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Saturday is Opening Day for buck rifle season

The Gregorian calendar, the one most widely used in the world, lists Sept. 21 as the first day of fall.

However, in the hearts of many sportsmen the day of autumn’s true coming out party is Oct. 4 — the opening of deer buck rifle season in Northeast Oregon.

Saturday represents a seasonal rite of passage. Hunters in Union and Wallowa counties will celebrate more than tradition Saturday They will also celebrate promising hunting conditions.

Forests in Union and Wallowa counties are lush with green vegetation, and temperatures are expected to be mild. This means it will be easier for hunters to stalk quietly and that deer will be active throughout the day. That’s a sharp contrast to autumns past when dry forests made things noisy and hot weather limited deer activity, particularly in the middle of the day.

Deer populations are up in Union County but down in Wallowa County, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife statistics.

In Union County, hunters will have a good opportunities to take mature bucks, particularly in the Starkey Unit.

“There are more older bucks than in the past in the Starkey Unit,’’ said La Grande ODFW Biologist Leonard Erickson.

There are 15 bucks per 100 does in the Starkey and Catherine Creek units, and 18 bucks per 100 does in the East Mount Emily Unit. The numbers are encouraging since the ODFW’s management objective in all three units is 15 bucks per 100 does.

On the down side, Union County’s fawn survival rate remains low. In the Starkey Unit, for example, there are only 25 fawns per 100 adults, the same as a year ago. This is low considering that over the past nine years the average number of fawns per 100 adults was 35.

In Wallowa County the deer population is now about 23,000, down 2,000 from a year ago, according to ODFW spring counts.

The population decline reflects poor fawn survival caused by a hard winter, said Enterprise ODFW Biologist Pat Matthews. Biologists spotted 28 fawns per 100 adults, down from 29 in 2007. The current fawn-to-adult ratio is a sharp fall from 2005 when there were 50 fawns per 100 adults.

Wallowa County’s best deer hunting will be in agricultural areas, Matthews said. Deer numbers are higher near farms because herds feed at and around them and there are fewer predators. Cougars, bears and coyotes, all deer predators, shy away from agricultural areas because of the presence of people.

Hunters will see more lush vegetation in Northeast Oregon part because of the cold, moist spring the region experienced. The presence of the vegetation means deer will be more spread out than in previous years, Erickson said.

It also means that deer have been eating better.

“Deer should be in exceptional condition,’’ Erickson said.

Erickson noted that that tag sale deadline for buck deer, cougars and bears is today. The last two deadlines are noteworthy since many deer hunters like to have bear and cougar tags in case they encounter one of the big game animals incidentally. Each year cougars and bears are taken by deer hunters who are not seeking the predators but come across them.

All bears taken this year must be checked in at an ODFW office. This rule has long applied to cougars but pertains to bears for the first time.

Bears should be in excellent condition because there is are abundant crops of Hawthorne berries, apples and huckleberries for them to feed on, Erickson said.

Bear season in Eastern Oregon opened Aug. 1 and runs through Nov. 30. Cougar season opened Aug. 1 and runs through May 31, 2009.

Eastern Oregon’s controlled buck deer rifle season ends Oct. 15.

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