Opportunity to grow herds and hunt

February 03, 2005 12:00 am
Local wildlife officials and an advisory committee think there's room to grow deer herds in two hunting units and elk herds in one unit. That might make more hunting tags available. (Baker City Herald file photo/S. John Collins).
Local wildlife officials and an advisory committee think there's room to grow deer herds in two hunting units and elk herds in one unit. That might make more hunting tags available. (Baker City Herald file photo/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Deer hunters might boost their odds of drawing a buck tag in two of Baker County's four units.

Elk hunters could get lucky in one of those two units, as well.

The units are Pine Creek and Lookout Mountain, both in eastern Baker County.

State wildlife biologists contend both units can handle more deer than the state's current plan says they can handle.

They also think extra elk can squeeze into Pine Creek.

And more deer or elk usually means more hunting tags.

"If the herds grow there could be more opportunity for hunters," said Charlie Brinton of Baker City, president of the Baker County chapter of the Oregon Hunters Association. "But that's down the road."

The "more deer equals more tags" concept oversimplifies the situation, and biologists will toss in plenty of details during a public meeting Feb. 23 in Baker City.

Hunters will need an assist from the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission and from the weather.

A smidgen of cooperation from cougars, coyotes and bears wouldn't hurt, either.

The meeting is scheduled from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Baker 5J School administration office, 2090 Fourth St. (corner of Broadway Street).

The meeting's purpose is to ask hunters as well as non-hunters how many deer and elk they think should roam across Baker County's four units. The Baker City meeting is one of 21 the state has scheduled during the next six weeks.

"Management objectives"

State wildlife officials call population goals for deer and elk herds "management objectives," and the Fish and Wildlife Commission is considering changing the current objectives. Commissioners set those numbers for deer in 1992, and for elk in 1994, said George Keister, district wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Baker City office.

There are two objectives for each species in each hunting unit.

One is the winter population, which, Keister cautions, can show a difference of hundreds or even thousands of animals compared with summer and fall population. Deer and elk migrate to valleys and foothills during winter to avoid the deeper snow and chillier temperatures in the mountains.

The other objective is the ratio of bucks or bulls to females, based on the winter census.

Biologists try to maintain a certain number of bucks and bulls to ensure fecund females are bred every year.

Changing either objective can affect the number of hunting tags the state sells, Keister said. And that can create controversy, especially when the number goes down.

Hunters take declining tag sales about as well as stockbrokers deal with triple-digit drops in the Dow Jones.

But Keister doubts the changes he proposes for deer and elk population goals in the two Baker County units will raise hunters' hackles.

The reason, he said, is simple: Those changes, should the commission enact them May 13 as scheduled, might result in more hunting tags for Baker County, but almost certainly won't result in fewer tags.

"I don't see this as being contentious," Keister said.

Brinton agrees.

He was one of 12 members of a local committee that worked with Keister and another state biologist, Ryan Torland, to recommend herd size goals for Baker County's units.

Other members represented the agriculture industry, hunters and outfitters, and the Forest Service and BLM.

Brinton said the committee considered not only how changing population targets might help hunters, but also whether larger herds would wreak havoc in farmers and ranchers' crops and pastures. Deer and elk like to eat alfalfa just as much as beef cattle do.

Brinton said the committee agreed that both Lookout Mountain and Pine Creek units can accommodate more deer, and Pine Creek more elk.

No guarantees

Which doesn't, of course, mean those new deer and elk will suddenly appear in a puff of white smoke.

Fish and Wildlife commissioners can increase population goals, but they can't guarantee herds will grow to those levels, nor can they promise hunters more tags, Keister said.

The weather, for instance, doesn't care a whit for what the commission thinks is the right number of deer and elk. And neither do the cougars, coyotes and bears that salivate at the sight of a knock-kneed fawn or calf.

The bottom line, Keister said, is that weather and predators will continue to affect the number of hunting tags the state sells for each unit, regardless of the commission's population goals.

But by raising those goals the commission would ensure, if the weather and the predators cooperate, that herds, and in turn tag quotas, can grow.

If the population goals stay as they are but the herds grow, biologists would have no choice but to trim the herds by by letting hunters kills does and cows.

As for the county's two other units, Sumpter and Keating, Keister recommends the commission maintain the current population goals.

There's no reason to raise the limit for deer and elk in those units because neither species is bumping its head (or antlers) on the current ceiling, Keister said, nor does he expect they will during the next several years.

But the situation is different in the Lookout Mountain and Pine Creek units.

A more accurate census

In 1992, when the Fish and Wildlife Commission set population goals for mule deer, biologists counted Baker County's herds from horseback, Keister said.

In 1995 they swapped horses for helicopters.

As you might guess, you can see more deer and elk from the air than from the saddle.

In 1992, for example, biologists counted slightly fewer than 3,000 deer in the Lookout Mountain unit.

During the latter half of the 1990s biologists saw at least 4,000 deer in the unit each year.

The bottom line, Keister said, is that the commission used incomplete census data when it set Lookout Mountain's deer population goal at 3,200 animals.

In fact there's ample evidence that the unit can support at least twice that many deer.

During the early 1980s biologists counted more than 6,000 deer annually in the unit despite the less-comprehensive horseback censuses.

As a result, Keister recommends the commission increase the population goal from the current 3,200 deer, to 6,200.

The situation is similar in the Pine Creek unit, where Keister suggests the commission boost the deer population target from 2,500 to 3,700.

He acknowledges that raising those targets now might seem premature considering that, based on last year's count, deer populations in both units are below even the lower current objectives.

But here's the part that affects hunters:

When the population in a unit exceeds the commission's target, the state is supposed to pare the population back to the ceiling as soon as possible. Keister said. The simplest method is to let hunters shoot does, which serves the dual purpose of ridding the unit of a certain number of does, and also every fawn those does might have birthed in the future. And does usually have twins, so the savings, as it were, add up rapidly.

But there's another option, and it's one Keister, and most hunters, prefer: increase the population goal.

Then, if the deer herd in a unit expands, the state can leave the does alone and instead sell more buck tags, which hunters tend to prefer anyway because a deer head with no antlers looks sort of strange mounted above the fireplace.

Brinton agrees that that's the better way to deal with an expanding deer herd.

Keister said it's conceivable that deer populations in both Lookout Mountain and Pine Creek will, within several years, surpass the commission's current ceilings.

Lookout Mountain's deer herds did so as recently as 2002, although the margin was small and Keister did not seek permission from the state to sell doe tags.

A related issue in Lookout Mountain is the buck ratio.

Now, the state tries to maintain 15 bucks for every 100 does.

Brinton said the local committee discussed raising the goal to 25 bucks, which would reduce the number of buck tags the state could add even if the unit's deer population grows.

The dilemma in Lookout Mountain is access for hunters, he said. The unit is 64 percent private land, a larger percentage than any of the county's three other units.

Brinton said that even if the deer population increases, and the state sells more buck tags, those extra hunters might be crowded into the few large chunks of public property.

He said the committee also recommends that commissioners, if they boost the buck ratio from 15 to 25, limit the number of archers allowed to hunt bucks in Lookout Mountain. There are no such limits now during the late summer archery season.

Brinton said he worries that the state would never reach the 25-buck goal without limiting archery hunting.

The same issue of limited access for hunters also prompted the local committee to recommend the commission raise the bull elk ratio in Lookout Mountain from the current 10 bulls per 100 cows to 15 bulls.

Elk in Pine Creek unit

Keister thinks the current population goal of 400 elk in this unit is too low.

The issue is not incomplete censuses from the past, though, as with deer in Pine Creek and Lookout Mountains, he said. Rather, he said elk have colonized parts of the Pine Creek unit, particularly slopes above the Snake River, where they didn't live in 1994 when the commission set the 400-animal limit.

Keister recommends a target of 650 elk — the same number of animals biologists counted in the unit last year.

Raising the limit might allow the state to sell more bull tags for the Pine Creek unit, rather than target cows to trim the herd back to 400.