The story now unfolding in the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge for Columbian white-tailed deer is a strange interplay of environmental impacts and governmental disharmony.

    Occupying 5,600 acres of swamps, brush and sloughs behind a dike on the Columbia’s historical north-shore floodplain, the refuge was established in 1972 — and named for a powerful late Southwest Washington congresswoman whose home is nearby. The 80 to 90 pretty little deer the refuge harbors are federally protected as an endangered species, though they have sufficiently recovered in the vicinity of the Umpqua River to permit a limited hunting season.

    About a year ago, erosion took a serious bite out of the dike, which is also the foundation of Wahkiakum County’s Steamboat Slough Road. Although no one in an official capacity will say so on the record, there is reason to think the dike’s failure was at least partially caused by ship wakes from the navigation channel deepened by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

    Wahkiakum County would like the corps to repair the dike so it can count on the road, a useful alternate route during winter floods. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to protect the 2,000 acres of refuge property that would be flooded if the dike fails altogether.

    Initial estimates placed the cost of a complete repair at between $2.7 and 4.5 million — a lot of dough for dozens of deer and a scenic but not exactly well-traveled route. In these times of diminishing federal financial options, there is no real prospect for complete dike restoration.

    Two weeks ago, federal wildlife workers began netting and relocating some of the deer for transportation to another site upriver. It makes sense to spread endangered species around, so no single catastrophe dooms them. The exercise last Thursday made it clear that additional practice is needed to perfect capture techniques.

    In the meantime, the corps is looking for possible less-expensive fixes, including a setback dike just inland from the existing one, which would protect all but about 200 acres. But this would mean a permanent gap in the loop road, something unacceptable to the county.

    Aside from again calling into question the corps’ channel-deepening benefit analysis — which should have included ample funds for shoreline impacts from big ship traffic — this story hints at what lies ahead as mankind juggles its own needs and those of endangered species is an age of rising waters. This is true everywhere on the Columbia estuary and tidally influenced places worldwide.

    Many uncomfortable choices lie ahead.

 

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