Natalie St. John / The Daily News (Longview, Wash.)

CATHLAMET, Wash. — For a buck who spends his whole life grazing on shrubs and grass, a generous spread of ripe apples and pears is too good to resist. And also too good to be true, as it turns out.

Oblivious to the 24-foot-wide nylon net suspended above his head, the buck wanders into the pile of fruit. In an instant, the remote-controlled net drops, and eight men and women in camouflage rain gear come running across the field.

This unsuspecting, 159-pound buck was the 11th Columbian white-tailed deer to be captured at the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge since late January, when U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees began an unprecedented effort to relocate about half the endangered deer on the refuge near Cathlamet. They’re being moved permanently to another federal preserve near Ridgefield.

Wildlife officials are in a race to move about 50 deer because they fear a badly eroded dike may soon break. Biologists fear they’d lose large numbers of the deer to drowning, starvation or hypothermia, which would set back the 40-year, $28 million effort to restore the species in Wahkiakum County.

“We just can’t take the chance that the dike is going to last another year,” said FWS spokesman Doug Zimmer, who watched Tuesday’s trapping effort.

In the $200,000 relocation plan, Fish and Wildlife Service employees have been using a combination of sedative darts, drive-netting, and drop-netting to round up the deer four days a week.

While darting is the least stressful way to capture animals, it poses overdosing risks, Zimmer said. That’s why biologists are focusing on drop-netting for the moment. If they haven’t rounded up enough animals by early spring, they may use riskier, more expensive methods, such as drive-netting and helicopter hazing.

So far, biologists have captured an ideal mix of age and gender, and no animals or people have been hurt or killed — something that Zimmer acknowledges is a very real possibility during the high-stress captures.

Within two minutes Tuesday, biologists and volunteers pinned and blindfolded the netted buck, who lay on his side, expressing deep dismay in a series of powerful, guttural grunts.

“We’ve never really moved this many deer all at once in this short of a time frame,” said Jackie Ferrier, who manages the deer refuge. Biologists are taking every precaution to ensure the deer are handled in the least stressful way possible, Ferrier said.

Capture crews worked in almost total silence as they disentangled and then hobbled the buck to prevent him from injuring himself or a worker. The work was intensely physical, and the crew members wore expressions of deep concentration as they moved swiftly through a checklist of tasks, communicating in gestures and occasional whispers.

Biologists punched yellow plastic tags through each ear and attached a brightly colored radio collar around the buck’s neck. They gave him a brief medical exam, injected him with a supplement to boost his health, and tried to determine his age by examining his teeth. A veterinarian with a pocketful of syringes carefully monitored his vital signs. If the buck showed signs of severe distress, the vet was prepared to sedate him, but this deer handled the experience without a need for drugs.

Finally, in a carefully coordinated move, the crew members hefted the buck into a tall, narrow wooden crate with a dark interior, lowered the heavy lid and hauled him across the field to a truck. Within an hour, the buck was speeding down the freeway towards his new home at the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge in north Clark County.

Not everyone is thrilled to see the deer moved there. Ferrier said some nearby landowners worry the deer will damage surrounding crops and make it difficult to manage their property without running afoul of Endangered Species Act regulations.

If successful, the move to Ridgefield will increase genetic diversity among the deer and restore Columbian white-tails to a historic part of their range, Zimmer said. It will also improve the species’ chances of survival by establishing another stable population, lessening the likelihood that a flood or epidemic could wipe them out.

“If you have all of your eggs in one basket, and the handle breaks, you’ve got a problem,” Zimmer said.

The deer once ranged throughout the lower Columbia River bottomlands before development crowded them out. Now they’re limited to the refuge near Cathlamet as well as Tenashillahe, Wallace and Puget islands and marshlands near Westport, Ore. The government also is starting to establish a population on Cottonwood Island at the mouth of the Cowlitz River.

After arriving in Ridgefield, biologists weighed the buck and set up a radio tracker. When the crate’s lid slid open, the buck took a tentative look at his new home, then bounded down a slope into a thicket. In 30 years, Zimmer said, White-tailed deer may be common in a place where they’ve long been absent.

“People will never think about it,” Zimmer said. “People will never know what it took to bring them back.”