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San Bernardino Mountains' fire creating wonderful deer habitat


The Lake Fire, which has been burning in the San Bernardino National Forest in the upper Santa Ana River drainage since June 17, has now consumed over 30,000 acres of timbered habitat with at least half the acreage in the San Gorgonio Wilderness.

Smokey Bear might be upset, but Bambi is rejoicing.

Much of the fire has been on the north-facing slopes of Mt. San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California at 11,503 feet. The fire started near Jenks Lake and burned east, covering a broad swath of country from Barton Flats out to Coon Creek Jumpoff, staying south of Highway 38 and mostly north of the ridge that runs east and west off San Gorgonio. It is now burning north into the headwaters of Pipes and Little Morongo canyons. This vast area hasn’t had a significant fire in a number of decades and the forest on these slopes had become dense and overgrown in many areas, completely eliminating any vegetative grown beneath the mature trees.

The reality is that deer are a successional species that thrive in disturbed habitats that are transitioning from their disturbed condition back to the mature forest (whether that disturbance has been caused by fire, landslides, or grazing/timber harvest/brush removal). This fire has largely been in habitat that had been very marginal for deer. In many areas, the understory of young trees and other dense stands of large shrubs has been swept away by the flames while the ancient pines were merely scorched and will survive. Hot areas of fire will create vast open meadows and hillsides where the burn was more complete. It has been an amazing transition of habitat that will create ideal conditions for deer. Annual plants and forbes will flourish on the open forest floor this winter and spring, and shrubs that deer love to eat will sprout and grow quickly in the rich soils and available sunlight. The forest trees will regenerate much more slowly as the annuals and shrubs stabilize the soils. The area will be wonderful deer habitat for the next 20 years or more.

Now would be the perfect time for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to actually manage the D14 deer zone as something special. D14 was one of the first zones carved out of the vast Southern California hunting region, and the agency had even promised at one point to make this zone into a trophy buck area. While quality deer management has been proven to work across the nation, the California DFW eliminated four-point or better buck hunts. D14 became just another D-zone.

Outside of the very limited-tag X-zones which have the highest herd numbers and lowest tag numbers, herds in the rest of the state have been managed for volume tag sales. D14, for example, has 3,000 buck-only tags sold each year, but the DFW would be hard-pressed to show the total herd numbers more than about 2,000 animals, with less than 20 percent of those bucks.

Yet, the DFW pulls a lot of interesting things out of their computer-modeled data that leave people who live in the real world scratching their heads. First, the reported deer harvest for those 3,000 tag holders was just 149 bucks. Since successful hunters are required to return their tag to the DFW, you’d think that is the total take. That harvest works out to a success rate of just 1.6 percent. Yet, the DFW says that the success rate for the D14 zone was 16 percent. That means a total of 480 bucks were taken by hunters (331 more than were reported). How they voodoo that bit of information out of their computer is a mystery I’m pretty sure no one can explain with a straight face. They also said the deer population in the San Bernardino Mountains is around 4,000 animals with 23 percent of those deer being bucks. Again, all of the D14 hunters I know are laughing. The deer population should be about 4,000 to 6,000 or more, but it hasn’t been that high since a brief period in the early 1980s and throughout the 1960s (when it was likely more around 10 to 12,000).

With the creation of more than 50 square miles of habitat by the Lake Fire, that area will be able to support 10 to 15 deer per square mile (where it had supported only two or three at most over the past 30 years), the herd could and should grow by 500 or 600 animals in the coming few years.

What would the San Bernardino Mountains deer herds look like if we made D14 a Quality Deer Management zone. Right now, it’s one the region’s “sacrifice” zones, where we manage for maximum tag revenue, not an optimum deer herd. How about if we went back to doing annual deer counts, buck-doe-ratios, and surveyed actual fawn survival? How about we shoot for a 50 to 75 percent buck ratio instead of a 20 percent goal? How about we try to optimize deer population numbers instead of tag sales? We can only do those things if we have comprehensive data from across the zone. If the deer densities are two per square mile, having doe hunts to increase buck-doe ratios doesn’t make sense. If the herd has 15 deer per square mile (and we still have only 20 bucks per 100 does), then a limited doe hunt makes sense.

A simple start that would increase buck numbers and the age of bucks in the population would be to start a QDM program, where hunters only take older age class deer. How about if in 2016 we cut the deer tag numbers in half (to 1,500) and mandate that all hunters shoot only an older buck, mandating they take a DFW-run QDM class showing them how to identify older age class deer. It works across the rest of the country. Can it work here?

Making D14 an experimental QDM zone would give the DFW solid data on which to base its deer management in this region (which is different than the north coast or the Sierra Nevada). The Lake Fire and this winter’s likely El Niño rainfall will just make it easier to jump start the program under good conditions. Some of us think deer hunters will be shooting mostly quality bucks in just three seasons, and there will be a lot more total deer in the upper Santa Ana River drainage.

[Editor’s Note: Jim Matthews would like to hear from D14 deer hunters on this issue. Contact him at or by calling his office at 909-887-3444.]

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