Of the Baker City Herald

Deer and elk don't celebrate Christmas, or at least you never see them carrying tinsel, but they got an awfully nice gift this year anyway.

Bare ground.

Tens of thousands of acres of it, from the Snake River clear across Baker County's sagebrush expanses to the conifer-clad lower slopes of the Elkhorn Mountains.

Every snow-free acre's an ideal stocking stuffer, too, although the stuffers in this case are clumps of green grass, which deer and elk savor but which probably would disappoint a 10-year-old who hoped to find a GameBoy.

For deer and elk grass is food, and by Christmas Day most years they have to thrust their hooves through at least a few inches of snow, and sometimes a few feet, to find a meal in Baker County.

But this year the kitchen is open, and dinner as convenient as a microwaveable pizza.

andquot;Conditions are as could as they can be,andquot; said George Keister, district wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Baker City office. andquot;The animals are in really good shape.andquot;

Eddie Miguez knows firsthand just how good.

Miguez manages ODFW's Elkhorn Wildlife Area, which stretches along the eastern base of the Elkhorns from Old Auburn Road north to Shaw Mountain.

His job is to feed alfalfa hay and nutritious pellets to deer and elk so the animals, which by late December tend to be famished, don't turn ranchers' haystacks into the big game equivalent of a drive-in burger joint.

But this December most deer and elk have rejected Miguez's handouts like a snooty French food critic who lifts the silver lid and finds on the serving plate a Big Mac wrapped in grease-stained paper.

Here's why:

October's copious rain spurred sun-dried grasses and other plants to sprout succulent new shoots.

andquot;I've never seen a green-up so good this time of year,andquot; Keister said.

And now, even after the winter solstice, there's little if any snow covering the tasty green morsels.

andquot;There's quite a bit of greenery, and most of the animals prefer that to alfalfa anyway,andquot; Miguez said.

So far Miguez and his three-person crew have spread about 20 tons of hay among the Wildlife Area's 10 feed sites.

During wintry Decembers elk and deer will swallow 200 tons or more, Miguez said.

andquot;It's been pretty slow this year,andquot; he said.

Slow enough to make a narcoleptic sloth seem speedy.

Miguez said elk are eating regularly at just three sites: Anthony Creek, near the Wildlife Area headquarters (about 100 head); a few miles south near the North Powder River (80 to 100); and several miles farther south at Muddy Creek (about 100).

During normal Decembers more than 1,000 elk and several hundred deer show up at the feed sites every day, multiple stomachs rumbling.

Miguez said Wildlife Area workers have flung hay at each of the 10 sites, but so far, with the exception of the three listed above, animals have nibbled rather than munched.

Still, Miguez said it's vital that his crew supply hay to every site, and to visit each one every day or so.

If deer and elk stroll into a feed site and find the cupboards bare, so to speak, they'll usually keep moving downvalley until they see hay, Miguez said. That's precisely the predicament ODFW officials aimed to prevent when they created the Elkhorn Wildlife Area in 1971.

And once deer and elk set up a smorgasbord on some valley ranch, persuading them to climb back to the foothills is about as tough a task as convincing a kid to finish his brussels sprouts.

andquot;We don't want to get too lax,andquot; Miguez said. andquot;All the (feed) sites have hay on them. The animals know where it's at.andquot;

The scarcity of snow has spared Miguez and his crew from the frenetic pace typical in December.

Although they visit the feed sites regularly, workers haven't had to spend hours plowing snow.

andquot;It's a welcome break for the feed crew,andquot; Miguez said.

Deer and elk hunters ought to be pleased with the situation, too.

The benign weather means more deer and elk should survive the lean season, even if temperatures plunge and snow slinks into Baker County in the new year.

And more animals translates more tags available for hunters for the fall 2005 seasons.

Besides making for easy meals, the lack of snow helps deer and elk in another way, Keister said.

No snow means no advantage for coyotes, cougars and other predators that feast on deer and elk, he said. The lighter predators can run much faster through deep snow than their prey, which plod along, their sharp hooves sinking deep with every step.

Miguez, who is in his seventh winter as the Wildlife Area's manager, said this December might rank as the slowest, in terms of workload, during his tenure.

The only challenger during that period is December 2002, when the Wildlife Area crew distributed about 25 tons of hay.