Winter weather conditions always plays a significant role in how big game numbers, and therefore hunting opportunities, shake out for the following hunting season that includes both how many animals will be available to harvest and their age makeup. For this year, it was winter with a capital “W,” especially in northeast Oregon where heavy snows covered even low elevation winter range along with temperatures that dropped to minus 23, hammering deer populations in particular. While more-difficult-than-typical winter weather conditions also prevailed in other parts of the state, fortunately, deer and other big game species cane thorough fairly well. Here’s what a selection of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist had to say about state of Oregon’s big game populations and prospects for the 2017-18 hunting seasons.
The big news was the heavy hit mule deer took in northeast Oregon. In addition to sub-zero weather, the mule deer just couldn’t find places without deep snow, no matter how low in elevation they migrated. The result was mortality levels that reached 32 percent for Baker County herds, a far cry from the more typical 8 percent winter morality in the Blue Mountains. Fawn survival also took a big hit. Typical fawn ratios in the region are in the mid-30s per 100 does. This winter it dropped to 11 per 100 and as low as eight per 100 in some areas. In response to the hard winter, ODFW reduced the number of deer hunts in Baker and Union counties by as much as 50 percent, and a couple of antlerless deer hunts have been canceled.
The good news is that deer fared considerably better in the rest of the state. On the western end of the Blue Mountains in the John Day area, ODFW district wildlife biologist Ryan Torland described the local deer herds as “chugging along just fine.” The fawn ratio is 30:100, which is a little less than ideal but manageable. It will mean fewer juvenile bucks available in the fall. “But,” says Torland, “buck ratios are pretty decent and at management objective.”
Down in the High Desert country around Lakeview, district wildlife biologist Craig Foster reports, “Deer numbers are OK. However, the winter did knock down fawn survival to around 18 to 100 does, which is low.” Since about 50 to 65 percent of the deer harvest in his district is made up of juveniles, hunter success rate will probably be lower this year. He does note that there are still lots of mature bucks on the district.
In central Oregon, heavy snows in the High Cascades did not especially affect deer herds, as the animals were able to retreat to winter range with low snowpack. However, here also, the fawns took a hit, with a 56 percent overwinter survival rate compared with the more typical 75-80 percent. “Buck ratios are at MO so the buck component is about where we want it to be,” says Bend-based district wildlife biologist Corey Heath, “But hunters will see fewer spikes and forked-horns.”
On the west side of the Cascades, district wildlife biologist Brian Wolfer, who works out of the ODFW Springfield office, reports that deer in his district made it through the winter just fine. “We had a lot of snow but it didn’t last long in the lower elevations, so the deer had somewhere to get away from deep snow,” he says. Buck ratios in the west central Cascades are holding at management objective. He’s expecting a typical success rate for black-tailed deer hunters this year, which is usually around 15-16 percent.
Down in southwest Oregon, black-tailed deer are doing fine with good buck ratios on the Applegate, Rogue and Evans Creek wildlife management units according to Central Point-based district wildlife biologist Mark Vargas. Because the black-tailed deer population in that region is migratory they need to be hunted a little differently. “Early in the season, hunters should be hunting above 4,000 feet, then drop down to below 3,500 feet near the end of the season,” Vargas advises. He also notes that the some of the best black-tailed deer hunting in the state is in the Chetco and Sixes units, where the hunter success rate can reach 35 percent.
Despite a rough winter in the Coast Range, Dave Nuzum, assistant district wildlife biologist based in Tillamook did not see an unusual level of deer mortality. “We had pretty good overwinter survival because they went into the winter in very good condition, our buck ratios are at benchmark, and our population may even be creeping up a little,” says Nuzum.
Because elk are larger, more robust animals more capable of muscling their way through deep snow to find food, they did not really suffer as much through the winter as deer, even in northeast, and no reductions in tag numbers are needed to protect those herds.
Torland, in John Day, reports that elk numbers in his area have been holding strong for the past five years. Similarly, elk are doing well in the central Oregon region units. “The calf ratio is good this year at 48 to 100 cows,” says Heath. “With that calf ratio, there will be a good number of yearling bulls for the next hunting season.” However, bull ratios are a little below MO in the Upper Deschutes, High Desert and Paulina units.
On the west side of the Cascades, both Vargas and Wolfer report the situation is still the same, a lack of logging on public lands has reduced the early seral stage habitat beneficial to elk (and deer as well) and there tends to be more elk on private timberlands where logging operations are ongoing. However, there are still a lot of elk in southwest Oregon, but you will do better if you hunt the private lands. Because of that lack of logging the Cascade elk rifle season can be difficult. “Private timberlands tend to have better hunting than the national forest,” explains Wolfer. “There have been a few more wildfires in the national forest, especially in the Indigo unit, that has created more habitat.” So hunters hunting public lands may be able to take advantage of those situations to increase their odds of success.
On the North Coast, elk numbers are good with favorable habitat conditions giving them a boost. “We are seeing forests being opened up by clearcuts on both state and private lands so there is plenty of good early seral stage habitat,” says Nuzum.
Across their range in Oregon, both Rocky Mountain and desert bighorns are generally doing fine, with problems usually herd specific, with disease or cougar predation the usual culprits. In John Dya, Torland reports that the McClellan and Aldrich Mountain herds are doing well. Foster, in Lakeview, says that his herds are doing OK, but “we don’t have any bighorn populations in Lake County that don’t have lions in them that are affecting population size,” he says. And there is a small, unhunted herd in the lava beds near Fort Rock that have been hanging in there for the past 20 years. ODFW manages bighorns very conservatively, and hunters who manage to draw a tag typically have a very good change of shooting a big ram.
Rocky Mountain Goat
Rocky Mountain goats are also doing well, with Oregon’s largest population in the Elkhorn Mountains. The goats are doing well enough in the Strawberry Mountains, with a population of about 60 animals, that 2017 will be the third year a tag will be offered. One of the state’s newest herds located in the central Oregon Cascade Mountains around Mount Jefferson has a current population of about 120 animals, although no tags yet are being offered for this herd.
Pronghorn populations have been doing pretty well in Oregon. They are stable in the High Desert region around Burns as well as in the John Day area, particularly in the Murderers Creek unit. Torland has even seen some expansion of the local population into the Northside unit.
“Our population right now, with the exception of the South Wagontire Unit, is at an all time high,” says Craig Foster, of the Lakeview ODFW office, “and tag numbers are as high as they have ever been.” However, he is seeing signs of a potential increase in the coyote population, which may eventually impact future pronghorn fawn survival.
Unfortunately, as with mule deer, pronghorn also had difficulty getting through the harsh northeast Oregon winter and a number of hunts will have tag numbers reduced by 25 to 53 percent.
Bear and Cougar
The story for bear and cougar remains the same. There are good populations of both species in Oregon with cougars most abundant in the southwest and northeast portions of the state. Bears are also widespread with the exception of the desert and drier mountain areas. The Coast Range has some of the largest bear populations with their numbers increasing as you move south. The Applegate Unit still yields the state’s highest bear harvest.
The key to successfully bagging a bear is to locate their food sources, especially berry patches, because that’s where the bears will be when the fruit ripens. Most cougars are taken opportunistically, but there is a small cadre of hunters who specifically target the cats, either tracking them in the snow or coaxing them in with predator calls.
Reprinted courtesy Oregon Hunters Association.