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Where deer, wildlife once freely roamed

The Bouvet family saw these two deer at their waterfront cabin on Forest Avenue S.E. on July 9. - Marie Bouvet/Contributed photo
The Bouvet family saw these two deer at their waterfront cabin on Forest Avenue S.E. on July 9.
— image credit: Marie Bouvet/Contributed photo

Before the first pioneers set foot on Mercer Island, the soil was trodden with deer hooves of all sizes. This graceful creature, a treasured Northwest symbol, wandered the Island’s forests and meadows for centuries. As Mercer Island’s population developed in the 1900s — growing from a rustic farming town into a suburban city — the deer population dwindled until the last few reportedly swam away some years ago. Today, the tranquil species is back.

According to the historical book, “Mercer Island, the First 100 Years,” the Island’s rich supply of lush foliage, nuts, roots and berries of almost every kind made it a haven for deer, raccoons, muskrats and other omnivores: “The beautiful green forested island, place of primeval solitude, was populated only by wild game and birds,” author Judy Gellatly writes of Mercer Island during the early 19th century. There was even one account of settlers spotting a bear deep within the forest, she said.

As city developers moved in, the Island’s fauna began to disappear beneath the commotion and cacophony of progress.

During the first burst of development in the 1940s, when downtown Mercer Island was born, “those pesky deer” became a topic of public concern.

“The deer continued to be a real problem,” Gellatly writes. “They swam across the East Channel and established residence in the Island forests, dining on orchard greens, petunias and other precious plants.”

According to the author, two letters of complaint were written to the State Game Department circa 1944 requesting some action. The department replied: “We have in the past tried to have open deer season on Mercer Island to deplete the deer population thereon, but due to petitions circulated and signed by a large majority of property owners, the commissioners restricted any hunting or shooting of firearms on the Island. Therefore, it has been very difficult for the Game Department to cope with the deer situation.”

Island resident Shirley Lake recalls seeing deer in her South-end back yard in the 1950s.

“When we moved [to Meadow Lane] in 1953, we planted fruit trees in our new back yard. Once the first leaves came out, guess who arrived in the evening? The deer just stood out there and ate,” she told the Reporter.

Few wild animals remain on the Island. Raccoons, squirrels and rats are aplenty. A spattering of private Island farms — preserved as a glimpse of times past — are home to a few horses, goats and chickens. Yet it is the majestic bald eagles, which swoop over Island homes and nest in Island trees, that have become the sole symbol of nature in our floating suburbia today. That is, until the deer returned.

Over the past six months, several Reporter readers have sent in photographs of what appears to be the Island’s first family of black-tailed deer in years. The last time a deer was spotted on Mercer Island, according to residents and park officials, was more than a decade ago.

In the late ’90s, a yellow deer-crossing sign — warning drivers of a bounding animal no longer around — was removed from its spot on Island Crest Way, just outside Pioneer Park. Given the recent deer sightings, the city has received requests for a new sign to be put up in the same location, according to Parks manager Keith Kerner.

“This is the first year that I’ve known of any dear on the Island,” said Kerner, who has worked for the city for three and a half years. “I’ve heard there were deer years ago but they disappeared, and now there is a group back.”

The city official first heard reports of the deer this past fall. “Folks up at the [community center] pea patch have had the deer over there, eating their plants,” he said, adding that the calls were out of delight, not dismay.

Russell Link, the Washington Wildlife Department biologist responsible for King County, presumes that the deer swam to Mercer Island from Bellevue — an athletic feat that has been witnessed by residents in the past.

According to “Mercer Island, the First 100 Years,” celebrated Island illustrator Ted Rand (who passed away in 1995) watched a deer swim to the Island’s eastern shore as a young boy in the 1940s. “I remember the time a deer swam over from the Bellevue side,” Gellatly quotes Rand as saying. “My father told the boys to join hands and form a barricade while he rowed out to head the deer to shore. He thought the deer would be exhausted, hence easy to capture and give to the Woodland Park Zoo. All went well until the deer reached the shore. Not at all exhausted, he took a flying leap over the heads of the boys and made for the woods.”

Link said it is not uncommon for deer to swim a great length for food or shelter.

“They are excellent swimmers,” the biologist explained. “There have been reports of them swimming great distances if food becomes scarce on an island or the area becomes inhospitable.”

Mercer Island, he added, being a wooded, residential area, is ideal for deer seeking refuge from a more urban environment such as Bellevue.

“Deer will take advantage of open areas created by people and the gardens they create,” Link said. “They’re generally active at night. During the daytime, they often keep to the wooded areas and go unnoticed.”

Because no experts have surveyed the deer population in Bellevue or Mercer Island, Link could only make educated guesses about their situation. Theoretically, he said, a small group of deer could survive for some time on Mercer Island.

“Deer can survive in pretty small greenbelt areas — it’s surprising. They often find urban areas, such as Mercer Island, a refuge because they’re not hunted. If they don’t get hit by cars or chased by dogs, they could probably survive quite some time,” Link said.

Although the Island deer sightings — most often two doe and a fawn — are rare, they are celebrated. The elegant trio have brought delight to children, surprise to parents and serenity to our backyards. And hopefully, if we look out for them, the deer will be here to stay.

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