IZEE – You could call it a vote of confidence for Oregon’s Mule Deer Initiative.

The Upper South Fork John Day River Watershed Council has formally adopted the Initiative as part of its long-range plan to promote big game habitat enhancement in one of Oregon’s most important big game units.

The Murderers Creek game management unit in the South Fork John Day watershed is one of five units in the state where the mule deer initiative is being implemented.

Shaun Robertson, a natural resources consultant for the council, said habitat conservation on private land is a significant part of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s strategy under the Initiative, “and the South Fork Council is one of the few landowner-based organizations in the area working on private lands.”

Members are enthusiastic about the goals aims of the Initiative.

“Mule deer are such an important part of our culture and livelihood,” said M.T. Anderson, manager of the 25,000-acre Inshallah Ranch and a member of the Izee-based council. “The council is very focused on reversing the serious declines in mule deer production, and the MDI was complementary to the Council’s programs.”

The St. Clair and Keerins families remember the years of good buck hunting in the South Fork and recall how important the private ranches were for deer throughout the year.

“Hunting was not only important to feed local families but brought in additional income to area ranches,” said Joanne Keerins, whose husband Mike’s family has been in the South Fork since 1881.

Phil St. Clair, local rancher and chairman of the South Fork Council, recalls that mule deer populations declined once noxious weeds and invasive species, especially juniper, and feral horses took over the landscape.

“Mule deer have responded really well to the Council’s early implementation actions under its Upland Initiative and now we have adopted a compatible plan, the Mule Deer Initiative, to complement those actions,” remarked Phil.

Richard Nelson, owner of the IZ Ranch has conducted some of those activities for the benefit of not only the local mule deer but the ranch as well.

“We’ve seen a tremendous response in our shrub habitats, particularly bitterbrush and mountain mahogany, where we have conducted noxious weed control efforts such as whitetop suppression and juniper removal” said Nelson.

Mule deer and other big game that are produced on private lands in the upper South Fork are available to sportsmen throughout the unit as they move onto federal and state lands, particularly the ODFW’s Phillip Schneider (formerly Murderer’s Creek) Wildlife Management Area.

“The ODFW recognizes that successful implementation of the MDI hinges on conservation of private lands, which are some of the most productive mule deer habitats in the region” said Robertson.

He said the council hopes its action will encourage other landowner groups to work with ODFW on the Initiative.

“We are all in the same watershed,” said Anderson. “It will take all of us to turn this mule deer crisis around.”

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