By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Fred Warner Jr. wants to retrieve January for Baker County chukar hunters even before the month flies out of their range.
Warner, who is chairman of the Baker County Board of Commissioners, thinks another group of commissioners, the seven who decide Oregon's fishing and hunting seasons, should reconsider their decision to close chukar hunting in Baker County Dec. 31 instead of Jan. 31.
Warner has scheduled a public meeting on the matter for 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 24 at the Extension Building, 2610 Grove St. in Baker City.
andquot;We'd like to hear from everybody,andquot; Warner said.
He plans to pass on what he hears at the meeting to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Last August the commission approved, by a 5-2 vote, a five-year schedule (2005-10) that lists Dec. 31 as the last day to hunt chukars and Hungarian partridges in Baker County.
For more than a decade that season has ended Jan. 31 except two years, 1993 and 2004, when state officials curtailed hunting in mid-January due to severe weather.
Although the Fish and Wildlife Commission won't officially set opening and closing dates for the 2005-06 season until August, it would rank as a rare occasion if they dropped the Dec. 31 plan a decision five of the seven members agreed with just a year before.
The commission didn't tinker with chukar season dates during the previous five-year period (the two weather-related closures in mid-January were decided on in January, not the previous August before hunting even started).
Nonetheless, Warner thinks Baker County hunters who prefer the Jan. 31 closure date can influence the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
andquot;I've heard from a lot of chukar hunters about this,andquot; Warner said. andquot;(January) is an important part of the season here. There's not much other hunting going on then.andquot; He said wildlife biologists from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) will attend the Feb. 24 meeting. He also hopes to entice business owners from Richland or Huntington, two towns that benefit from chukar hunters' dollars during the otherwise sluggish winter economy.
andquot;I think there needs to be a public debate,andquot; Warner said.
One person Warner doesn't need to convince is Carter Kerns of Pendleton. Kerns, the only one of the seven fish and wildlife commissioners who lives east of the Cascades, voted against the motion last August that includes the Dec. 31 closure date in Baker County.
(Commission Chair Marla Rae of Salem cast the other no vote.)
Kerns recommends hunters who dislike the Dec. 31 closure date attend the commission's Aug. 5 meeting in Salem. That's the meeting at which the commission is scheduled to set chukar season dates for this year.
andquot;Folks that want to see a change should show up and testify, and the more the better,andquot; Kerns said. andquot;That seems to have the greatest effect.andquot; He urges people who plan to testify Aug. 5 to register in advance by calling 503/947-6034.
Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Jon Englund of Astoria, who voted for the Dec. 31 closure, said he has received several letters from Baker County residents and businesses urging him to reconsider his vote.
Like Kerns, Englund encourages hunters who disagree with that vote to attend the Aug. 5 meeting.
andquot;If something wasn't right we should certainly go back and look at that issue,andquot; Englund said.
More about deer than chukars
Despite the focus on the chukar, it wasn't problems with the bird, but rather with the ground-bound mule deer, that persuaded the commission to shorten the hunting season in Baker County.
State wildlife biologists, including George Keister at ODFW's Baker City office, contend chukar hunters sometimes unintentionally harass deer that share winter range with the birds.
When deer flee chukar hunters they burn life-preserving energy that deer can't easily replace when snow covers their food supply, biologists contend.
Several hunters expressed the same concern to the commission last August, according to minutes from that meeting.
The commission's goal in closing the chukar season Dec. 31 instead of Jan. 31 is to spare deer a month of possible harassment.
Some chukar hunters, however, dispute the notion that they harass deer.
And despite the biologists' statements, ODFW's official recommendation to the commission was to leave the Jan. 31 closure date in place for Baker County.
Kerns said he's still surprised a majority of the commission voted to reject that recommendation.
He said the commission or at least a majority of its members usually defers to ODFW's judgment on issues such as setting season-closing dates.
Commission Vice Chairman Donald Denman of Medford, who voted for the Dec. 31 closure, said last year that he was persuaded to do so in part because, during his seven-year stint on the commission, Baker County has been the andquot;center of complaintsandquot; regarding chukar hunting during January.
Besides the deer-harassment issue, Denman said several hunters have told the commission over the years that deep snow forced chukars to congregate near roads, a situation a few unethical hunters took advantage of.
Last winter Oregon State Police wildlife officers cited one hunter and warned two others for illegally shooting chukars from a road in Baker County.
But this winter officers noted no such problems in the county, OSP Lt. Randy Scorby said.
Snow was scarce even at higher elevations, he said, so birds weren't forced to congregate at lower elevations near roads.
This winter's mostly mild weather also helped deer, Keister said. They haven't had to dig through snow to find food, and the abundance of forage, combined with comparatively balmy temperatures, meant deer were less susceptible to harassment by hunters than the animals are during arctic Januarys like last year, for example.
Keister declined to predict how the Fish and Wildlife Commission might respond to an organized lobbying campaign by Baker County chukar hunters.
He said the commission could leave Dec. 31 as the official end of the season, but allow ODFW to extend hunting to Jan. 31 during unusually mild winters such as the current one.
Keister acknowledges that many hunters, however, prefer the scenario that has prevailed for more than a decade the season ends Jan. 31, but ODFW can stop hunting earlier if the weather turns nasty as it did in 2004.
Warner points out that the commission, although it changed the closure date to Dec. 31 for Baker County, left it at Jan. 31 for all four bordering counties: Union, Wallowa, Malheur and Grant.
andquot;I'm concerned that Baker County is the only place they did that,andquot; Warner said.
(The commission changed the closure date to Dec. 31 several years ago in Umatilla and Morrow counties.)
Keister has suggested the commission, to partially offset the loss of January, move the start of the chukar season from early October to mid-September.
The mid-September start date also would coincide with the opening of chukar season in the sections of Idaho that share Baker County's border along the Snake River and its reservoirs.
In that part of Idaho the chukar season continues through Jan. 31.