage."
Native to Southeast Alaska and the Pacific Northwest coast, the deer were introduced to Hawkins and Hinchinbrook islands in the early 1900s and have since spread throughout the Sound by swimming island to island.
"They are very prolific swimmers," Kirchhoff said.
The small, agile animals haunt old-growth forests and beaches, especially in winter. They're not as common on the mainland. Deep snow leaves them vulnerable to predators and buries the high-quality food they need to maintain good health.
The deer have been seen over the mountains from Turnagain Arm, on bays in Passage Canal and along other Western Sound fjords.
Mike Miller of Big Game Alaska, a wildlife park in Portage, said he has seen deer in the Placer River Valley in recent years and he's heard a report of one along the Portage Valley Road a few years ago. But state and federal officials say they have not received reports of other sightings in the Arm this year.
"There's nothing preventing an adventurous deer from moving across that range in certain locations. That's always a possibility," said biologist Cliff Fox, with the Glacier Ranger District of the Chugach National Forest. "There's a possibility that they could survive in Turnagain Arm. It's weather dependent. What knocks them back is the heavy snow."
Southcentral's long snowless fall might have given this deer a unique opportunity to push the limits of its range, Kirchhoff said. "This is an explorer."
Now that the snow has arrived, Kirchhoff and other biologists say, the animal will likely face a tough time finding food unless it adapts to life in suburbia or finds usable winter range.
"It's likely it's not going to survive the winter," Kirchhoff said. "It's like one of those migratory birds that gets stuck at a feeder. ... It's in for a rude awakening come February."