Deer herds weather winter in fine shape
By JAYSON JACOBY
Nick Myatt saw mule deer where he expected to see them, and elk where he didn't, and in both cases he was pleased.
Myatt, who started work in early February as the Baker District wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, took in his first overview of his district last week.
Myatt spent 24 hours, over three days, in a helicopter as the aircraft skimmed over a substantial chunk of Baker County.
ODFW biologists go airborne every spring to count deer and elk. Biologists use the results from this annual census to figure out how many tags the state should sell for the fall hunting seasons.
But for Myatt, who moved to Baker City from Salem, last week's aerial activity served a second valuable purpose.
"It was a great way to learn the district," he said. "I got the bird's-eye view."
He and other biologists saw a bunch of animals from the lofty vantage point 7,036 deer and 2,171 elk, to be precise.
Myatt hasn't finished compiling other statistics that are, for the purposes of setting tag numbers, more vital than those totals: the ratio of deer fawns and elk calves to adults, and the ratio of bull elk to cow elk.
But though he can't yet talk specifics in tag terms, Myatt said he feels optimistic, after his three above-ground days, about the health of Baker County's big-game herds.
The animals seem to have weathered the winter, which was benevolent by Baker County standards, in fine fettle, Myatt said.
"It was about as easy a winter as you can get for deer and elk," he said.
Snow was scarce, especially in the lower elevations of eastern Baker County where most deer, and many elk, gather during winter.
Myatt said elk, which typically congregate near the snowline, are spread out.
Elk also are roaming at higher elevations than they usually do in March, due to the absence of snow.
For instance, Myatt said he saw elk near the 6,692-foot summit of Little Lookout Mountain south of Richland.
The real beneficiaries of the tranquil winter, though, weren't elk, but rather deer, Myatt said.
Deer, since they're not so hardy as elk, are more likely to die during a harsh winter. Thousands of deer perished in Baker County during the most recent nasty winter, 1992-93.
Deer were especially vulnerable this winter, Myatt said, due to the Foster Gulch fire.
That lightning-sparked blaze blackened 53,500 acres in eastern Baker County including some of the county's best winter habitat for deer in late July and August.
The most troubling thing about the fire, Myatt said, is that the flames destroyed hundreds of bitterbrush shrubs.
Deer depend on protein-rich bitterbrush during hard winters, he said.
Bitterbrush is not only more nutritious than grass, but the shrub, being taller, stays above the snow, whereas deer have to expend precious calories digging in snow to get at grass.
But this winter was so benign that the loss of bitterbrush didn't doom deer, Myatt said.
Spring's early arrival helped deer, too.
Myatt said much of the burned ground he flew over was carpeted green with new grass.
Government agencies, along with several ranchers whose cattle-grazing pastures were burned last summer, spent close to $2 million last fall to sow grass and shrub seeds on thousands of scorched acres.
Myatt said some of the bigger herds of deer and elk he saw during his flights had assembled in areas that were seeded last fall.
"That forage is really coming up, and the deer and elk are taking advantage of it," Myatt said.
So are chukar, he said.
Although Myatt won't have actual numbers for a few weeks, he expects tag totals for this fall's deer and elk seasons will be similar to last year's.
He said ODFW might sell fewer cow elk tags for the Sumpter and Pine Creek units, however.
Myatt and other biologists will discuss tag numbers during a public open house scheduled for May 10 from 1 p.m to 6 p.m. at the ODFW office at 2995 Hughes Lane in Baker City.