THE RISE OF WHITETAILS
By Dick Mason
Observer Staff Writer
Twenty-five years ago spotting a white-tailed deer in Northeast Oregon was as difficult as catching one of the Eagle Caps few remaining golden trout.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Leonard Erickson recalls this well. In the late 1970s he received a phone call in June from someone telling him of a pair of whitetails north of Elgin. Erickson made a special trip to the site in June just to see the whitetails, which then were a novelty in Union County.
Seeing a whitetail was a notable event, Erickson said.
Today whitetails still represent a small percentage of Union Countys deer population. But they are far more widespread than they were two decades ago.
The expansion of the annual Union County muzzleloader hunt for whitetails is evidence of this. It was once titled the North Union County Muzzleloader Hunt. In 1997 the name was changed to the Union County Muzzleloader Hunt because it had been expanded due to the growing range of whitetails.
Erickson discussed the expansion of Union Countys whitetail population during a program on the deer last week in La Grande. The Whitetail Classic was put on by the Oregon Hunters Association.
The expansion of the local whitetail population is a credit to the animals uncommon determination to survive.
They have a stronger desire to live, Erickson said. They are willing to do anything to maximize their opportunity for survival.
La Grande hunting guide Phil Gillette, who also spoke at the program, concurs. The inner strength of whitetails is particularly evident in the states like Minnesota, he said. In Minnesota many of the deer are hit by cars because population levels are so dense.
Many of these deer survive despite sustaining terrible injuries.
I cant believe how many three-legged deer you see there, said Gillette, the owner of Phils Outdoor Surplus and More.
Gillette noted that when harsh weather hits, mule deer will often stand under a tree and wait for the storm to end. Many eventually die while waiting weeks for the weather to clear. White-tailed deer by comparison will disperse and work harder to find sources of food.
Whitetails will do things like move into yards and farms to find food. Gillette noted that whitetails that live in the proximity of people continue to be wary of humans. Mule deer, however, get comfortable around humans and thus are more susceptible later to hunters.
Whitetails tend to be quite resourceful during hard winters, Erickson said. They will do things like restrict themselves to a small area and eat everything within it. They create snow trails that they use repeatedly. This allows Whitetails to conserve energy.
During some winters the ODFW has caught a number of city dwelling mule deer and white-tailed deer so they can be moved away from La Grande. Not surprisingly, the whitetails have proven to have more aggressive dispositions than mule deer.
They are more difficult to handle. They are more high strung and agitated after being caught, Erickson said.
TAKING HUNTERS TO NEW HEIGHTS
There are far fewer whitetails in Northeast Oregon than in the Midwest and east. Nevertheless hunters here have to take less risks to hunt whitetail.
Gillette noted that in the Midwest and East whitetails have become hard to hunt on the ground because the deer have become exceptionally wary due to greater hunting pressure. As a result most people hunt whitetails from tree stands. Whitetails have gotten wise to this strategy and now often look up in search of hunters in tree stands.
Hunters are responding by boosting the height of their tree stands. Gillette has seen tree stands as high as 32 feet, an extremely dangerous height.
White-tailed deer were rare in Northeast Oregon 25 years ago, but they were even scarcer 60 years ago, according to Bill Brown of La Grande. Brown came to Northeast Oregon as an ODFW biologist about 60 years ago.
The deer started making their comeback in Northeast Oregon in the late 1940s, Brown told The Observer in August 2001.
He said more whitetails began appearing in the late 1940s when Washingtons department of wildlife moved a number of whitetails from Eastern Washington to a refuge just north of Wallowa Countys Wenaha Unit.
Brown said that whitetails are native to Northeast Oregon. However, in the late 1800s or in the early the part of the 1900s they mysteriously disappeared.