Local hunters may face longer odds this year drawing a deer or pronghorn tag in northeast Oregon after the animals struggled through a particularly harsh winter.
The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife has announced 2017 emergency tag reductions for buck deer, antlerless deer and pronghorn primarily affecting hunting units in Baker, Union and northern Malheur counties.
Just half of the usual buck and pronghorn tags will be available in Baker County, and two doe hunts scheduled on agricultural lands — one in the Sumpter Unit and one in the Keating Unit — were canceled entirely.
Tags were also reduced by 35 percent across Union County, along with 40 percent in the Beulah Unit and 25 percent in the Owyhee Unit.
Brian Ratliff, ODFW district wildlife biologist in Baker City, said there are still hunting opportunities though it may be difficult for hunters to draw a tag they are used to drawing with fewer preference points.
“As the populations grow again, we can move our tags back in an upward direction,” Ratliff said.
The tag reductions are based on early spring flight surveys, which show how winter took a toll on mule deer. Fawn ratios are down considerably, Ratliff said, with some units as low as eight fawns per 100 adults. Spring surveys typically show fawn counts in the mid-30s per 100 adults, he said.
What’s more, Ratliff said Baker County lost 32 percent of adult radio-collared does. The average for the Blue Mountains is 8 percent.
“That’s really concerning,” he said.
Wildlife officials feared this kind of mortality earlier in the winter, when temperatures in Baker County dipped as low as minus-28 degrees and failed to rise above freezing for 28 consecutive days. Snow depth exceeded 18 inches in some areas, including lower elevations where deer and elk usually migrate for winter forage.
Ratliff said it was the worst winter for wildlife in more than 20 years.
“The deer went as low as they could possibly go,” Ratliff said. “I saw them in places I’d never seen them before. But there was no forage for them that wasn’t covered by snow and it was just really tough on fawns.”
Elk, however, seemed to fare better due to their larger size. Ratliff said elk are able to generate more body heat with less energy, and can break through hard, crusty snow easier than smaller ungulates like deer and pronghorn.
Though Ratliff said they did have some elk mortality, it was not significant and ODFW will not be reducing elk tags come fall.
Brian Laughlin, acting assistant district wildlife biologist for ODFW in Pendleton, said the Umatilla District was not as severely affected by winter and does not anticipate any reductions in big game tags.
“We definitely had a hard winter,” Laughlin said. “But we didn’t have 28 days straight with below-freezing temperatures.”
The district, which includes the Walla Walla, West Mount Emily, Ukiah and Columbia Basin units, should see deer and elk numbers comparable to previous years, Laughlin said.
“Looking at those numbers, we do not see a drastic change in this year’s spring (survey) flights compared to last,” he said.
Across the Blue Mountains, Ratliff said hunters can expect to see fewer deer on the landscape this fall, especially yearling animals such as spikes and 2-point bucks. Those age classes made up about 33 percent of Baker County’s total harvest last year.
By reducing tags now, Ratliff said they can allow those populations to recover and get back ahead of the game.
“This way, we can get underneath it,” he said.
Hunters who applied for one of the affected hunts have until June 1 to change their choice for free. A unit-by-unit look at available tags can also be found online at www.dfw.state.or.us.