Fewer fawns means fewer deer tags

April 11, 2002 12:00 am
Mule deer fawns did not fare well in parts of Baker County this winter. More deer died in the county this winter than any since 1992-93. As a result, state biologists are proposing to reduce the number of hunting tags in three of the countys four units. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).
Mule deer fawns did not fare well in parts of Baker County this winter. More deer died in the county this winter than any since 1992-93. As a result, state biologists are proposing to reduce the number of hunting tags in three of the countys four units. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Baker Countys deer herds beat the weather odds for almost a decade, but this year the winter won.

More deer died in the county this winter than any since 1992-93, said George Keister, district wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlifes (ODFW) Baker City office.

Deer in most of the county didnt fare too well, Keister said.

And that means more deer hunters will be disappointed this fall, stranded at home with no tag and only their dreams of bagging a trophy buck (please see chart this page).

But conditions could be and in the past have been much worse, Keister said.

Deer actually thrived in one corner of the county, he said. And that, combined with weather that in few places was very cold or very snowy for very long, kept this winter from becoming a county-wide catastrophe on the order of past seasons such as 1992-93 and 1988-89.

That deer-friendly corner was the northeast.

There, along the shores of Oxbow and Hells Canyon reservoirs, most deer, including the vulnerable fawns, survived, Keister said.

The Pine Creek unit, which includes much of those reservoirs shorelines, was the only one of Baker Countys four units where fawn survival was above average.

Yet along Oxbows upstream neighbor, Brownlee Reservoir, dozens of deer starved.

Oregons annual spring deer counts illustrate the drastic difference in deer survival from one area to the other.

The census, conducted from the air by Idaho Power Company and from the ground by ODFW, showed 16 fawns per 100 adult deer in the Lookout Mountain unit, Keister said. Thats the lowest since spring 1993, when the fawn-to-adult ratio was 10 to 100.

Yet in Pine Creek, the unit that adjoins Lookout Mountain to the north, the spring fawn ratio was 40 per 100 adults.

Keister attributes that vast disparity to two main factors.

First, there are more nutritious meals for deer in the Pine Creek unit bitterbrush, in particular.

But bitterbrush and other protein-rich shrubs are sparse on the slopes above Brownlee Reservoir, in the Lookout Mountain unit, Keister said.

Deer that wintered there subsisted mainly on annual grasses such as medusa head and cheatgrass.

Thats just not very nutritious, Keister said.

Forage was hard to find elsewhere in the Lookout Mountain unit, as well, he said.

In its southern half, near Durkee, the snow was deep and it stayed long, forcing deer to expend precious energy digging for even the most meager of meals.

Keister said the deer he counted in that area last month were noticeably thinner than deer in other parts of Baker County.

But as was the case along the Snake River reservoirs, conditions improved dramatically just a few miles away.

In the Burnt River Canyon, not far west of Durkee, snow was neither so deep nor so persistent as in the sage-covered hills just north of the town, Keister said.

Again, fawn ratios emphasize the difference.

In the section of the Lookout Mountain unit north and east of Durkee, Keister counted 14 fawns for every 100 adults.

But in the Burnt River Canyon, which is part of the Sumpter unit, the ratio was 40 to 100. The deer there were visibly fatter than their counterparts on the other side of Interstate 84, too, he said.

And for deer in winter, unlike for calorie-counting humans, fat equals health.

Keisters favorite analogy is of a bank account.

Deer nibble shrubs and gobble grass all summer to build their fat deposits, he said.

In winter, when animals expend more energy staying warm and plunging through snowdrifts than they can replenish with the paltry forage available, they draw on those fat deposits to stay alive.

The deer that empty their fat accounts too early, before spring sunshine brings green grass back to the hills, will die.

Most of the countys herds seemed healthy last fall, before the cold and snow bulled in around Thanksgiving, Keister said.

Although last years drought was the most severe in a quarter century, a few fall showers and mild temperatures in October and most of November kept grasses and shrubs green long enough for deer to accumulate thick layers of fat, he said.

Had that fall greenup not occurred, or had the winter been colder (there was less than a week of widespread of sub-zero temperatures), Keister believes far more deer would have perished.