Hard winters often play havoc with big game herds, making forage harder to find and causing deer and elk to be more vulnerable to predators as they are forced to struggle through deep snow. For that reason, hunters often breathe a sigh of relief when winters are mild. But surprisingly, it may not benefit big game as much as we might think. While deer may show increased survival through a light winter, it often doesn’t make much difference to elk, which, because of their size and strength fare about as well in harsh winters as mild ones. Deer will stick to their traditional winter range even when conditions are poor, while pronghorns light out for new territory looking for better range during hard winters. Despite the mild winter weather, some biologists still reported decreased fawn survival and poor calf recruitment in some areas. Nevertheless, mild winters are still better for big game than hard ones, and most predictions are for better big game hunting opportunities this fall over last year. Here’s what a roundup of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists around the state recently had to say about big game prospects in their districts.
”Deer numbers are pretty good,” said Tillamook-based Assistant District Wildlife Biologist Dave Nuzum. ”The black-tailed deer population is at benchmark on all our units and my sense is that winter survival was pretty good.”
The story is still the same in the Cascades and Coast ranges, with habitat conditions for ungulates declining due to the lack of logging and clearcuts on national forest lands, driving many animals onto private timberlands where logging continues to create early seral stage vegetation conditions that help grow more deer (and elk). According to ODFW District Wildlife Biologist Chris Yee, in Springfield, ”Our winter didn’t have any impact, and the fawn ratios are similar to last year.” He expects deer hunting to be similar to last year.
”I’m feeling good about our deer population,” said District Wildlife Biologist Steve Niemela, who works out of the Central Point ODFW office. ”We have a migratory deer herd and they are doing a little better than black-tailed deer in other parts of the state because they migrate to good winter range.” He’s predicting a ”pretty good” upcoming season in his region, pointing out that success rates can be as high as 50 percent in the Rogue and Applegate units.
In the Klamath Falls area, according to District Wildlife Biologist Tom Collom, fawn survival rates were much improved over the previous winter, and that will translate into more yearling bucks available to hunters over the previous year. He also notes that buck ratios are good and are above management objectives in most units.
Mule deer in the John Day region are a mixed bag. ”The Murders Creek unit is doing well with the fawn to doe ratio at 37:100, which is good,” said Local District Wildlife Biologist Ryan Torland. ”Fawn ratios in the Northside and Desolation units are less than ideal. We’re not sure why, but cat predation is probably a factor.”
Mule deer continue to struggle in northeast Oregon according to Enterprise-based ODFW District Wildlife Biologist Pat Matthews. ”We’ve had low fawn survival, even with the mild winter,” he explains. One potential explanation is that fawns born after the previous hard winter were in poor condition and did not survive despite the mild weather. Matthews expects mule deer hunting to be slow this year in the Wenaha, Sled Springs, Chesnimnus, Snake River, Minam and Inhaha units, but to some extent the growing white-tailed deer population will take up some of the slack.
In the high desert, Hines-based District Wildlife Biologist Rod Klus reported that mule deer had poor recruitment, which may be because the does were not in very good physical shape coming out of the last hard winter. Fawn survival, however, was better and will result in more young bucks to harvest this fall.
The North Coast elk population is slowly building back up after being a little on the low side a few years ago according to biologist Nuzum. ”We have a healthy elk population although it is slightly below management objective,” he said. He notes that the bull ratios are robust on all his units, which includes Saddle Mountain, Wilson and Trask.
Cascades elk are still suffering from the same lack of succulent new growth on public lands due to the significant cutback in logging over the years, although to some extent wildfires help make up some of the difference. As a rule, you will find more elk on private timberlands with active logging operations. ”Most of the elk population on industrial forest land is good,” said Springfield-based Yee.
Further south, Niemela reports that, ”Elk have seen on a slow, multi-decade decline mostly because of a decline in early seral stage habitat.” However, he noted that Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest staff is planning some future projects to improve elk – and deer – habitat on the forest. ”We did see a lot of bulls on our helicopter surveys,” said Niemela. So despite the population being down there are still some nice bulls out there to be harvested. In his district, the Chetco unit offers the best opportunities.
Collom in Klamath Falls, reported good bull ratios, and noted that because elk are lightly hunted in his district there are some very big bulls running around out there that a hunter occasionally lucks into.
Torland said that elk are doing well in the John Day region and are at management objective for most units. He expects good hunting opportunities this fall.
”Elk are doing really good,” said Enterprise-based Matthews. ”Even though we are still having some low calf survival, I expect hunting to be pretty normal with a good elk population and lots of big bulls available.”
Klus in Hines reported that elk are doing fine in the High Desert Region, had good overwinter survival, an average or better calf crop and a good, mature bull population.
Overall, Oregon’s desert and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are doing fairly well right now. Torland reports that there are about 150 in the Aldrich Mountain herd near John Day and about 100 in the McClellan Mountain herd. ODFW translocated some additional sheep to the Aldrich herd in 2010, which gave it a jumpstart and is now increasing. The McClellan herd is stable to increasing.
”Bighorns are kind of hanging in there,” said Matthews, ”although the Lostine herd is having trouble with low survival and predation.” He noted that there is a new herd in Hells Canyon that is almost large enough to start a new hunt.
Klus reported that desert bighorns in his area are doing fine with no disease or excessive predation issues.
Rocky Mountain Goat
In northeast Oregon, Matthews said that, ”Goats are doing really well, numbers are increasing and success rates are high for anyone who draws a tag.”
Torland reported that goats are doing well in the Strawberry Mountains with the current herd at about 60 animals. There are also about 20 goats hanging around nearby Canyon Mountain and ODFW biologists are trying to figure out if a new herd is forming, or if they are members of the Strawberry herd moving back and forth.
”Pronghorn populations are having a pretty good run,” said Klus. ”Last year they didn’t have a very impressive crop of fawns, but the overall population is steady.”
Collon also reported that pronghorns are doing really well in south-central Oregon east of the Cascade Mountains. ”We have them in the eastern part of Klamath County, and they have been increasing over the past eight or ten years,” says Collom.
Pronghorns are doing equally well in the John Day area, according to Torland, especially on the Murderers Creek unit. There are pronghorn hunts on the Northside and Heppner units but they are all on private lands and access can be difficult.
Bear and Cougar
There continues to be healthy, and in some areas, increasing, populations of bears and cougars. There are good numbers of bears in the Cascades and Coast ranges, with the population going up as you move south. The Applegate unit continues to be the top bear producer in the state. Northeast and southwest Oregon still tend to have the largest cougar populations. Cougars have been documented slowly expanding their populations into the northwestern part of the state, including into the outskirts of Portland, with the biggest increase currently in the Alsea unit.
Successful bear hunters take the time to locate food sources such as berry patches, and to be there when they ripen, because that is when the bears will show up. While some hunters specifically target cougars using predator calls or snow tracking, most of these secretive cats are taken opportunistically.