Oregon wildlife officials are trying to make it easier for hunters to harvest antlerless elk that are damaging croplands in Northeastern Oregon.

The state Fish and Wildlife Commission recently approved a pilot program that, starting in 2020, will allow hunters to buy a tag to hunt antlerless elk over a four-month period in areas including parts of Baker, Keating, Eagle and Pine valleys in Baker County, the Grande Ronde Valley in Union County, the Wallowa Valley in Wallowa County and the John Day Valley in Grant County.

The new general season antlerless elk damage hunt, which will run from Aug. 1 to Nov. 30, is one of two such hunts that will debut in 2020.

The other, which includes areas west of the Cascades as well as the Columbia Basin, Maupin and Biggs units east of the mountains, will run from Aug. 1, 2020, through March 31, 2021.

The goal in both cases is the same, said Nick Myatt of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) — to try to deal with chronic elk damage on agricultural land.

“Our goal was to see if there’s anything we can do to reduce the impact of the growing problem of elk distribution from public land to private agricultural areas,” said Myatt, who lives in Baker City and has been leading ODFW’s multi-year effort to streamline and, where possible, to simplify hunting regulations statewide.

That campaign also has another goal, Myatt said, which is to adjust hunting seasons to address current problems. Elk congregating on private land is one such conundrum, particularly in Northeastern Oregon.

ODFW’s existing tools to deal with that challenge — controlled antlerless hunts and issuing damage tags to private landowners — haven’t been as effective as agency officials would like, Myatt said.

The downside of controlled hunts is that hunters have to decide long before the season whether to apply for one, and even if they draw the tag they’re limited to hunting in a specific area, Myatt said.

Elk, however, aren’t exactly predictable in their movements.

The new general season hunts, by contrast, have no tag sale deadline. That means hunters can buy a tag at any time during the season.

The idea, Myatt said, is to give hunters more flexibility to take advantage of hunting opportunities that arise as elk move among properties.

As for damage elk tags, ODFW already issues about 3,500 to 4,000 of those per year to private landowners, mainly in Northeastern Oregon and the Columbia Basin, Myatt said.

But to get tags, landowners have to contact biologists at their local ODFW office. This is a time-intensive process for the landowners and the biologists, and in some cases by the time ODFW has approved the damage tag the elk have moved off the property and can no longer be legally hunted with the tags.

But hunters will be able to buy one of the new general season tags almost immediately through ODFW’s cellphone app.

“We’re hoping this is an easier way to get tags out to landowners who are having elk issues,” said Justin Primus, assistant district wildlife biologist at ODFW’s Baker City office.

The new general season damage tags will force some hunters to choose when they want to hunt, however.

As with other general season tags, hunters who buy one of the antlerless damage hunt tags will not be able to also hunt in a controlled elk season, Myatt said.

“These hunts are a hunter’s only elk hunting opportunity for the year,” ODFW warns in the 2020 Big Game Hunting Regulations.

Nonetheless, Myatt said he expects ODFW will sell about the same number of tags for the new hunts as the agency sold for 19 controlled antlerless elk hunts that have been canceled for 2020, combined with the number of damage tags the agency has been issuing.

(None of those 19 hunts is in Baker Valley, Myatt said, although several antlerless hunts in the Grande Ronde Valley have been eliminated and, in effect, replaced by the new general season.)

Because the new general season hunt areas are almost exclusively on private land, ODFW cautions hunters to ensure they have permission to hunt before they buy a tag.

But Myatt points out that that’s also the case with damage tags ODFW has issued in the past. He said agency officials are optimistic that landowners who received those tags in past years will continue to allow hunting on their land so long as they’re having elk damage.

Charles Lowry, a rancher in Keating Valley about 15 miles northeast of Baker City, is one of those landowners.

Lowry said this was the first year in his nearly 30 years in the area that he didn’t have to deal with elk herds gobbling his alfalfa and grass.

But over the years he’s had around 200 elk on his property, more than enough animals to cause significant damage to his crops and, as a result, his profit margin.

“They eat anything and everything,” Lowry said. “If you don’t keep ’em out they’ll strip a field in no time. We quit raising grain because they knocked it down before it was dry enough to be threshed.”

Lowry said he has allowed hunters with controlled season tags to pursue elk on his land, as well as receiving damage tags from ODFW.

But he said he much prefers the agency’s new approach with the four-month general season, since it doesn’t require him to track down a biologist and fill out paperwork.

“Most of us don’t have time, we’re busy enough,” Lowry said. “I’m fully in support of allowing the public to help us deal with elk. I’ll even help them.”

The 2020 Big Game Hunting Regulations include general maps of the new hunts as well as written descriptions.

But Myatt said more detailed maps will be available soon on ODFW’s website, myodfw.com

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