For years extensive commercial harvest on Chichagof Island have produced opportunities and challenges for Sitka Blacktail deer. To mitigate habitat challenges and to boost young growth timber potential, forest managers have actively managed these working forests. These practices, broadly referred to as pre-commercial thinning (PCT) set a tree spacing goal and then cut down trees within the stand until the desired tree spacing is achieved. The trees which are cut result in large piles of slash - a jumbled maze of stems and branches that may hover as much as 12 feet off the ground. Slash may influence deer usage of the landscape, particularly during critical winter months, but to date has not been researched. The Hoonah Native Forest Partnership (HNFP) is collaborating with PhD student Jon Martin and research professor Dr. Todd Brinkman of the University of Alaska Fairbanks to investigate questions regarding winter usage of PCT stands by Sitka Blacktail and look at slash variability within PCT stands in an attempt to understand the relationship between treatments, slash, and deer abundance. 

Study Design

Since late March, Jon and local work crews have been in the Spasski and Game Creek Watershed conducting two studies. These studies are addressing two different questions in regards to PCT treatments.

  1. What is the effect of different PCT treatments on deer density? To gain insight into this question, they selected stands that were thinned at different ages and tree spacings. Within those stands crews collected genetic material from fresh deer-pellet piles. The DNA will give Jon the genotype of the individual that deposited it. By knowing the unique genotype of an individual animal you can estimate deer density within in a particular stand.
  2. How does specific silviculture prescription relate to coarse woody debris volume? To look at this, crews are collecting data on stand characteristics and coarse woody debris volume. These measurements were collected in the plots sampled for deer densities to tie the two surveys together and understand the relationship. 

Deer Pellet Surveys:

Deer pellet surveys were completed by mid-April. By that time the amount of leaves on the shrubs and bushes made it difficult to find new pellet piles and DNA were degrading more quickly due to the warmer days. During the surveys, crews learned how to grade the quality of DNA that may be taken from a deer pellet and do scientific data-collection.

  • Jon Martin trains in a crew member on digital data collector. Photo : Ian Johnson
  • Crews learned how to take measurements assessing slash . The pink-banded boards here are used to gauge slash volume at the sampling point. Photo : Ian Johnson
  • A perspective shot of the height of slash in some Pre-commecially Thinned treatments. Photo : Ian Johnson
  • Jon Martin measures slash height. Photo : Ian Johnson
  • Cover boards are used to measure slash volume. Photo : Ian Johnson
  • Local work -crews and Jon Martin sample deer pellets in a genomic mark-recapture study. Photo : Ian Johnson
  • John Martin takes genetic material from a fresh deer pellet. Photo : Ian Johnson
  • Local work-crews assist in data collection of the deer study with Jon Martin and the HNFP.

Slash Survey Progress

Crews are nearly through completing slash surveys. These data will be analyzed by Jon Martin and Todd Brinkman to give the HNFP insight into slash variability. During the work crews learned methods to quantify slash volume, measure slash diameters, and identify tree species. 

Why Does This Work Matter?

It is important to frame the work of this deer study within the goals of the HNFP. A primary goal is to manage timber stands in a way that increases subsistence resources. Sitka Blacktails are an extremely important subsistence resource for the community. By collecting these data, it is hoped that a balance may be struck between timber productivity and deer production.

Future Work

This summer crews will be returning to the same plots to look at available forage biomass which could be the most influential variable in deer using managed forests. In the winter and spring of 2017 crews will be determining the influence of coarse woody debris on access to forage. 

Want to hear more about this work? Please follow us on Facebook ( Feedback from the community is a hugely important part of this process! If you are from Hoonah, please be sure to meet up with Ian Johnson (office #1 at Community Center) or by email him at