Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

The hard winter killed hundreds of deer in Baker County, prompting Oregon wildlife officials to cut in half the number of buck tags for this fall’s hunting season.

The 50-percent reduction applies to all four of the hunting units in Baker County: Sumpter, Lookout Mountain, Pine Creek and Keating.

That equates to 1,450 fewer tags than the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) intended to sell for Baker County hunts this fall.

This is by far the most severe reduction in deer tags in the county since 1993 and 1994. The cuts in those two years were precipitated by the devastating winter of 1992-93, which also decimated deer herds in parts of Baker County.

The agency also announced Friday that it had canceled two antlerless deer hunts planned this fall to reduce damage to farm and ranch land in Baker County, and that pronghorn antelope tags would be reduced.

ODFW didn’t limit its tag trimming to Baker County.

The agency is cutting buck tags by 40 percent in some Malheur County units, and by 35 percent for some Union County units.

Deer losses weren’t quite as severe in those adjoining counties as they were in Baker County, said Brian Ratliff, district wildlife biologist at ODFW’s Baker City office.

ODFW will not reduce tag numbers for elk hunts

“Due to their size, elk can generate more body heat at less energetic cost and they can get through crustier snow easier than smaller ungulates like deer and pronghorn,” Ratliff said.

Agency officials decided to slash deer tag numbers after biologists made aerial surveys of deer herds in mid and late March and tallied the death toll.

A key statistic is the number of fawns per 100 adult deer. That’s important because about one-third of the bucks killed by hunters each fall are yearlings. The long-term average for Baker County is about 35 fawns per 100 adults.

This spring the average across the county was 11 fawns per 100 adults.

Ratliff said he wasn’t shocked by the fawn ratio, considering that deep snow accumulated even at the lowest elevations of the county, and temperatures plummeted to 20 below zero and colder in places.

“The deer went as low as they could possibly go,” Ratliff said, referring to the annual migration of deer to lower-elevation winter range. “I saw them in places I’d never seen them before. But there was no forage for them that wasn’t covered by snow and it was just really tough on fawns.”

But from the standpoint of the herd’s long-term recovery, Ratliff said he’s even more concerned by the loss of adult female deer. The loss of a single doe, of course, can equate to a dozen or more fewer offspring during the doe’s lifetime.

Mortality rates among does were not available in 1993. But biologists can gauge the death toll among does now because ODFW is doing a multiyear study of mule deer in Northeastern Oregon. Hundreds of deer have been fitted with tracking collars, which allows ODFW to estimate the winter survival of does.

The average loss of does in the Blue Mountains this winter was 8 percent, Ratliff said.

But the loss in Baker County was 32 percent.

That statistic starkly illustrates the severity of the winter, Ratliff said. Does are much less susceptible to harsh weather than fawns and older deer, he said, and a 32-percent death rate among does is an unusually high percentage.

Since ODFW changed from a general hunting season for buck deer to a controlled season in 1990, the agency has approved dramatic cuts to hunting tag numbers in just two other years — 1993 and 1994.

(In a general season all eligible hunters can buy a tag; in a controlled season hunters have to apply for a tag, and the state awards tags based on a lottery system.)

In the spring of 1993, ODFW counted 11 fawns per 100 adults in Baker County’s four units — the same ratio as the agency calculated this spring.

The agency slashed buck tag numbers for the 1993 season, and although fawn survival was much better the following winter — the county average was 28 fawns per 100 does in the spring of 1994 — ODFW kept tag numbers low for another year.

In 1994 the total tag allocation of 1,350 for Baker County’s four units was the lowest since the switch to controlled hunts in 1990.

See more in the April 17, 2017, issue of the Baker City Herald.