October 22, 2001 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Farmers are not the only people cheering the rain that Northeast Oregon is receiving.

Elk hunters also are celebrating because the first bull elk rifle season opens Wednesday.

The rain is muting the crackle of the previously dry forests. It will be easier for hunters to stalk game in the upcoming seasons. The first season runs through Sunday in most of Northeast Oregon.

The recent rain is particularly welcome because of the drought conditions the region has experienced most of the year.

The dry weather apparently has not had a significant impact on the elk, however. Some thought that elk would be in poor condition because less vegetation has been available for them.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Jim Cadwell noted that the elk taken during archery season in late August and September were not in below-average condition. One reason may have been that the condition of vegetation was better than expected.

The forage on the north slopes stayed green longer than we anticipated, ODFW biologist Leonard Erickson said. It lasted longer than we thought it would.

In Union Countys Starkey Unit, one of the largest in Northeast Oregon, hunters will find slightly fewer elk than they did a year ago because elk calf survival rates are at an all-time low. This spring there were 21 elk calves per 100 cows, the lowest number since the wildlife department started keeping records in the 1950s.

Over the past 10 years the ratio has ranged from 25 to 35 calves per 100 cows.

The decline is even more significant in view of the fact that in the 1960s a 10-unit area in Northeast Oregon, which included Starkey, had between 45 and 49 calves per 100 cows.

It is not known why elk calf survival rates are falling. The decline means that the number of yearling bulls is down.

On the plus side, hunters are likely to find a greater number of branch-antlered bulls in the Starkey Unit.

There has been an increase in the number of larger-sized bulls, Erickson said.

Spike-only hunting regulations have restricted the number of branch-antlered bulls that can be taken. These rules went into effect about five years ago in the Starkey Unit.

The numbers speak for themselves. In 1993, 90 percent of the bulls in the Starkey Unit were yearlings. Today, 75 percent of the bulls in the unit are branch-antlered.

The Starkey Unit is among the three largest in Northeast Oregon in elk population.

The others are the Heppner and Ukiah units.

Elk hunting success in Wallowa County is expected to be best in the back country and wilderness areas and the Sled Springs Unit. Hunting will be poor in the rest of the county, said ODFW biologist Pat Matthews.

Hunters should expect to find fewer spike bulls, Matthews said, and the number of branch-antlered bulls has not increased, Matthews said.

The second bull season runs Nov. 3-11 for most of Northeast Oregon.

Hunters are urged to consult their hunting regulation booklets for details.