By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Hunters might get to go after deer, elk, chukars and other animals on a 10,000-acre chunk of eastern Baker County rangeland thanks to a recent $5.6 million purchase by Idaho Power Company.
But don't grab your gun just yet.
The Boise firm bought the Daly Creek Ranch south of Richland in late December as part of the company's campaign to obtain a new federal license to operate its Hells Canyon Complex, which encompasses Hells Canyon, Oxbow and Brownlee dams and reservoirs.
Several agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), had urged Idaho Power to buy land that would at least partially replace valuable wildlife habitat submerged when the company built the trio of power-producing dams during the 1950s and 1960s.
BLM officials, for example, estimate that the three reservoirs inundated 10,000 to 12,000 acres of ground, including areas along the formerly free-flowing Snake River where deer congregated during harsh winters.
andquot;It's habitat that's hard to replace in kind,andquot; said Dorothy Mason, who works at the BLM's Baker Resource Area office in Baker City.
That now-submerged habitat is unique because it was the lowest, and therefore usually the warmest, place for many miles around, which is why animals wintered there, Mason said.
Because Idaho Power can replace that lost habitat only with higher, typically colder properties, the company, with BLM's endorsement, plans to buy 23,000 acres about twice as much land as the company flooded decades ago, said Dennis Lopez, an Idaho Power spokesman.
The company just passed the halfway point with two recent purchases.
In addition to the Daly Creek Ranch in Baker County, Idaho Power bought about 2,000 acres on the Idaho shore of Brownlee Reservoir, next to the Idaho Fish and Game Department's Cecil D. Andrus Wildlife Management Area.
andquot;These properties, which provide wildlife and riparian habitat, are adjacent to the Hells Canyon Complex and supply large, contiguous habitat for mule deer winter range and preserve unique riparian areas along Brownlee Reservoir,andquot; said Dave Meyers, general manager of relicensing and environmental affairs for Idaho Power.
Mason said the Daly Creek Ranch is a property BLM officials had hoped Idaho Power would acquire.
andquot;We're very pleased that they went ahead and took advantage of the opportunity,andquot; Mason said.
Hunters, however, won't gain immediate access to the Daly Creek Ranch, Lopez said.
He said Idaho Power will keep the property closed to the public until company officials have surveyed the ranch and decided how much public access, including hunting, the company can allow without degrading the habitat or reducing its value to wildlife.
andquot;The whole purpose of this purchase was to acquire wildlife habitat,andquot; Lopez said.
He declined to speculate about when Idaho Power will decide how to control hunting on the Daly Creek Ranch.
Plenty of people are eager to hear the company's decision, however.
andquot;Everybody's dying to find out whether they'll allow hunting,andquot; said Theron Hampton, who owns The Hitching Post Motel and Store in Richland, just a few miles north of the Daly Creek Ranch.
The previous property owners allowed limited hunting only.
Teresa Chaffee worked as property manager for the former owners, Daly Creek Ranch LLC, a company run by Gerald R. Novotny.
Chaffee said Novotny and two other people bought the ranch about 20 years ago. The Novotny family has been the sole owner for a bit more than 10 years, Chaffee said.
She said the ranch generally was closed except to guests, family and friends, although she said she occasionally allowed other people to hunt on the ranch so long as there were no conflicts with guests.
Chaffee said Idaho Power bought not only the undeveloped parts of the ranch, but also the guest house, a tennis court and a 2,700-foot-long paved and lighted runway.
The Daly Creek Retreat and Guest Ranch (www.dalycreek.com) no longer is operating, Chaffee said.
She said Gerald Novotny is leasing the house and the runway from Idaho Power until April. He is looking for a smaller property in the area, Chaffee said.
Lopez said Idaho Power plans to maintain the runway as a private airstrip, although it would be available for air ambulance flights or for pilots who need to make an emergency landing.
Hampton predicts hordes of hunters will descend on the Daly Creek Ranch if Idaho Power opens the property to the public.
Chukar hunting, in particular, should be excellent in that area, he said.
The ranch is part of ODFW's Lookout Mountain wildlife management unit.
Although the Lookout Mountain unit contains some of Baker County's better hunting grounds, the unit has the worst access for hunters among the county's four units.
Just 36 percent of the acreage in Lookout Mountain is public land, and much of the private property is closed to hunters or open with restrictions.
The Pine Creek unit, by contrast, contains 75 percent public lands, the Keating unit 58 percent and the Sumpter unit 45 percent.
Meyers said Idaho Power will work with wildlife officials from Oregon and Idaho to decide how to manage the company's new lands.
Idaho Power has several goals, he said, including protecting habitat for game animals and birds as well as for non-game species such as eagles and herons, and allow hunting and livestock grazing.
andquot;An interim land management plan is being developed,andquot; Meyers said. andquot;And following our (federal) license renewal we will establish a long-term management plan consistent with the license requirements.andquot;