Santa Rosa Island
A success story of wildlife management Part I
Our adventure on Santa Rosa Island (SRI) started in 1978 when Russ Vail and his sister Margaret Woolley contacted Wayne about the possibility of starting a hunting program on their privately-owned Island off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Russ and Margaret, plus their brother Al Vail were decendants of Walter Vail, who along with the Vickers family bought the Island from the More family in 1903. They believed that there were enough Roosevelt elk and Kaibab mule deer on their island for a profitable operation. After Wayne was hosted by the Vails on SRI, he heartedly agreed.
In the 1910's and 20's, the Vail family had bought dozens of elk and deer, and shipped them to Santa Rosa Island. After a short acclimation period, they were let loose to roam wild on their 54,000 acre island. The Roosevelt elk came from the Olympic peninsula of Washington, and the mule deer came from the famous Kaibab plateau in Arizona.
After an agreement was reached, bonded with a handshake, Wayne and MUM initiated an elk hunting program that next year, 1979. In those days, elk hunting was at a premium, especially in California. In those days, there were really no opportunities at all in all of California to hunt elk. State sponsored tule elk hunting did not start until the 1980's. Mule deer hunting was merely an afterthought those early years. While there were plenty of deer roaming the vast hills and canyons, they didn't inspire many people. During those first years, if you were on an elk hunt, you could shoot any buck for $500 extra.
At this time, Santa Rosa Island was also home to a thriving and profitable cattle operation and thousands of wild pigs. The pigs were believed to have been dropped off on the Island in the early 1800's by seafaring Spanish explorers.
So while the reports of large Roosevelt bulls getting shot on SRI began filtering to the hunting community, the mule deer was not on anyone's radar. It is true that we would harvest a few 30" wide deer, but wide is all they were. In fact, we had numerous 30" deer that scored in the 140-155 point range during the 1980's and early 90's. Those deer should have been at least in the 180- 190" class. We began to hear rumblings that these deer would never amount to anything. They were too inbred, they were genetically inferior, they were being outcompeted by the elk and cattle, no big deer will ever come out of California, etc . We heard all the reasons why these deer would never amount to anything.
In fact, we have the evidence to that show that there were biological restraints on this deer herd to reach their trophy potential. Those restraints were three-pronged. First there were too many deer on the Island. Second, the sex ratios were skewed too heavily toward the does and not toward the bucks, and third, many of the bucks were of inferior material, and needed to be culled.
Once we identified these limiting factors and convinced the owners, we began an aggressive herd management program that focused on removing large numbers of does and inferior bucks from the Island. This program started in the early 1990's when we were also presented with a prolonged drought.
It also must be noted that we had the opportunity to harvest large numbers of deer annually since these deer were considered to be privately owned by the Vail and Vickers. California Dept of Fish and Game had no influence on our operation. MUM established season dates, harvest levels for bucks and does, the whole deal. We had the unique ability to control herd levels like nowhere else in North America. We also had very little winter kill due to the temperate, coastal weather, and there are no predators on SRI.
While the SRI program was a completely unique one and may not be duplicable, we have proven that herd management can have a distinct and profound effect on trophy quality of a particular herd. In the late 80's we would have field dressed mature mule deer bucks that weighed in at 80 pounds. Often the does would field dress out at 40-50 pounds. Clients thought we were related to Conan the Barbarian because we would gut a nice and wide buck and throw the buck whole on our backs and pack it out! We went many years between the start of the program in 1979 to the mid 90's that no buck harvested would make the SCI minimum score of 155 during the whole year.
Fast forward to the decade of the 2000's when Santa Rosa Island become known as one of the very finest mule deer properties in the world. In 1997 we harvested our first 200" deer, a 9x13 buck shot by Tom Place. In 2006, our clients shot 51 trophy bucks that averaged 206 SCI points! In all, we had three different years during the last six that our average buck score topped out over the magic 200" mark. Body weights of all the deer also increased greatly. An average harvested buck would field dress between 140- 180 pounds, and does would typical does would weigh in at 90- 120 pounds field dressed. This is a major shift from years before.
The two biggest lessons we were learned were: 1) It can take a long time to see results, so believing in a system and staying the course is mandatory, and 2) removing a large number of does and inferior bucks can dramatically improve the herd long-term if trophy production is desired.
It is often said that you can't have quantity and quality at the same time. Very seldom can a habitat range support both a large overall population while also supporting true trophy class animals. If there was one place where those two situations intersected, Santa Rosa was the place. Even on SRI, we needed to remove lots of deer to help "release" the trophy potential of those deer.
More Santa Rosa Island stories to follow...
Here are examples of some of the better bucks from the early 1980's on SRI. The clients were very excited, but these were the kind of deer being produced in the early years.
One of the more famous images of deer on SRI in Aug 2006. Three of those bucks scored over 200", including the center one which went 233 SCI. Below is James Brogan with another 220+ buck from a September 2006 hunt.